Surviving North Korea's house of the dead
By David Wilson
The 59-year-old author of Long Road Home: Testimony of a North Korean Camp
Survivor (Columbia University Press) is busy pursuing a family mission.
So said his fresh-faced ghost writer Suk-Young Kim, adding that Kim Yong has
yet to learn how to use e-mail, which makes it even harder to track him down.
Suk-Young, a University of California performing arts professor, sums up the
survivor of a six-year prison camp stint as "childlike, funny, and optimistic.
"Are you surprised it's not hero, survivor and god-fearing?" she asks.
Suk-Young, 38, who has South Korean roots, first encountered
the playful ex-detainee at a 2004 Cornell University human rights conference.
She describes the stories he told in the face of acute personal grief as
The story that struck her most concerned his 1999 prison escape and realization
that the conditions outside the death camp, which hosted cannibalism, were not
necessarily better. In a chapter titled "We Are All Happy", he describes how a
starving woman he once gave a boiled egg lacked the strength to even lift it to
her lips. Instead, she just sat there, holding the egg while her body shook
Such unforgettable stories played on Suk-Young's mind to the point of
obsession. The memoir-cum-expose that blossomed from her fixation reads like a
cross between Dante's Inferno and the Great Escape with tragic
and triumphal overtones.
At his height serving as a lieutenant colonel in the North Korean army, Kim
Yong enjoyed unparalleled privilege, driving the imported car he owned
throughout the country. But any sense of good luck soon soured. On his travels,
he witnessed corruption at all levels, among party officials and Japanese trade
partners alike, and observed the illicit benefits accorded some and denied
When accusations of treason cost Kim Yong his position, he was catapulted into
North Korea's most notorious labor camp: No 14 in Hamkyeong province. As he
constantly toiled 2,400 feet underground, daylight became his new idea of
luxury. In the shadows, he became acquainted with political prisoners,
sub-human camp guards, and a famine of biblical proportions that killed
Finally, after years of planning, with the help of old friends, in 1999 Kim
escaped to the United States via China, Mongolia, and South Korea.
Presented for the first time in its entirety, his Alexander Solzhenitsyn - a
Russian writer who exposed the horrors of Stalin's gulag system - style story
sheds light on the atrocities committed in Kim Jong-il's Hermit Kingdom and how
it feels to survive in the face of brutal odds. The book is quite a coup
because, despite the presence of gulags in North Korea being an open secret,
little information exists about how they are run, for a simple, sinister
Few escape both prison and country alive.
Suk-Young said she would be flattered just to make it onto Pyongyang's
blacklist. If the worst comes to the worst, she will merely be denied entry -
no great loss to the theater expert who has only paid a perfunctory tourist
visit to what she calls "forbidden territory".
Commenting on what she would know about the Orwellian state's machinations, she
describes the connection between her work and it as "huge".
"North Korea, to me," she said, "is one of the most theatrical places on earth
in a sense that it has a huge investment in how it might appear to the outside
world rather than focusing on utility or function".
Setting up and enacting an interview with the dark star of Long Road Home
took a year because, while he was living in Los Angeles in 2004-05, she was
based in some 4,200 kilometers away in New Hampshire. The actual writing took a
further six months.
First, she simultaneously transcribed and translated 20 hours of voice
recording into English and then rearranged the narrative in chronological
order. "I did very little editing since I wanted to preserve the original voice
of Kim Yong as truthfully as possible."
The hardest scenes to convey must have been those about torture and hunger, the
reader might think. In fact, every scene was hard to accomplish.
For one thing, the old soldier resisted elaborating on the facts. "So whenever
I asked the same question twice in order to get a different look at the same
event, he would get impatient," she said. Also, Suk-Young said, he was stubborn
and inclined to insist on doing things his way.
Coaxing information took time, and the process was delayed by her own
uncertainties. Loath to inadvertently alter his story in accordance with her
personal taste, she had to take pains to pull herself away and refrain from
During the project the discovery she made that surprised her most was just how
drastically that North Korea had regressed - to the point that unimaginable
acts such as cannibalism and torture have become part of everyday life. "I was
also surprised by how resilient human life can be in the case of Kim Yong," she
Kim Yong authored the book because he is determined that the nation's
devastating realities become globally known. "He thinks that it's deplorable
that the world knows so little about North Korea."
North Korea apparently contains more complexity than shines through in the
media, judging by her interviewee's "multi-dimensional" take that mixes the
positive and negative. Suk-Young describes the country as "strange", noting
that there is nothing you cannot buy if you have money despite the abiding
power of communist ideology.
Another twist from her perspective is that North and South are quite alike. The
countries share a similar sense of humor and strong respect for family ties,
Likewise, she is convinced that America is equally guilty of propaganda. Before
making any uninformed assumptions about North Korea, the West should try to
understand it, she said. Treat the country with respect is her message.
Still, she suspects that, when Pyongyang reads the memoir, it will be "very
unhappy". Given that North Korea routinely falls at the bottom of the World
Press Freedom Index Rankings, few would doubt that assertion.
David Wilson is an Anglo-Australian recovering print journalist with a
special interest in Asia. His work has previously appeared everywhere from the
Malaysia Star to the Times Literary Supplement and International Herald