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North Korea in the 1970s
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2016-01-21 13:33:30
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North Korea in the 1970s

Chul-Hwan KANG


Mr. Chul-Hwan Kang, a former prisoner in a North Korean concentration camp, was born in 1968 in Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea. He was only nine years old when his grandfather disappeared one day and he was arrested and detained in the Yodok concentration camp together with his grandmother, father, uncle and a sister in 1977. They were released in 1987. In 1992 he and Mr. Hyok Ahn, also a former prisoner in the same camp, defected to South Korea. He studied business administration at Hanyang University , Seoul, and now works for the Korea Electric Corporation. The following is part of his account, "The Feast of a Great King,," 1993, pp. 28~35, 37~39 and 45~49 published by Hyangshil, Seoul.

Suddenly One Day

It was early August in 1977. A shocking scene awaited me when I returned home. My house was in a complete mess. The fish bowl was broken to pieces and wriggling gold fish were scattered on the floor. All the pieces of furniture were jumbled up on the floor, making it difficult to walk through the mess. Seven tough looking men ransacked the house at will. Except intermittent cry of my grandmother, there were only thumping and smashing sounds. Father looked really shocked. He sat down in his bed room, leaning against a wall and staring up the ceiling in a daze. Grandmother crouched on the floor with her head down and murmured, "Oh, no...oh, no...It can't be true..." One of the intruders who looked older than others and appeared in command stepped up to her. "Your husband Taehyu Kang committed grave crimes against our people and Democratic People's Republic of Korea. So we are going to confiscate all your property. And all of you are under arrest, except those who married to another family. Now we'll start registering confiscated items and you'd better cooperate..."

The men rummaged and threw the furniture at will, cursing my grandmother and father all the time. One of them reached a box stuffed with my father's things. "The son of bitch collected so much!" he said and produced a small camera from the box and put it into his pocket along with a few other valuable items. All the other men were similarly busy, putting valuable things into their pockets. My grandmother could not stand the scene. She lost her consciousness, moaning "oh, no...oh, no..." Only after they stole to their hearts' content, they began to register items to confiscate. Number one on the list was our car, followed by a piano, a color television set, a sewing machine... Big and valuable things filled the numbered lists. The registration which began at about ten o'clock in the morning lasted until four o'clock in the afternoon. The man who seemed in charge pushed the lists to my grandmother and ordered her to sign. When she hesitated, he yelled to her. "Hurry up, old woman! Everything has been double checked already." I was able to read the paper over my grandmother's shoulder. It ended as follows. 

... Under the provision of section xx of article xx of the Criminal Law of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea...the property of Taehyu Kang, a traitor to the people and the Republic, are herewith confiscated.
  August, 1977
  Signed by: Chae-Keun Chun, Officer, Ministry of National Security
  Confirmed by: Ok-Sun Cheong, Wife of Taehyu Kang

Now I came to know that the intruders were from the Ministry of National Security and the somewhat old man in charge was an officer named Chae-Keun Chun. Making up the list, which took six hours, was over when my grandmother sealed it with her thumbprint. Now the life-long savings of my grandfather were all gone. How painful she must have been to lose all the dear things which contained so much memory of the past and which had become theirs only through so much hard work! Of course a small boy such as I could not understand such a deep grief at that time. A team of young men came and loaded the confiscated items on a truck. I thought they were from the office where my grandfather used to work. After we finished a meal, the intruders ordered us to pack only bare minimum utensils and clothes to get along for the time being. About ten o'clock in the evening, the work was all over.

  "Hey, you, go to the corner and stay there! Don't make any noise and don't move!" They herded us into a small room.

About four o'clock in the morning, there was a sound of a car coming outside. The security agents became very busy. Miho, my sister, and I were sleeping in grandmother's lap and woke up at the shouting.

  "Hurry up! Hurry up!"

In front of the house there were two new model Russian trucks with their engine running. There was little sign of movement of people in the street in that early morning. It was so dark and quiet. When our family were about to climb up one of the truck, the officer Chun stopped my mother gently.

