The Dismal Valley (Part II)
This is Part II of NKHR’s serial publication of 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.
Darkness fell upon us as we arrived at the precinct Management Office, which was made up of several buildings. Hunching over the wide empty land at the foot of the valley was the five-story main building, a dull structure that looked out of place in the secluded mountain area. Next to it, there was a 「Long Live Tower」,whose engraved message carried a prayer for Kim Il-Sung’s long life (Under the iron tower there was a sentence carried「Long live the Great Leader!」.) Next to the Guhseo Creek was also a 3-story Guesthouse used by Management Office Security Agents and traveling officers. The building included a staff restaurant and the Security Department’s food warehouse.
At the recommendation of an officer from the Guidance Cadre of the Public Affairs Department, we decided to sleep at the Guesthouse for Security Agents. A Guidance Cadre led us to a first-floor bedroom. The not-so-large room was unoccupied and offered military-type bunk beds on both sides.
What a difference from my first visit. When I came here last spring I had my own bed neatly wrapped in white cloth in a star-level (Major level in South Korea) bedroom. I also ate well in a star-level restaurant that served 4 side dishes. This time, however, we had been totally looked down upon from the start. The Security Agents working at Management Office must either mistake all civilians for criminals, or are deeply ingrained to despise human beings. Every security official we met remained distant and hostile, and looked down on us.
After unpacking, we went to wash off the dust that had covered us during our truck ride. When we returned to the room we were met by the glaring stares of two Security Petty Officers who were in the midst of unpacking. "Dongmoo (comrade), who are you? Why did you come in here?", they demanded. (Their sharp look spoke clearly, 'Where the heck these civilian jerks came from?’)
We told them we were there to see the Management Office Director to discuss power plant construction. They seemed annoyed at our presence in the Guest House, which was reserved for the Security Agents. Their attitude made us uncomfortable as we packed the toothbrush, soap and towel. Preparing to go out for dinner, we overheard their conversation. They were apparently escorting criminals.
The Guidance Cadre of the Public Affairs Department, who had been waiting outside, led us to the Petty Officer’s Restaurant. An icy woman waiting for us in the restaurant told us that we should return the food tray back to the pick-up window, then quickly disappeared. After dinner, we reluctantly went back to our room, but the irritated Security Agents were no longer there. Perhaps they secured a different room after complaining about us. I don’t know, but at least their absence saved us from feeling uncomfortable all night.
After breakfast the following morning, the Design Center Inspector and the Guidance Cadre went to the main Management Office building to see the Director. Feeling curious and somewhat bored, I decided to have a look around. At the back of the restaurant was the Guhseo Creek. I noticed that the embankment had been very well built.
I then walked back to the 「Long Live Tower」 in the Management Office, because I wanted to check out the store catering to Management Office staff. The thought had dawned on me was that, because this is a somewhat special place, they might sell soaps and such items without checking supply cards (as they would in the cities). Since it had been a long time since I had used a decent facial soap made in a plant (as opposed to homemade), I wanted to buy some if possible.
Next to the road leading up to the store was a small streamlet that merged into the Guhseo Creek. Across from the streamlet was a long wooden one-story building that I had seen the night before. At a first glance, it seemed like a country schoolhouse. What made it different was the lack of a wide, open yard. Instead, it has a small yard that was fenced off by dense, adult-high wooden boards. These made me guess that it was the sleeping quarters for the prisoners.
Work tools were scattered around between the fence of the building and the streamlet. Judging from the tools (sand screens, soil carriers, spades. and a small electric cement mixer), it seems the prisoners had been doing some embankment work. At that moment, the prisoners filed out of the building and walked toward the bridge. Next to them strolled a Security Agent with a machine gun slung from his shoulder.
As I was walked along looking in their direction, a sudden yell came from the Security Agent. As the file of prisoners stopped at the entrance of the bridge, the Security Agent called over one prisoner. Suddenly, the stumbling prisoner was bent over by the kicks of the Agent. It happened so fast that I stopped in mid-stride, frozen in place. Mumbling grumbles and curses, the Agent relentlessly kicked the prisoner, who was curling and twisting his body trying to avoid the kicks but not trying to run away.
"I’m sorry Sir," the prisoner begged painfully. But the Agent continued the assault undaunted, with one hand holding the strap of his machine gun. After twisting and bending his frail body, the prisoner’s knees finally gave in and he fell to the concrete, curling his body up like a fetus in a mother’s womb, still trying to deflect the kicks. The agent continued relentlessly, kicking the prisoner’s back, stomach, and head… he seemed enthusiastically energetic, as if practicing penalty kicks on a soccer field.
Finally, after the prisoner’s body had curled up completely, his hands, which had been covering his face, started to turn limp. His face, which occasionally turned in my direction, was a mess of dark blood.
Although I was about 50 meters away, I could still see the Agent’s kicks make the prisoner’s arms and hair flap and his head bend in unnatural directions. It reminded me of a dog vendor killing a dog in my village when I was little. The dog’s body also flapped limply, like the prisoner ’s, after the vendor struck it on top part of its head with a small axe, thereby ending its life. This image shot through my head as the Agent continued kicking for a long time, as if he is trying to avenge himself on his bitterest enemy.
"Go back!", he finally shouted, and the prisoner slowly gathered himself up and went back to his place and the file started to move again as if nothing had happened. Only then did I realize that I had been standing in place, as if hypnotized. I rubbed my sweaty palms off onto my pants and the only thing in my mind was the word 「insanity」.
