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Children in North Korean Concentration Camps (1)
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2016-01-21 13:36:33
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Children in North Korean Concentration Camps (1)

Chul-Hwan KANG


1968: Born in North Korea. 
1977: Detained, at the age of 9, in Yodok Concentration Camp in North Korea with his grandmother, father, uncle and a sister when his grandfather mysteriously disappeared. His mother was forced to divorce his father. She remained in Pyongyang since then. 
1987: Released from the camp with his surviving relatives at the age 19. 
1992: Defected to South Korea with Mr. Hyok Ahn who was also a prisoner at the Yodok Concentration Camp. 
1997: Graduated from the Foreign Trade Department, Hanyang University in Seoul, Korea. 

First Day at People's Elementary School

Finally, it was September 1, my first day in school. My father and uncle had already left home at 5:30 at the ringing of the bell. Miho and I, hand in hand, went to the labor ground at 6 o'clock in the morning, as instructed by the supervisor. There were already many children lined up. It was before dawn and their faces looked grotesque.

As we approached them as strangers, the other children looked at us as though they felt sorry for us. When we were among them we felt as though we were from another planet. The children all wore rags and their faces were thin with big hollow eyes. Their faces were heavily tanned and very dirty. They were so different from us as we were in clothes that were still clean by comparison. We looked healthy. We should have been feeling sorry for them but, in fact, they looked at us with sympathy. They looked like children who had already been beaten and looking at other children waiting to be beaten in some kind of collective punishment.

"Hey, you! Where are you from?"
"From Pyongyang."
"Alright, you are a dead boy now."
A boy of about my age grinned at me showing his dirty teeth and spoke at me with contempt. We were not aware of the supervisor near us as we talked to each other when, suddenly, I thought I saw lightening in his face.

"You half-Japanese, s.o.b.! Stop talking! Why don't you stay in line! The child at the same time covered his face with both hands. I saw bleeding between his fingers. His nose was bleeding. "You half Japanese!" he cried out again as he walked away. I whispered to him, "I'm sorry." I was so afraid that my voice was trembling. "It's alright. It's nothing. You will find out later yourself," the boy replied. I was absolutely shocked but he even grinned, wiping off blood with his sleeve as though this was nothing. I thought I might be watching a horrible animal.

The children moved clock-like as instructed by the supervisor. Boys and girls were in different lines. There were some 25 boys of about my age on my side of the line. "Forward!" At the order of the supervisor, we marched for school. "Now sing as we march. We will sing the Song of Revolution. Start! One! Two! Three!"

We Are the Masters of Ideology and Technology
Let's Crush Foreign Puppets and Revisionism
Let's Act Like the Master of Revolution
And Strengthen the Ideology, Technology and Culture

The children sang the song at their highest pitch. We were moving toward school, singing. This was a song I had never heard outside. I learned later that this was a special song of the camp. All the children were skin and bone from undernourishment and looked so weak that they might fall at the slightest push, and I couldn't figure out how they came up with such power when they sang. The children sang the song very loudly because they would be brutally beaten in collective punishment if they failed to sing in unison or sing loudly enough. The school was about 15 minutes' walk from the labor ground. When we arrived, we found many other children from other sectors of the camp. At the order of the supervisor, we formed groups of fifty children in four columns. Soon, morning formation began.

A fat man in his fifties came up to the platform. He was the school principal. They called him principal but in no way he looked like a school principal. He looked wild and oppressive with a pistol at his side. Whenever he opened his mouth, he spoke abusive languages. He began his speech.

"Well… This morning again, thanks to the warm grace and kind arrangements of the President Kim Il Sung and Dear Leader, Kim Jongil." He began his speech with stock phrases the people hear everywhere in North Korea.

"Remember, you are children of criminals. Your parents betrayed the party and fatherland and committed unforgivable crimes. Yet, the great President Kim Il Sung and the dear leader Kim Jung Il were kind enough to give you an opportunity to learn. So, you must remember that you are a criminal. You work hard to reward the grace as high as sky and as wide as sea. You must observe all the rules and regulations of school. You must unconditionally obey your teachers, understand? His already loud voice sounded louder with cracking voice at this moment. "If you violate rules or do not obey your teacher, you will be mercilessly punished." The children were so terrified and motionless. It was not only because he moved his hand to his pistol. The veins bulged from his neck, his eyes were thirsty for blood and his face full of hatred.

