The Dismal Valley (Part III)
A male defector from North Korea
This is the third and final part of NKHR’s serial publication of Mr. Seung-Chul Kim’s memoir titled ‘The Dismal Valley’ with the agreement of Mr. Kim. Mr. Kim wrote this memoir based on his experiences during several visits to North Korea’s No. 23 Management Center (Prison facility). Mr. Kim is currently living in South Korea.
I saw a dozen or so prisoners filing lethargically towards us in a line from around 20 meters away. It was a shocking scene as they looked more dead than alive. Just bags of bones, like scarecrows, with hair all matted and dusty. Their dark blue clothes were covered with patches that made them look as if they were wearing straw mats.
"Hey you, low-lives! Hurry up!" a Security Agent yelled at the prisoners. The Agent was walking at the back of the line with a machine gun slung over his shoulder and kicking the prisoners nearest him. All Security Agents in the Management Center looked like they had been executioners in the past and did not seem to have any compassion for human beings. But despite the yelling, the speed of the file did not change. Had such yelling become common routine, or did the prisoners simply not hear? I don’t know, but the slow file was moving threateningly close to us at an unchanged speed.
With only several paces separating us, a closer look revealed that their legs and arms had lost any trace of flesh or muscle. There was only rough skin that displayed the shape of every joint and bone of their frail bodies. It was hard to believe they had enough energy to walk in their emaciated condition, yet I felt an overpowering weight emanating from them. There was a chill in the air hanging over the line of stick figures that contrasted sharply with the strong sun in the sky.
The prisoners looked down when they walked. They seemed like zombies, their bony faces making their eyes look big. Exactly like the images of Jewish prisoners in Nazi concentration camps in Poland I once saw in a movie.
Suddenly, a prisoner in the second row looked up at me. As his big sunken eyes slowly lifted toward me, something I cannot describe came out of his large pupils, which were foggy yet looked like black holes. A chill went through me, spreading goose bumps all over my body. I shook in spite of myself.
"Those creeps will run around all over if you let them loose, even though they don’t look like they could," the Guidance Cadre told us with a nonchalant smile. He told a story about a group of「No compensation」prisoners who had been shot to death while trying to escape only a few days before we arrived that Spring.
The original job of those 「 No compensation 」prisoners was baking roof tiles at a location up the creek from the spot where we were supposed to build the power plant, but they had been mobilized to help out in the busy Spring farming period. While in the field, some of the prisoners began to run toward the mountain across the Guhseo Creek while the Security Agent was not paying attention.
I don’t know what the Security Agent was doing, but by the time he realized that the prisoners were escaping, some of them were already at the foot of the mountains. The agent yelled at them to stop but they did not listen and would soon disappear into the woods. The agent then fired shots into the air, but the prisoners didn’t stop. So he fired his machine gun at the running prisoners. Five were killed on the spot, and two wounded prisoners later died in the hospital within the Management Center.
As the Guidance Cadre described the incident, the mountainside he pointed at was full of rocks. I could picture the desperate prisoners scrambling and staggering trying to run away with their frail bodies. I had heard many times that Management Centers or Enlightenment Centers do not give any decent belts or clothes with buttons to prisoners for fear of suicide attempts. A thought crossed my mind. Perhaps those fleeing prisoners, when their weathered bodies hit the ground after bullets had halted their dash for the mountains, may have felt a final brief moment of freedom while looking up the blue sky for the last time.
The Manager of the Technology Department of the Management Center said that there are several possible locations on which to build a power plant if we walked up the creek. We went all the way to a lead mine under Hee-sa Peak, where the Guhseo Creek originates. After finishing detailed measurements of the possible dam locations, we walked back along the creek and came across a group of 「 No compensation 」prisoners, who were at work at the foot of a mountain next to the entrance to a dark cave. Close by was a high watchtower where a sentry stood. Next to the cave entrance were pieces of shattered roof tiles and traces of fire, probably the refuse of roof-tile-baking facilities, which were fenced off with low barbed wire.
The official term for this No. 23 Management Center was an Enlightenment Center. According to the 「Chosun Language Dictionary 」 of North Korea, an Enlightenment Center is 「An institution or facility that detains and enlightens those who were sentenced to imprisonment for the crime they committed against the state and people 」. But it was more a place that takes away a human being’s sprit, rather than a place that offers enlightenment.
Even before I came here I had heard stories of those who had served time in Enlightenment Centers or Management Centers. They say that people imprisoned in such places fall into two types. The first type becomes tough, violent, and shrewd. The second lose their minds and become dazed. Naturally, if anyone imprisoned in this Management Center comes out without his or her mind, that mind would be filled with hatred and determination for revenge. In other cases, that person would become like a slave who obeys anyone.
