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Holidays in the North Korean Detention Settlement
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2016-01-21 14:05:10
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Holidays in the North Korean Detention Settlement


Chul-Hwan KANG

Short Biography of 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. 

There are three national holidays observed in the Yodok Detention Settlement every year. New Year's day and birthdays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il. The birthday of Kim Jung Il is February 16. As his birthday approaches, the schools in the detention settlement harass children day and night in an awful fuss. School children are like beans being roasted in a pan. At the end of the day, children are always exhausted and sleepy from the hard work during the day. Yet, they are forced to stay in school until very late to memorize party texts to celebrate his birthday.

"With the greatest respect deep in our heart, we sincerely congratulate you on your birthday with burning gratitude to you and most sincerely wish you a long and peaceful life. Our dear leader, you are a guardian star of the Korean people and a benevolent teacher…In our undivided heart, we repeat our pledge of unbending loyalty to the President and the Dear Leader…" The school principal raises his voice to instruct children to clean the classrooms, remove snow from the playground and put on clean clothes on his birthday. "You got it? Your clothes are all patched-up but never mind they can be clean. I will give the Dear Leader's special gift to children who are neatly dressed on his birthday. Bring your parents to school for the gift presentation ceremony tomorrow."

"Grandma, I need clean clothes for gift tomorrow," my sister, a small child, seems to have been excited by the word of a special gift from the Dear Leader. Well, I could not blame her because I was also looking forward to it. Grandmother gave us clean clothes even though they were very old and all patched-up. My grandmother lived a hard life in Japan through the World War II. She was tough and thrifty. "Well, my child, I am sure you look the cleanest and prettiest in the entire settlement." Yes, my little sister was indeed very clean and pretty.

When we used to live in Pyongyang prior to our detention here without trial, my sister and I had best clothes in the school and neighborhood. My grand parents brought all the clothes from Japan and we received many more from our relatives there. We had many pieces of Japanese toys at that time. They were such rare and wonderful items in North Korea that my children in school and neighborhood were anxious to touch the toys.

"Chul-Hwan, you'd better put on this clean clothes today." She gave me a pair of somewhat new clothes.."It's all right with me, grandma," I replied. My grandmother insisted, "You better put them on. I don't expect the gift to be of anything. Whatever it is, it's a good feeling to have something, isn't it? We can use anything here."

That morning we all went to school with a little expectation. It was still cold in February in the Yodok Detention Settlement. When all the children were assembled, the school principal gave them a lengthy speech.

"The Dear Leader has been so benevolent as to have all the people rest on his birthday. And he has bestowed all the school children a gift. All of you are children of criminals. In his mercy, higher than sky and deeper than sea, he was so considerate to allow you, children of criminals, to reform yourselves to be honorary citizens of the People's Republic of Korea by building up revolutionary spirit thoroughly in your heart. We all must do our share to reward his high and lofty personality…"

His stock phrases were followed by gift presentation ceremony. The ceremony took place in a village hall of Unit One. In front of the children and parents, a senior party member again began a boring speech on the birth and life of the Dear Leader, Kim Jung Il.

"The Dear Leader has instructed us not to discriminate against you children, even though your parents have committed grave crimes against the party and state. The Dear Leader has sent all of you a special gift today, the same gift given to ordinary children throughout North Korea, even though you have been detained here because of the crimes committed by your parents. His special instruction to you is that you must not follow the bad example of your parents. You must reward his mercy by vigorously dedicating yourselves to the strengthening of revolutionary spirits…"

His speech was lengthy but children patiently waited for the gift with twinkling eyes. Parents, however, all looked indifferent. Finally, it was gift presentation! Parents and children hand-in-hand were asked to come forward one by one to the Settlement Superintendent and bow deeply to show appreciation for the gift and, then, children received a package of candy with both hands. A senior party official shouted, "Parents must be more grateful. Only then, can you cleanse from your sin. Show tears of gratitude!" At this word, some parents indeed appeared tearful. Nobody knows what the tear was really about: were they really so tearfully grateful, did they feign tears to win favor from the settlement authorities or were they weeping for their miserable life, worse than beasts?

My grandmother and sister went forward and received a package of candy. My grandmother was neither tearful nor looked grateful. Gift presentation to all primary school children was over. We middle school children were waiting for the gift to be presented. To our great disappointment, there was an announcement that gift presentation was over. We were all speechless with disappointment. We were like a dog watching a chicken on a tree. Yes, we were middle school children but were only eleven or twelve years old. We returned home with a package of candy for the whole family. My sister was excited but my grandmother was upset. "A package of candy? You call this a gift?" Obviously, her pride was hurt. Anyway, we felt somewhat at ease because there is no work on that day, whether or not I received a package of candy.

There is no work on holidays. But the children must assemble at the school hall and adults at the village hall for special lectures to celebrate the birthday of Kim Jung Il, the Great Leader. The lectures, in general, were about the sacred circumstances under which he was born, his lofty personality and excellent revolutionary spirit. Most adults dozed during the lecture as though this was a good opportunity to catch up with sleep. If caught dozing by settlement officials, he was brought to the front, severely beaten and forced to recite the congratulatory lines of the Great Leader. "You, s.o.b! You sleep at this important session? Your sleep during the lecture is an indication of the lack of the revolutionary spirit in your mind!"

It is the same situation at the school. The senior children repeat learning about the Great Leader and spent hours to memorize texts about him. As I grew older, I was involved with all kinds of nonsensical events and activities to celebrate his birthday. It is the same old idea but somewhat different type of activities every year. Once, the subject was "follow the model of the Great Leader when he was a child." In summary, the children were forced to learn from his outstanding strategies, intelligence and thorough revolutionary spirit when he was a child. In some year, the main activity was about organizing event for singing "Loyalty Songs" at every school. This is about singing, dancing and drama performance to praise his revolution history, wonderful personality and art. We often spent many nights at school for practice. 

