The Dismal Valley (Part I)
NKHR will publish in three parts Mr. Seung-Chul Kim‘s memoir titled ‘The Dismal Valley’ with the agreement of Mr. Kim. Mr. Kim wrote this memoir based on his experiences during several visits to North Korea’s No. 23 Management Center (Prison facility). Mr. Kim is currently living in South Korea.
North Korea’s No. 23 Management Center
Sha-Sha-Sha! With a heavy roar from its engine the steam locomotive starts to creep forward. Its funnel is belching out black smoke, and cinders fall on my shoulders and the nape of my neck. Ducking my head and shaking off the cinders, I look around the platform, then start to walk slowly in direction from which the train came.
Along the railway near this station is an Center that deals with the passengers and freight going into and coming out of No. 23 Management Center. No. 23 Management Center is located about 30-ri (12 km) from Ducksung-eup.
In North Korea, the term “Management Center” is a common term used to designate a government facility that provides services. There are “Trade Management Centers” and “Medical and Pharmaceutical Management Centers.” But by itself and without any modifier attached to the front, the name “Management Center” identifies a facility as a prison. No. 23 Management Center is such a prison, a place where prisoners are serving their time.
I don’t know when the term Management Center came into use, but there are also several euphemistic terms for prisons: Enlightenment Center, Management Center, and Assembly Center. Each has a different function. Assembly Center is a temporary detention camp near a railroad station. The term Management Center seems to have come into use more recently.
Each Management Center prison has its own designating number. No. 17 Management Center is in Bukchang, No.21 Management Center is in Daehung, South Hamgyung Province (This was closed in around 1987 after a prisoner relocation.) and No. 15 Management Center is in Yoduck, South Hamgyung Province.
The Management Center we are trying to visit today houses economic law offenders. Its official name is No. 23 Management Center, 7th Bureau of Social Safety Agency (now The People’s Safety Agency). Management Centers under the Social Security Department deal separately with political offenders and economic offenders. For the most part, only economic offenders are kept in No. 23 Management Center, and the majority are repeater offenders serving an average term of 7-to-8 years.
Like most of Management Centers in North Korea, No. 23 Management Center is hidden in a valley deep in the mountains. It “serves” a wide area of Ducksung-eup and Shintae-ri (an administrative unit equal to myon of South Korea) of South Hamgyung Province and Sangdol-ri for prison.
According to what I’ve heard from its staff during the many business trips I made, No. 23 Management Center was built in around 1976. It is said that the villagers of Shintae-ri and Sangdol-ri were forcibly relocated to nearby towns such as Jungdol-ri and Imjadong-ri to pave way for the establishment of No. 23 Management Center.
There is no sign of checking tickets as passengers get out of the wicket, probably because this station is in such a secluded place. I have only one fellow traveler, a Design Center inspector. We had left Hamhung early in the morning and arrived at Ducksung Station late, around three in the afternoon, after transferring to the mainline railroad at Shinbukchung. The steam locomotive that runs from Shinbukchung, through Ducksung Station to its final destination of Samgi was very old and worn-out, puffing and wheezing even on a gentle gradient. This made me concerned about missing our car if we arrived late at the branch Center. Luckily, the steam locomotive made it up the hill.
During the three years since I joined the Design Center in 1986, I had traveled around most of the counties within South Hamgyung Province on business trips related to power plant design. This marks my third trip to No. 23 Management Center.
A Special Business Trip
The construction of a power plant at No. 23 Management Center was started at the request of the Management Center, and was my first design project after joining the Design Center. I grew up in Hamhung and graduated from Hamhung Irrigation College. After returning from the Three Major Revolution Vanguard, I was allocated to Middle and Small-type Hydroelectric Power Plant Design Center, which is a subsidiary of South Hamgyung Middle and Small-type Power Generation Corporation.
On an autumn day of 1986, after I had been working for several months in my allocated spot, some unfamiliar people clad in Security Agent uniforms came to the Design Center by jeep. They were executive officials of No. 23 Management Center, and they came and asked us to do design for a hydroelectric power plant they wanted to build in the GuhSuh Creek, which was running through the Management Center precinct.
That was the period when North Korea’s economic deterioration was dramatically starting to surface. There was a serious electricity shortage and local power transmission and distribution stations were implementing compulsory power cuts everyday for several hours. A very limited amount of electricity was allocated to factories, businesses, and cooperative farms. Electricity was cut off completely for any entity that used electricity more than the allowed amount.
To help resolve the serious electricity shortage, in 1986 the North Korean government implemented a policy to encourage construction of small and medium-sized power plants. Local factory or businesses were allowed to use the hydroelectric power plants if they built it with their own labor and materials (unlike prior to 1986 when any power plant built belonged to the national electricity network). This policy change prompted factories, business, and local party and administrative organizations to jump in power plant construction as they had long been struggling with the short supply of electricity.
The electricity situation at the Management Center was not different, which led it to decide to build a power plant on its own. The well-known No. 15 Management Center (a concentration camp for political prisoners) in Yoduck County in South Hamgyung Province had already resolved its electricity problem by building a small hydroelectric power plant of its own in the early 1980s.
After a discussion, my company agreed to build a power plant for No. 23 Management Center and I was assigned to design its structure. With this, I started to visit the Management Center in the capacity of the one in charge of power plant design. The design did not start in 1986 due to the circumstances at the Management Center. I visited it for the first time in 1987 for site study. My second visit for detailed measurement of the power plant structure location and inspection was made in the spring of this year (1988).