When I arrived, together with a Technology Department Manger and Guidance Cadre, at the lead mine located at the very upper part of Guhseo Creek, many prisoners were working there, too. They were also the type of prisoners who live in a group. They were suffering through hard work using ancient technology, mattocks, shovels, rakes, etc, to separate lead.
Lead is a mineral that is dispersed in soil. To separate the lead, the soil is dug out and stirred with a spade to dry it on an iron pan, which is heated with the fire from below. As always was the case, Security Agents next to the prisoners were guarding them with guns in hand.
I noticed that one prisoner was not as skinny as the others. The Guidance Cadre explained that he is the head prisoner who supervises other prisoners. As we were walking into a building that was used as resting area for Security Agents, big chunks of soil and rocks flew in our directions, maybe because of a detonation in the mountain next to us. A dangerous working environment.
"Hey, Seungchul!,” the inspector called to me, waking me from my own daze. “Bring the level (a tool that measures level – note by writer)." The inspector and Guidance Cadre were standing at the foot of Guhseo Creek, the potential power plant site. While doing rough measurements, I asked a few questions about the 「 No compensation 」prisoners to the Guidance Cadre.
Asked whether the extremely emaciated prisoners would die, he said on average one or two prisoners per Management Center either dies or is hospitalized with malnutrition every month. Malnutrition here is based on criteria very different from malnutrition in normal situations. North Koreans say they are 「 contracted with weakness」for normal malnutrition. But in a Management Center, malnutrition means the prisoner cannot move on his own because he is so bony. Once judged as suffering from malnutrition, some prisoners are released on sick bail after approval. But I heard that many still die after release due to lack of proper nursing or because they have been in a malnourished state for too long. The Guidance Cadre told me that there are many inmates who become sick and die at the Management Center, so I can only guess at their real situation.
"Now, let’s go to eat," the Guidance Cadre said. The inspector made some gestures of measuring here and there with his equipment and then walked out. On our way back the Guidance Cadre told us another story about a prisoner who ran away several years ago during a very cold winter. He went to Imjadong-ri, which is close to Duksung County. He was bold enough to break into a store to steal food. After eating, he wanted to warm himself and set a fire in the store. Being full and warm, he fell into a deep sleep and then burned to death.
After returning to the Guesthouse, with the generous consideration of the Director of the Management Center, we had a hearty lunch at star-level restaurant, which was quite different from our abrupt breakfast. We were able to take the afternoon off and I felt good about such generous treatment. But as I saw the prisoners being beaten, I could not help but feel guilty.
We could not go back to our home the next day because we had to resolve the pepper issue. It was not easy as the pepper in the Management Center was known for its high quality, so the 7th Bureau of Social Safety Agency (now People’s Safety Agency) took a lot for people in Pyungyang to make kimchi for winter. The answer we received was that they could give any remaining peppers to us after the 7th Bureau was finished. Another problem was that a junior Party Secretary of the Management Center went to Pyungyang and would be back in two days or so. Anything taking place in the Management Center had to have the approval of Director of the Management Office, the Officer, and the Secretary. We had no choice but to wait.
The next day the inspector and I slept in. We came out of the bedroom after the sun was high in the sky. The Guidance Cadre suggested that we should go to pick some chestnuts. He said it would help to take care of the boredom. While Ducksung County was originally famous for apples, because the mountains were rugged in Sangdol-ri, the people who lived here in the 1960s planted many chestnut trees which were all around the foot of the mountains..
We went to the valley of nearest the main gate, following the Guidance Cadre. The trees in Sangdol-ri were amazingly splendid. As we were picking chestnuts, two prisoners with a shabby gunnybag in one hand and a stick in the other were casting fearful glances at us from not too far away place. The inspector called to them. In fear, the prisoners came reluctantly and bowed. It was obvious that the prisoners were doing their best to display obedience. Their attitude was understandable considering that only the Management Center staff and family were “free” people there. Their attitude clearly showed obedience – a hesitant, faltering way of speaking and scared look in their eyes. Probably this was the best way for them to survive here.
When asked, the Guidance Cadre told me that prisoners with minor offences, who are well-behaved, or whose release date is close are mobilized for picking up chestnuts. Each prisoner has his own target, which is 60 kilograms during harvest season. However, they could only pick up fallen chestnuts from the ground as they are not allowed to climb up the trees. The chestnuts collected like that are spent to make soy sauce and bean paste for Security Agents.
Truly, the Security Agents were no different from the landowners of the past, the archetype of all the past injustice and evil that is talked about so often in North Korea. The Guidance Cadre told us that Security Agents steal grain from the fields through prisoners and take it home, or prisoners steal things for the house of warden (or Security Agent), to befriend them in the hope of receiving better treatment. Under the surface, the Security Agents there are competing with each other to be better off.