  "Stay here and wait!."
  "But why?"

My father asked them in a perplexed voice. My grandmother and mother looked at Mr. Chun with worried looks.

  "She'll be allowed to pack up more and join you later, you understand?."

The four of us, my grandmother, my sister and I, were pushed onto the truck like a cargo by the security agents. My sister and I shouted and cried, "Mummy! Mummy!" We drove off through empty road in darkness without my mother.

  "Well, let's have our lunch here."

About thirty minutes before noon, the security officer who sat between the driver and the officer in charge told the driver to stop for lunch. The officer ordered everyone to get off the truck. When we finished lunch, we were told to climb up the truck again. The car went down the steep mountain pass carefully. We kept driving up and down mountain passes and valleys for hours and stopped at a location. Through the ventilation hole, I saw two tall watchtowers which looked at least seven or eight meters high. On each of them were two soldiers with machine guns. From the watchtowers stretched fences in both ways endlessly. On the top of the fences, which were two or three meters high, there were barbed wires.

The security officers got off the truck. They greeted the soldiers who were armed with AK automatic rifles and a security officer in charge. He was in civilian clothes. They produced papers and talked a little and the truck started again.

There were two more guard posts like this, which we passed without stopping. Apparently, we had been expected. About half an hour later, the truck finally stopped in front of a village. The engine was turned off. After ten hours ride on rough road, which seemed endless, the journey of about one hundred and sixty kilometers, came to an end. There were sounds of men approaching, and the cover at the back of the truck were flung open.

  "Hey, you, here we are now, get off!"

The security officer who took us there ordered. There were four or five men outside.

  "Hurry up, you son of a bitch! Get the things off the car!"

A man yelled, threatening with a club. Those who stood beside him were startled and jerkingly moved. We were so surprised at the horrible sight of them. It was a hot summer day, but they wore thick winter clothes which were nothing but rags. Their faces were so skinny and dull eyes were without any expression. They were very sick indeed and looked like as though they may collapse any moment.

  "Are you a deaf, you son of bitch?"

The security officer hit one of the prisoners hard on his back with club.

  "Ah...," the prisoner fell down.
  "Stop acting, you dog! Get up this moment!"

This time, he kicked hard the poor man on the ground. There was no mercy at all. The man was motionless on the ground for a little while and somehow managed to get up feebly and joined the other prisoners unloading the truck. I thought as a small boy that they shouldn't beat even animals mercilessly like that. We were so scared and trembling with fear at the sight. In fact, we were so shocked that we could not climb down the truck with our trembling legs. At that moment someone approached us and cried, 
"Mother!" It was my youngest uncle, Chang-Nam Kang!   

"What ...What on earth are you doing here?"

Grandmother grabbed my uncle's hands, but had a hard time to say anything. Father was shocked to see his brother, too. Full of tears he could not say anything.

  "I was brought here yesterday. I think I'll tell you later... Well, come down quickly and let's go home!"

My uncle was in a hurry for fear of punishment by the security officer. After all the things were unloaded, the security officer who took us to the camp came to my grandmother and father.

  "Comrades, we are going back now. If you do well here, you can come out of here. Take care and work hard!"

We were like a mice consoled by cats. The truck disappeared with them. The hut was very small and had two even smaller bedrooms and a kitchen. It was like a pig pen with a makeshift roof over it. The walls were made of mud bricks mixed with lime. Walls and floors were all plastered with mud and whenever anyone moves, there was a cloud of dust. The mud was not covered with usual oiled wall paper, but with mats woven out of barks of linden trees. The ceiling was covered with boards, but they were so rotten and full of holes, threatening to fall down any moment. And between bedrooms there was a small hole in the wall for a dim electric bulb between. It was the only electricity in the house. The kitchen was very rudimentary too. There was a cooking fireplace built of mud and an iron pot. There was nothing else.

Editor's note: 
This is how he began ten years of ordeal in a North Korean concentration camp.