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Forced Divorce of Parents (1)
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2016-01-21 13:38:40
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Forced Divorce of Parents (1)


C.H. KANG


 
C.H. Kang was sent to a concentration camp in North Korea at the age of 9, together with his grandmother, father, uncle and sister, for the offense of his grandfather. At that time, his mother was forced to divorce from his father to be spared for political reasons.He has since been separated from his mother. The following is his eyewitness account of how it happened.

The rainy season was over and the summer heat had come. One day in August, when the summer heat was at its peak, I was coming home from work somewhat drunk. Like a thief who starts with stealing a needle and ends up stealing a cow, I had begun drinking only a little when I started to drink and later I drank more. In fact, I could not pass a single day without getting drunk at that time. I was rather in a good mood and sang quietly as I walked home that day.

"Miho, it's your brother, open the door," I said in a loud voice when I arrived. I could hear my sister dragging slippers inside. "Click," the door was open. I followed my sister into the house.

"Is uncle back yet?"

"Nope," she gave me the short reply and turned her face away from me. She was a quiet girl from the beginning and she was a very timid girl now. Perhaps, the hard life in the concentration camp had affected her character. While taking off my shirt, I accidentally noticed her eyes wet with tear.

"Why did you weep? What happened?" I asked her. She showed me an envelope without saying anything.

"Where is the letter from? Is it from Musan?" I asked her. She said, "No." The sender's name on the envelope was Songhi, from Nampo. Nampo…yes, my mother had a sister living there. This was the second letter from them. 

We received the first letter in the previous April when my grandmother was still alive. When the first letter arrived, I could not remember who Songhi was at first. Then, I remembered her. She is a remote niece. I forgot her completely. 

North Korea was a society without a tomorrow with no dream and no future. All you could see around you were people who were slowly dying, people intimidated by government, by beatings, by dirty words and curses and greedy quarrels. It is luxurious to recollect anything from the past in such a society. The bitter memories of incessantly continuing "corn transplanting operation," "grass collection for rabbits" and "wild plants collection to earn foreign exchange" and similar activities in the concentration camp made me forget everything else.

How would I be able to remember my remote niece when even my mother's memory was faint; I did not hear from my mother for the past ten long years in the concentration camp. It was a surprise indeed to receive a letter from Songhi, the first letter. How did she find out that we were released and how did she find my address? The puzzle was solved as I read the letter. The first letter read:

My dear brother Chul Hwan and sister Miho,

How delighted we are to learn that you are still alive. My mother also wept with joy when she learned that you were alive. We thought you were both dead a long time ago. A recently married woman moved to our neighborhood. She was detained in concentration camp No. 15 for some time. Of course, in the beginning, we did not know that she had been there. As we became friendly, we came to know that she had been there. While she was saying something about herself on one occasion, she happened to mention the name of Miho who was released with her at the same time….. My mother was there listening to her and startled by her mention of Miho. My mother stopped her, "Did you say Miho? You mean Miho Kang?" You know that Miho is not a common name, is it? Then, this time, the young woman was surprised and asked my mother, "What? Yes, Miho Kang! How do you know her?" Dear brother, this is how it began. When we confirmed your name, names of your father, grandfather and grandmother, my mother was so moved that she sat down and cried loudly. She cried because of the fate of her sister, your mother.

When your family was taken away and your mother was separated from you, the suffering of your mother was beyond description. She appealed to the National Security authorities for a pass to visit you. She was scolded by them, "This is a reactionary family and be careful lest you should be treated as reactionary. You should be grateful for the fact that you have been spared because of the divorce." Your mother missed you all so much that, eventually, she became sick.

I can easily imagine how happy your mother would be if she knew that you were alive. I have not met her for a long time but I know that she lives now in Pyongyang, alone. My dear borther and sister, do make sure that you visit us in Manpo. You must look for your mom, mustn't you? If you can not come, please do write to us. How delighted I am to learn that you are both alive….