On his birthday, there is no work. But it is a very stressful day with all kinds of nonsensical activities.

When the fuss of Kim Jung Il's birthday is over, the birthday of Kim Il Sung is approaching. His birthday is on April 15 and the whole settlement begins to prepare gifts for Kim Il Sung from about two months before his birthday. The task for the children in the camp was "the sand-gold collection campaign of loyalty." 

We were told that there was an abandoned gold mine somewhere upstream on the Yodok river. We find gold bearing sand in the river bed. The campaign was to collect gold from the river bed to offer Kim Il Sung as a token of loyalty to him. The children make a wood frame from the trees they cut in the mountains. Then, they make sieves with fine twigs and a piece of white cloth. The sieves were placed at a place in the stream having adequate water velocity to make them work. Children are very careful not to let the sieves get carried away or damaged by the stream. They carefully select trees and twigs of the right size. They collect fine sand from underneath rocks and gravel and screen them with the sieves. Children dump what is left in the sieves onto wooden pans for careful sifting every two hours. The exercise is repeated many times until, at the end of the day, nothing but gold, shining in the sun light, remains. This was how the children worked to collect gold. The quota is 0.5 grams for a team of 6 children. On unlucky days, they don't get any gold. On some lucky days, however, they get 0.5 or 0.7 grams of gold every time they sift. The children were beaten at school with a stick for failure to meet the day's quota. Children had to continue to dig tremendous amount of sand to meet the quota. Often, boulders in the stream get undermined by children digging and roll over onto the children. 

The security officers cautioned us before we began sand-gold collection. "Remember, the daily quota per team is 0.5 gram. If you don't meet the quota, you will be beaten to death. I will crush your skull should any of you steal the gold and carry home the gold in your mouth!" I questioned myself, "Who would want to steal gold, when you cannot eat it?" At first, I thought that sand-collection work would be easier than corn-planting work. However, I soon discovered that sand-gold collection was not that easy. All day long, we dug up river sand and sifted. Some days, we got no gold. On lucky days, we get more gold than the quota. We were happy when we exceeded the quota but badly beaten by the teacher when it was less than the quota. One day, a friend of mine had his leg broken by a boulder through no fault of his. We could not meet the quota that day because we needed to carry the wounded boy to school on our backs. When we reached school, so wretched and tired, the teacher shouted at the wounded boy, "You s.o.b! Why didn't you get yourself killed, you only broke your leg?"

The sand-gold collection continued until April 14th, the day before Kim Il Sung's birthday. When sand-gold collection work was finished at sunset, we had to sing and dance at school for many hours in the evenings for rehearsal.

Finally, his birthday came. The day began with reciting congratulatory speeches. "…the true Dear Leader has achieved the gigantic and shining merits for the rising of the fatherland and the prosperity of the Korean people with his genius strategy, excellent leadership and profound love of humanity. He is the greatest leader of the century, opening the bright future for all humankind in immortal contribution to the history of our time. He has been our hero for all humankind, the sun of the Korean people and our merciful father for the unification of the fatherland, everlasting prosperity of the self-reliant Korean people, happiness for thousands of generations to come and for the final victory of the great self-reliance ideology. We all wish him all the best, happy and peaceful life…" Then, there is what they call gift presentation ceremony. The best gift I ever received was a pair of school uniform, like all other children in the nation. It was my second year in the settlement. The presentation ceremony of Kim Il Sung was usually held with much greater fuss than that of Kim Jung Il.

Parents and children from all the households were assembled and forced to sit for three hours for listening to the rhetoric about the leader. The rhetoric is about how the great father-leader was born, his gallant anti-Japanese guerrilla fighting and the history of revolution. Security officers, senior party members and other officials all take the floor in turn and repeat the same lines of praising the Great Leader. "The Great President as well as the Leader again this year were merciful to give gifts to children in the settlement. This shows their immeasurable compassion, deeper than your own parents, higher than a mountain and deeper than sea. Therefore, everyone here must try hard to cleanse yourselves of the crimes and repay his mercifulness by whole heartedly dedicating yourselves to revolutionalization."

Like on the day of Kim Jung Il's birthday, it is the same with the birthday of Kim Il Sung, no work but having to sit for many hours listening to nonsensical stock phrases over and over again. This was an opportunity to catch up with much needed rest for many prisoners. Soon, they acquired a skill to sleep through all kind of shouts and high-pitched voice with their eyes open and undetected by the security officers. We were free in the afternoon but we had to work hard for our own domestic needs, such as collecting firewood and plants from the mountains, house repairing and etc. Anyway, we were so delighted with the school uniform. It was very rough and coarse like tent. This was still much better than the old patched-up clothes. I was very lucky because the new uniform was a little bigger for me. Some children get uniform too small for their size. They could not complain. Your body must fit in the uniform in the detention settlement .

It is officially called "Management Center" in North Korea. It used to be translated as "concentration camp" for a quick understanding by westerners as the "management center" was tightly guarded and surrounded by barbed wires, watchtower and emplacements like those concentration camps under Hitler and Stalin. We have now decided to translate the term as "detention settlement" to describe its nature more precisely. Strictly speaking, it is not a camp in the sense that prisoners are accommodated in barracks or permanent structures divided by gender. Rather, it is a bunch of villages of roughly built independent sheds, a shed for each family, in a very large area. Hence the term detention settlement more accurately conveys the reality of the euphemistically termed management center.