It was first time I had ever witnessed such a relentless beating. My god! This is the true picture of a Management Office! Fear created goose bumps all over my body. Fearing that the Agent might start to hurl curse words at me, I quickly walked away. When, near the store, I briefly looked back, the prisoners were starting their work using the tools had been left the night before, as if nothing had happened.
Even in the store, the beating continued to grip my mind. I kept seeing the prisoner’s bloody head limply flapping. I simply could not understand why the Agent had to kick and trample the prisoner so insanely. The job of a Security Agent itself does not explain such a severe beating. Maybe being stuck in the far countryside betrayed the high expectations that particular Agent had had when he was recruited. He might have been venting his frustration and disappointment. Or perhaps he was criticized earlier for something he did during daily reviewing. Or maybe he lost food stamps or money while playing cards.
Was this true for all Agents? Maybe to them the prisoners seemed totally useless. Maybe they noticed that beating the prisoners offered a catharsis and a certain pleasure, so that it became part of their daily routine, reaching the state where they felt something was missing if they did not beat a prisoner or two.
I thought to myself that committing suicide would be better than being imprisoned in a Management Office.
Though the store had a sign on its roof, it looked rather like a small country house, like you would see in a South Korean Folk Village. From the outside, the only indication of modernity was the tile roof. Inside, just two of its clay walls were used to display products. They were, however, stocked more abundantly than those in the stores in downtown Hamhung City, which indicated that the Management Office employees were better off than the city residents. In the food section, two ladies who looked like the family of Security Agents were buying soy sauce and cooking oil
After looking around, I found the soap, but the sales person told me that I must have a Supply Card to buy any. I had to settle for two bottles of tooth powder, the only product I needed among the free sales items. After leaving the store, having lost interest and having no place else to go, I went back to the Guesthouse.
The Guidance Cadre and the Inspector came back around 10:30 and wanted me to go with them to the planned dam construction site. Reaching the upper part of the Guhseo Creek required a long walk from the Management Office. I told them about what I had seen while they were gone. The Guidance Cadre said that “it was nothing,” and that “the bastards (prisoners)” still steal within the Management Office even despite such beatings. He then told us about a theft of food that happened two months before at a warehouse.
In most of North Korea you can taste good food, meat, and drink only during holidays. It is same within the Management Office. For the occasion of August 15 (This is based on lunar calendar. The occasion, Chusok, usually falls in late September or early October and is considered similar to Thanksgiving in the US. – Note by translator.), the Management Office had stored extra food in the warehouse for the Security Agents living with the families, and pork for the Security Agents living in the dorms (most are Petty Officers, not Military Officers). On the evening of August 12, the pork mysteriously vanished from the warehouse, even though it had been tightly secured with a fist-size lock.
To the agents, it was obvious that the prisoners were the only ones in the Management Office who would do such a thing. As most had been repeatedly convicted of stealing, pick pocketing, or organized crime, they were masters of theft, according to the Guidance Cadre, who disclosed that notorious as gangster leaders from Hamhung in the 1970s were serving their time there. The prisoners had their own leaders who were responsible for internal control and were also recognized by the warden.
As the hierarchical order among inmates was so strict, they would never confess to a crime however severe the beating or interrogation might be. And the agents failed to find out who stole the pork despite their interrogations. The Guidance Cadre clucked his tongue and shrugged his shoulders, telling us that stealing pork was a cinch for the prisoners because were experts in that field.
As I had been to Management Offices several times, I was not a total stranger to prisoners’ situation. There were three types of prisoners. The first were minor offenders. (There were very few of these.) If married, they could live with their families in the Management Office. Once, at the waiting center near the Management Office gate, a lady who had arrived there two days earlier related the story of a young bride who had come with her. She praised the young woman, who had come to live with her husband, imprisoned for being involved in a gang fight. I thought they must have been a happily married couple that was truly in love, something that does not seem very common anymore.
Here and there in the compound were houses where villagers had lived. Prisoners who lived with their families used these houses. Their children even studied in the precinct’s school and in theory, they could even go to university, but that was rare. (For college admission in North Korea, a quota is assigned by region and by school. On top of that, one needs to have a teacher’s recommendation to be entitled to take the college entrance exam. For schools in the Management Office, most recommendations were reserved for the children of high-ranking officials and Security Agents.)
The second type of prisoners lived in a group, like those who I saw in the morning. They have been deprived of their identification cards and live under strict control, doing forced labor. According to the Guidance Cadre, they get up early in the morning, do morning exercises, sing disciplinary songs, and then are mobilized for farming and other work throughout the day. They usually go to bed late in the night, after finishing daily reviewing.
The third type of prisoners were felons who were the most strictly controlled and harshly treated. These prisoners were called 「No Compensation. They were provided with only minimum rations and had to go through toughest manual labor.
Except for these 「No Compensation」prisoners, the inmates of the 「No. 23 Management Office」 were way better off than the ones in Management Office for political prisoners (concentration camps). A senior colleague of mine working at the Technology Department of the Middle and Small-type Power Generation Corporation participated in the design and construction of the Power Plant for No. 15 Management Office in Yoduk. He witnessed with his own eyes the situation and told me that the prisoners there were treated more severely than beasts.
(To Be Continued in Part III)