Today, my third visit, is a bit unique. While officially the visit is to investigate the power plant construction site, the real purpose is to resolve a pepper issue in order to make kimchi for the employees of the Design Center. No. 23 Management Center is mostly involved in farming and mining, and one of its major products is pepper. The Management Center is located in an area where the climate is well suited for growing pepper. They produce a lot, most of which is taken by the Social Security Department of the central government. During the summer, when he was in Hamhung on a business trip, the head of the Design Center made a request of the Director of the Management Center and got a half-agreement on getting the pepper.
While the North Korean society operates based on central rationing, certain goods--such as food, vegetables, fruit, hard coal, and alcohol--are distributed in very little amounts or not at all. Under these circumstance, local factories or businesses provide indispensable food, meat, or hard coal to residents in the form of “holiday subsidiary food supply,” at the local level. The supply of subsidiary food is specially provided by the government based on contribution from businesses, or products are bartered and exchanged.
The Design Center was able to prepare for winter for its employees with the hard coal it received in return for designing a hydroelectric power plant in Gowon County. It also received other food supplies from farms as well. This time we are trying to get pepper in return for our enthusiasm for building the power plant, but we are not confident. The Head of the Design Center had pressed his request for the pepper when we were leaving for the Management Center, saying that there is no hope for getting pepper in other places.
The walk along the railroad takes us to the drab branch Center building of No. 23 Management Center, which is next to a coal unloading area. Entering the building, I see many people pacing about in the front yard. The inspector and I go straight into the Center. It is filled with cigarette smoke and there are a few desks, two uniformed security agents, and two men in plain clothes. They are sitting at their desks, smoking and chatting. As we walk in, the security agent with the higher level epaulet (between captain and lieutenant in the North Korean military and Security Agent class) studies us from head to foot with a typical despising glance. "What are you? Why are you here?" "We are from the Middle and Sall-type Power Plant Design Center in South Hamgyung Province, and we are here for the Management Center power plant construction ……" explains my companion, Younsuk Jo, the inspector. It seems they took us for the family of a prisoner asking for an interview. After a long explanation given by my accompanying inspector, the Security Agent says, “Wait outside. It’s a long time before for the car will arrive."
The agent speaks bluntly, though he softened a little bit compared to the moment when we had first walked in. But this treatment is very different from the hospitality that welcomed me in my earlier visits to the Management Center. Not just a lack of respect, these people treat us as if we are criminals. My feelings are hurt. But I can not blame them too much because, understandably, the Management Center employees or Security Agents (warden or management staff) do not have anything to do with the power plant construction.
Though we contacted the power plant construction staff by phone before we left Hamhung, it didn’t seem like they were informed. Judging from the treatment of the Security Agents, they will not welcome us. Somehow I feel that this is an omen of failure for our “Project”(obtaining pepper).
Moving outside, we decide to wait for the car after dropping our luggage at the corner of the branch Center yard. On stepping into the yard, we glance at the people gathering around on the other side. The yard is fenced with adult-high-tall blocks. Men and women who looked like vendors are divided into two groups on either side of the yard. They glanced at each other with their bundles gathered on one corner. There are also two children at one corner. It seems they were waiting for the car to take them to the Management Center. Overall, they do not have the look of the people you would normally run into. They give the impression that they are on the edge. Nervous, restless, fearful.
In North Korea, people, including me, judge the occupation or position of others based on their look: clothing, attitude and the way treating other people. My experience of visiting many places and hearing and experiencing different situations has made over 50% of my guesses correct. Based on this experience, I believe that these men and women came from other regions to see prisoners. Though a bit hesitant, they are glancing at us newcomers. The bundles at their feet also reveal who they are. Their wary glances are trying to figure out the identification of me and my accompanying inspector.
The group of men and two children kept stealing quick glances at the Center. It seems they want to send some signals to talk to the people on the other side. Its obvious that they are prisoners or the family of prisoners of the Management Center. They are clad in shabbier clothes and their shoulders are further drawn back. The way they cast side looks at us reveals that they are puzzled about us because our clothing and behavior are different from them and we do not look like people waiting to see inmates. We put our luggage next to the main gate and waited for the car, pretending that we are indifferent to their reaction.
Those who want to go to No. 23 Management Center should take a bus that goes to Joongdol-ri, which is in front of the Management Center. However, the bus does not operate regularly due to a gas shortage. On top of that, the bus operation is not timed to fit the train schedule. As a result, cargo trucks are used as a substitute. The trucks are operated by the Management Center for its employees. The Security Agents and employees of the Management Center, their families, prisoners, and those who want to visit prisoners all use the same truck.
The unpaved country road relentlessly rocks the truck. The driver steps on the gas as if having fun in making the rear wheels pound like a mortar. While having my butt pushed up high in the air and landing down on a box repeatedly, I carefully hold up the measuring equipment to prevent it from being broken. We finally arrived at the gate of the Management Center only after the cheeks of my face are almost frozen by the chilly autumn wind.
The gate of the Management Center is low and metal. Above it is a metal slogan board reading ‘Defend to the last Our Great Leader Kim Il Sung!’. As the truck stops at the gate, a Security Agent sitting in the front of the truck yells that those who want to see prisoners should get out. Seven or eight men and women rush to get off. The others do not seem to have any complaints. Rather, they seem to feel grateful for getting the ride.
Those who got off the truck early and already were at the window to apply for an interview are scolded by Security Agents for no particular reason and constantly bowing to them. They are treated just like prisoners themselves. If they turn against a Security Agent, they probably would get a beating instead of seeing their family. Meanwhile the truck that brought us disappears in the dust, headed inside the Management Center, boarding only employees and Security Agents.
(To be continued in Part II)