"You half Japanese slobs, you think your teachers are here because they don't have anything else to do? Why should they have a hard life here if your parents did not commit crimes? It's all because of you half-Japanese sons of bitches! You must remember you are not worthy of meals! I tell you again -- and you must remember -- if you break the rules, just once, or disobey your teachers, you'll have to pay the consequences yourself!"

When he finished his speech and was descending from the platform, his breath was still rough with anger. I could not believe this was a school. I felt I was a prisoner in a prison. In fact, I was a prisoner but I did not realize it at that time.

Yes, he was right. Whether anybody actually committed crime or not was not important here. Once you were there, you were a prisoner and treated as such. But I could not accept it because I was innocent. Morning formation was over and the pupils were led to their respective classrooms. New children were separated from the rest and led to the teachers' office. There were two other new pupils in my class that day. They were Yong-Mo Lee and Chul-Su Kim. We three of us lost heart from the first day in school. We were so scared that when we arrived at the office, we stood at one corner with fear of not knowing why we were here. One of the teachers called us to come. When we went to him, several other teachers surrounded us and began to shower us with questions.

"You! Where are you from?"
"Who commit the crimes?"
"Do you know what you are charged with?"
"Who else is here with you from your family?"
As we answered, we found that three of us were all from Pyongyang. Yong-Mo Lee said his father was a senior officer of the Education Committee of the Workers' Party. None of us was able to answer the question of "What are you charged with?" How could we children know the charge when even our parents did not know?" When inquisition was over, one of the teachers came forward and told us that he was our teacher and said. 

"You half-Japanese slobs! Don't think this is like your school in Pyongyang. Physical labor is more important here than study. It's useless if you study hard and work less. I just don't give a damn whether or not you are from Pyongyang or even another big city. If you do not work hard enough, I will punish you very severely!

His speech was threatening and filled with the anger of shouting. His each word showed his hatred against us. 

We three children couldn't say a word. We were trembling as we followed the teacher to the classroom. We were so afraid that we literally shook as we walked. My teacher told us that his name was Su-Chol Yang. Later, I learned that he had a bad reputation in the school for his wild and brutal character.

We were badly treated and compelled to hard labor from the first day in school. Class began at 8:30 in the morning. In the primary school ("peoples school"), all the subjects were taught by the class teacher, except the subject of History of the Revolution. Our first class was History of the Revolution.

This was the most important subject because it told how the Great Leader Kim Il Sung led anti-Japanese guerrilla and fought against Japan. This was exactly the same content as taught in school in Pyongyang. But beginning in the second class, Mr. Yang, the regular class teacher, took charge and his manner indicated that he had little concern for education. All he did was to bring a textbook with him, ask one of the children to copy it on the blackboard, and force the children to memorize it. All too often, he abruptly interrupted the class and told us about new labor instructions planned for the afternoon. He was unpredictable, suddenly angry for nothing. At the third class, Chul-Su, a new boy like me, was not fully aware of the situation here and asked the teacher an unimportant question.

"You s.o.b! Are you asking me a question? Are you trying to fool me? Who told you to ask me questions? I know your father was a wicked reactionary. A boy like you is not worthy of receiving an education. You son of a traitor!" He continued to swear and started to hit the small face with his big fist. Obviously, his nose was broken when blood splashed all around and his small face quickly bruised. But, no one could protest or say a word.

Once, a boy was caught whispering to another child next to him. Mr. Yang threw a blackboard eraser at the boy with all his strength. Reflexively, the boy ducked and the eraser hit another boy behind him right in the head. His face was white with the chalk powder. Other children giggled at the scene trying to hide their laugh. Angered by what happened, the teacher ran to the first child and began to beat the boy's head and shoulders hard with his stick. He looked as though he was hitting objects without life. The boy covered his head with hands and stayed motionless. I was very much afraid and thought the child may be killed.

"You s.o.b! So stupid who can't even make up your own planning, and, then you dare to duck the eraser! You s.o.b! If you duck it again, I will break all your bones!…"*

* Chul-Hwan Kang & Hyok Ahn, The Feast of a Great King, Vol 1, Doso Chulpan Hyangshil, 1993, pp 61~66, 68~70.