Your Songhi from Manpo

I could recognize that the recently married woman whom Songhi referred to is In-Sun Hyon, the sister of Hyollyong, my friend in the camp. She was married shortly after she was released from the concentration camp. What a coincidence that she met my mother's sister there… The wide, wide world is indeed so small.

Reading her first letter reminded me of the last time I saw my mother. When we were being pushed up to a truck like a cargo by security officers, not knowing what was going to happen to us, I held my mother's hand tightly. When she was about to climb up to the deck of the truck after me, one of the security officers stopped my mother. He said, "not now. You are going in the next car." The truck left without my mother. She ran after the truck and cried, "Mi Ho, Chul Hwan, Don't worry. I will join you very shortly. I'll join you shortly…" Her shoes came off and she still kept running bare-footed. Mother's figure became smaller and smaller until she was completely lost out of our sight. And years later, there was a big red stamp on my father's residence certificate "divorced from Do-Ok Shin." (Do-Ok Shin is my mother's name)

Strangely, I felt myself calm at this moment of great emotion. On the other hand, I was confused with my desire to see mother and embrace her. I wanted to ask her why she did not come to see us. I wanted to ask her, "Didn't you say you would come to us soon?" My grandmother read the letter and had a different feeling. She said,

"When it was so difficult for me, it must have been much harder on your mother...Well, any way, she is somebody else now, isn't she? See? Your father already died and, after all, she was divorced…Well, what's the point of meeting her now when we all have already lived through many long difficult days…no need to see her now."

My grandmother was always the first to miss my mother and worry about her. But, this time, she was quite different, and firm. The death of my father must have changed her mind. When my father was still alive, she was apparently concerned with my mother because of my father. Grandmother's remark was a surprise to me, but I did not feel sorry about it. It is true that I still missed my mother from time to time. But it was also true that, from so far in the past, my memory of my mother had grown faint. The memory of the first three years in the camp missing my mother and waiting for her was indeed painful and deep in my broken heart. At that time, I got up each day with the hope of seeing mother arriving and every time a car arrived in the camp from outside, I ran to it hoping to find mother in it. Mi Ho, my sister, cried many times from missing her mother, and she was frequently scolded for that. The feeling of frustration while anxiously waiting for mother for those years was extremely painful. The bitter memory still makes me feel my blood gushing up from the bottom of my broken heart.

When we were just released from the concentration camp, I vaguely wished that I could see my mother then. But I did not know where she lived and how we could contact her. And then, frankly, I forgot my mother. Perhaps, I was so busy settling down in my new situation or maybe I buried my memory of her when I buried my father. It must have been my father who missed her most. Yet, he was so patient and said nothing about her. I thought we had nothing left to do with her on this earth, with my father gone. My thoughts of mother were often overwhelmed by anger for my poor father.

The one word of my grandmother "there is no need to see her" made me forget the first letter. Then, the second letter came.

Mi Ho nodded her head wiping her tears with hand when I asked her, "Do you miss your mother?" Yes, indeed, she is a little girl and the last child in the family. Even though she did not say anything, she must have missed her mother much more than I did.

"Shall we go to see mother?" I asked her.
  "Dear brother, you really mean it?"
  "Of course, she is alive and we must go and see her."

That night, I could not sleep. I could not figure out what was wrong with me. I thought I already forgot the remote and faint memory of my mother, so far away beyond my reach, and I was feeling the memory waking up in my heart, growing into a full picture as though it had waited for this moment. In my dream that night, I was walking with my mother along the Taedong river in Pyongyang. Obviously, we walked for a long distance as I was grumbling that I was tired. Mother just kept smiling without a word at my repeated importuning. My mother's hair combed upwards and her purple jacket with a white collar line made her very pretty. My mother, who said nothing, suddenly sat down and asked me to come to her back so that she could carry me on her back. I was delighted and jumped on her back. What is this all about? She was the same mother as when I was only a child, but I was a 19 year old man now on her back, not the 9-year old boy when I last saw her. I suddenly felt very awkward to be on her back. Mother still did not say anything and kept walking with me on her back. She walked one step and another…I was not comfortable at all with the thought that my mother might drop me.

