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Labor of Death
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2016-01-21 13:37:41
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Labor of Death


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. 

We were raising rabbits in school under the national campaign "Seven-Year Plan for Children's Work to Earn Foreign Exchange." The meat was for the security officers and the hides were sent to a larger city. In cities like Pyongyang, primary school children are collecting waste metal and paper or panning for sand-gold to earn foreign exchange. The children in the country side were raising livestock such as rabbits, specialized vegetables or herbs. The principals and teachers would get better ratings by how efficiently they achieved these work goals, rather than by how they taught children. In order to exceed the targets set by the government, the school authorities drove children to work. As a result, classes are frequently skipped.

My school was not an exception. The school principal decided to increase the number of rabbit pens. We went a mountain behind the school, dug holes and plastered the walls with wet clay. 

The children in our 4th year grade class were tasked to dig and transport the earth to a work site some 200 meters away. Twelve children dug holes with shovels and the other children were carrying the dirt in zinc buckets or sacks. The site of digging was a clay hill, 4~5 meters high. The clay was not so hard and was not so difficult to dig. But we were afraid because the hole, deeper as we were digging, appeared to collapse any time. As we dug away one shovel of dirt, two shovels full of dirt would fall. After work for two or three days, our hole became two to three meters deep. Dirt often fell from the ceiling of the hole. Teachers did not bother and shouted at children to go ahead with the work inside the hole. The twelve digging children were divided into two teams, a team at the left and the other team at the right side of the hole. One side of the hole suddenly collapsed. It was so sudden that nobody had time to do anything about it. Six children of the team disappeared screaming from our sights. There was huge pile of dirt where the six had been digging. Children of the other team were immediately shocked, threw up their shovels and scrambled out of the hole. They trembled with fear. The other children outside simply did not know what to do at the site. We heard the school principal and teachers shouting at the older children in loud voices.

"You swine, why don't you move quickly! Pick up your shovels and dig!" The children took shovels but were afraid of going inside the hole for fear of further collapse. At greater threat from the teachers, they reluctantly went back into the hole and began to dig.

"The s.o.b.'s! Why did you dig at the bottom without knowing what was going to happen?"

While the children were working, the principal and teachers blamed the buried children for carelessness.

As they dug some 50 centimeters, they found three of the children. They were fortunately alive but cried out in pian for momny and daddy as they were moved. Perhaps their legs or arms were broken. When they dug about a meter further, they discovered the figures of the remaining three children. Their faces were full of dirt and blood, their noses and mouths were still bleeding. The supervisor put his hand over their hearts, examined their eyes and shook his head hopeless. Teachers covered the bodies with mats and allowed nobody to come closer. A few girl children could not control their sadness at the sight and burst into crying.

"You crazy bitches! Are you crying to bring us bad luck? Stop that!"

The school principal scolded. He swore at the crying children in a booming voice and blamed the dead children for what had happened.

"You should have dug from the top first. You were lazy to dig only the bottom and this is what happened. You s.o.b's, you see what happens to you if you don't work hard. You get it?"

It was near lunchtime and we stopped work and came back to the classroom. The parents of the dead children came in a haste and despair. They cried and pleaded to have a last look at the faces of their poor children but the teachers had buried the dead children without allowing their parents to see the corpses. The teachers argued that doing so would only deepen the pain of the parents.

We children opened our lunch boxes but none of us was in the mood for taking lunch. Usually, the food was always short and children wasted no time in eating their lunch. But, this day, none of the children could take a single spoon of food. I felt vomiting at the thought of dead faces bleeding from nose and mouth.

Lunchtime was over and we were assembled on the school ground. Quietly, all children hoped for a free afternoon because of the terrible accident in the morning. We were soon disappointed. The teacher, Mr. S.C. Yang, told us to resume work and took us to the same work site. We looked each other aghast. Of course, nobody could dare protest and we were dragged to the work site like cows to a slaughterhouse.

Stains of blood were vivid here and there when we arrived. We were horrified at the sight and everyone tried to be at the end of the line. The teacher in charge of our class looked at us angrily and called out twelve names to form new digging teams. 

"I will call the names of the children to dig. Those named must pick up shovels and start digging or you will be severely punished for disobedience!" Yang looked so frightening but nobody moved forward when called.

"Come forward, quickly. Don't you see how much work there is do be done?"

At his second threat, the children looked each other but still remained motionless. The children were terrified by what had happened in the morning.

"You little devils, you dare disobey your teacher twice! Are you protesting? You are naughty because of the bad influence of your fathers. You, s.o.b's, come forward immediately or I will beat you to death, you got it?"

He looked indeed terrifying. The children, realizing that he meant what he said, started to move slowly, and he started to bit and kick the children. Some of them fell. The children got up, picked up shovels and moved down into the hole. Their hearts beat as they stepped on the earth which had buried their friends in the morning. They trembled with fear that what had happened in the morning might happen again any time.

Finally, it was evening, the end of day's work. We were assembled at the school ground to hear the principal's speech. As expected, his speech was about the accident in the morning.

"…The accident today teaches us many lessons. In other words, if you do not obey your teacher and be smart, you saw today what happens! The children did not like to dig from the top because it was more difficult than digging at the bottom, and they met their death. Such a thing will never happen to hard and diligent workers. The children tried to spare themselves due to the bad influence of their fathers, while others are working hard. You must work hard and prevent today's accident from happening again!…"

His argument was that the accident was entirely the fault of the children. None of us agreed with him and, in fact, all of us shook with anger at his words inside our hearts. Yes, indeed, we were small children but we were sensible enough to understand why this happened.

At home, I told the adults about what happened in detail. My father and uncle looked sad and nodded from time to time but said nothing. But grandmother groaned and said, "Please be careful, my children. If any accident should befall on you, I'll go crazy!" Grandmother was tearful as she held our hands tightly.