In stark contrast, the life of normal residents of the North was in shambles. Though the food shortages in North Korea became to known to outside world in 1994, North Koreans began to receive only meager rations even before 1990. I was able to see what the Guidance Cadre meant when he said the Security Agents are the subjects of envy, as they don’t have to worry about food.
With nothing to do in the afternoon, the inspector and I enjoyed some sun bathing on the bank of the Guhseo Creek. The embankment was very well done, probably by prisoners. When we were talking about the impressions we received from the Management Center, suddenly, a prisoner in rags appeared out of nowhere. When he met our glances, surprised by his sudden appearance, he looked at us with a wary look and turned nonchalantly toward Guhseo Creek, maybe because he made preliminary judgment about us. His behavior was a bit different from other prisoners we had encountered so far.
He was looking around, trying to find something in the heaps of rocks. Eventually he dug out something. By casting sidelong glances, I could tell that it was a bundle of bean plants. Probably he stole them from somewhere the night before. His clothes, seen up close, were in awful shape. They were similar to black uniforms, but there were lots of holes, with patches sewn coarsely at the buttocks, elbows and the edge of the top. They looked just like laborers I had seen in movies that depicted the Japanese colonial rule.
Anyhow, without being conscious of our watching him, he started to do 「Bean Baking」 by lighting it a fire. Once a bean bundle starts to burn vigorously, the beans came out of the pods. Then you put out the fire, shake the burnt bundle off, and throw it away. What remains on the ground are only the baked beans, to be picked up and eaten.
After finishing 「Bean Baking」, the prisoner quickly disappeared by running along the bank with a lowered posture, without eating the beans. Not long after, as we were wondering about what was happening, another prisoner showed up. After a quick glimpse at us with his grim face, he gobbled up some of the beans. After he was gone, another prisoner came to eat. This continued until fourth prisoner showed up. What was left for the last prisoner was only burnt-out or not cooked beans. Still, he was busy picking up whatever is left. I was overwhelmed by pity, thinking how starving they must be to behave like that. On the other hand, I felt some kind of pride for the fact that I was there as a free man, not as a prisoner.
The episode reminded me of a story I heard yesterday from the Guidance Cadre. He said the skeleton-like 「No Compensation」 prisoners fight once they spot grasshoppers, frogs, or worms, to eat them first. He had told me that even when the Security Agent kicks at them or smashes them with the buttstock, the prisoners do not stand up before whatever they caught is in their mouths. I was not able to understand that yesterday, but I think I can now, after watching these prisoners eating burnt beans.
We were invited to the house of the Guidance Cadre in the evening. The private houses (family houses) of the Security Agents were in a village at the corner that turns into Shinhung County. As we entered, the whole village was reeking of oil and food, coming from making stew and frying. This village contains the only abundance and freedom in the valley. On the dinner table were bean paste made with chestnuts and hearty side dishes. The room next to us was packed with chestnuts, leaving no space to step in. I had to wonder how luxurious then life of Security Agents must be, when a Guidance Cadre is this well off. While they are not in a big city, they do not need to feel envy at the rich people. On the other hand, the prisoners who were picking the beans were bags of bones due to lack of food. A heaven and hell coexist here.
We decided to leave the Management Center the following day after we received a phone call that the junior Secretary could not come back due to a prolonged meeting in Pyongyang. We had a suspicion that they were making excuses because they did not want to give us peppers, but we did not have any choice. The officer of the Management Center promised that he would make sure that we get the peppers next year, but I knew that we had to take his word with a grain of salt.
The image of the concerned faces of the Design Office Director, secretary, and manager, asking for pepper, kept coming and fading. The employees of the Design Office were very happy to hear that we could get good peppers at low price. The inspector asked the Guidance Cadre who came to the main gate to see us off, to give even very small amount of pepper. Since the night before, he has told me that we should get peppers to make kimchi for winter at least for two of us, if not for the Design Office. But I knew that we would not get our terms as we are mere designers. The Guidance Cadre walked all the way to the gate to see us off. The same sergeant we had seen when we first arrived looked at us with contempt, breathing out cigarette smoke with his feet on the desk.
I felt relieved though we did not get any peppers. I felt as if I were being released after a long imprisonment. The inspector suggested that we should walk the long distance, as far as over 30-ri, maybe because he also wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. We did not want to be there until the afternoon waiting for a truck.
After walking a while, I looked back. The drab building of the Management Center seen through the barbed-wire entanglements heavily sank in the gloomy weather. The long valley behind the Management Center reaching Sangdol-ri and Shintae-ri is truly a dismal valley ruled by the god of death.
* Translated by Youngsun Eom