I woke up. I felt thirsty, perhaps due to the drink. I drank water. I heard through the open window the chorus of frogs. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with a strong feeling of missing my mother. At the week-end, Mi Ho and I were on board the train for Nampo.


After a little search here and there in Pyongyang streets and neighborhoods, we found her house. It was an area of one-story flat houses with addresses posted on the doors. We discovered No. 46 easily. I breathed deeply before approaching the door. I felt my hand trembling. I knocked on the door with a trembling hand. I suddenly felt my hands wet with sweat. Mi Ho also looked very nervous. I felt my mouth drying up. There was no sign from inside. I knocked on the door again. No response…. 

"Well, she is not in. We can wait." 

We waited for mother. Mi Ho did not say anything. I had nothing to say either. But my mind was busy with the recollection of mother's memory and with the idea of what I should be doing when I met her. How has my mother changed? Is she very old now? Would she recognize us? The scene I last saw her repeated itself in my memory as though it was a movie projector that was out of order and was repeating the same scene again, and over again.
  "Yes, mother must have tried to join us. She must have been prevented from doing so by circumstances beyond her control. Yes, that's right! She must have tried very hard to join us in the camp! Why did I not think of it earlier? What kind of circumstance was it that prevented her from coming to us?

Time passed and we returned to her house. When we reached her house, it was already after 4 o'clock in the afternoon. When we knocked on the door, the door was opened without anyone even asking who we were. And there…..stood my mother. Undoubtedly, it was my mother. She was much older than ten years ago and was not beautiful any more but it was no doubt my mother. It was very strange that I could not call her Mom when we were face to face for the first time in ten years. Mi Ho also remained silent. We three of us stood like that for a little while. It must have been a very short while, but we felt like it was an eternity. 

"I am Chul Hwan," I was the first to break the silence. What an awkward way of greeting to one's mother after such a long period of time? I felt something was not quite right. But mother appeared as though she could not believe what she was seeing and she gazed at us. Then, slowly, she raised my face with her hands and stared at my face. She looked at my eyes and confirmed the black spot under my eye. She turned to Mi Ho for examination. She had her own ways to confirm her children. When the examination was over, she burst into loud tears, like a flood bursting a river bank.

"Chul Hwan! Mi Ho! Oh, my children, yes, you are indeed Chul Hwan, my Chul Hwan, how did you survive… how…" We were grown-ups, yet she hugged us hard and cried for a while. 

"I was sure that you were both dead. I never imagined that I would be able to see you again alive. Now that I see both of you alive like this, I would have no regret if I died right now," she cried out.

However, it was strange that I did not share her emotion and sadness. I was not joyful. I only felt a little relief and sadness in my heart, that's all. I felt little emotion for meeting my mother for the first time in ten years. They say ten years are long enough for mountains and rivers to change. Had the 10 years' hard life in a concentration camp dried up my emotion, so I could not feel moved when meeting my mother for the first time in ten years?

We were inside the house. She was so nice and prepared dinner for us as though she wanted to compensate for what she could not do for us for the last ten years. She was sick and had difficulty in walking but she did not mind and looked at us as though she was dreaming and tenderly cared for us while cooking. The food she cooked was indeed warm. 

Obviously, she was anxious to know what happened to us. "What kind of food did you eat? Weren't you cold? Did you go to school? Aren't you sick?" Her questions never stopped. I gave her short answers only. She was not satisfied with my short replies and kept asking the same questions. How could I explain to her about the terrible life in the concentration camp when she does not know anything about the conditions of the camp? Rather, I remained quiet. On the other hand, I told myself, "Let bygones be bygones and the truth will only make my mother feel more pain." 

She asked many questions but stopped asking questions when she realized that she was not getting good answers from me. Then, she asked us as though by accident, "Is grandmother alright?" When we replied that she passed away, she nodded her head and said nothing for a while. After a little while, with some difficulty, she asked us in a low voice, "What about daddy…?" I was still a young man but I realized how difficult it was for her to ask us that question. After a little while, and with some hesitation, I replied, "Well, Daddy…, well, he died shortly after he was released from Camp No. 15." My mother remained without words much longer than before. But I saw tears running down her cheeks. I felt a kind of relief and I sighed to myself.

That night, mother, Mi Ho and I slept side by side. She held Mi Ho's and my hands as though she was afraid we might go away. In sleep, I felt her hand on my hair and found her sobbing and caressing my head. I pretended ignorance and closed my eyes again.

She called us the next day, "Chul Hwan and Mi Ho, wouldn't you like to come here and look at these?" She was getting something out of the closet. She produced a box and closed her eyes for a moment and opened it. There were pictures in it. The fragments of our happy days ten years ago were valuably preserved. We went back to old days and laughed and remembered the happy days when we were children and together. The pictures were the only thing binding mom and us together.

"Look, Chul Hwan, this is your first birthday picture. This is the same picture of Mi Ho. Look here, how strong and bright you looked. Everybody said you would be a special boy." "Chul Hwan, do you remember this? You were so happy with the new pairs of shoes your grandfather bought for you. Then, we went out to a studio to take this picture." Mom was so happy. Perhaps, this was the first time she had been so happy and laughed so much in ten years. I discovered a picture of my father and mother together. Perhaps, the picture was taken before I was born. Mother was still a pretty young girl and my father was young and smart. I wondered, if, I mean if, we were not dragged to the concentration camp and we remained in Pyongyang, how would we look now? 

Some of mother's friends visited us the next day as the word about our arrival spread. One of them, even though I did not remember her, said she knew me well from the old days and bought us a chicken from a black market. The small house with one room and kitchen was filled with guests. It was like a party. My mother did not sleep at all the previous night and she had already been to work that day but she did not look tired at all. As time passed, my love for mom has deepened. She was only 48 years old but looked so old, much older than her age! Other friends all looked much younger. She had gray hair and a face wrinkled with hardship. The beautiful and clean complexion had disappeared. She looked so pale and so sick, with no sign of health.

When I did not talk very much, one of the women called me and said,

"You, both of you, should understand your mother and should not think that she was bad. You will never understand the distress she has suffered after she was separated from you all. Of course, her hardship may have not been as bad as that of yours. But, she has been subjected to unbearable stress, missing you and thinking about you. You don't understand it. Ask your mother if she has had a single day of peace for the last ten years! All of us watched her crying almost every day and we were all so sorry for her."

"Yes, she missed you so much and was so depressed without you that everybody thought she would not live long," one of them intervened.

"She was so depressed that she got sick (a stroke), don't you see?" Another woman added. 

They tried to comfort my mother, "Do-Ok, anyway, you have your bitterness and your grudges finally satisfied, you see your children back alive. What would you want more?" 

I did not need their words to fully understand the many days of her trouble. I spent only one day with her and I already felt my 10 years of bitter feelings already thawing like an ice block on a summer day.

We stayed with mother in Pyongyang for about 15 days. On the day of our departure, she packed up so much for us with the help of her friends. Among other things, she gave me a pair of shoes, a rare item in North Korea, for my boss. A pair of sneakers cost Won 40 in the black market, a month's salary for an ordinary worker. Real shoes would cost much more, and it must be a very special bribe for my boss. I was sorry for mother because we knew she had difficult finances herself, with a meager income from her work and yet she must have spent a lot of money. She would spend many months to pay it all back.

"Chul Hwan and Mi Ho, take care of yourselves on your way back and let's stay in touch," she stood at the railway platform waiving her hands, until we could see her no more. The train that began to move slowly, picked up to full speed and was running fast. I closed my eyes and I remembered nothing. I felt a heavy weight removed from my shoulders, as though I have accomplished a long pending task.