Friday, April 09, 2010

North Korea

North Korea Gulag Spurs a Mission
By John M. Glionna
The Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2010
"As a boy in the North Korean capital, Kang Chol Hwan kept aquariums. In a city of dull grays and shadows, he found solace in his menagerie of colorful fish. Because his grandfather was an official in the country's totalitarian regime, Kang always got the most exotic species. In 1977, when Kang was just 9, his grandfather fell out of favor and one day just disappeared. Soon the soldiers came for Kang and the rest of his family: his sister, father, grandmother and uncle. He begged intelligence officers until they let him put a few prized fish into a plastic bag. Once within the stark confines of Yodok prison, the most notorious outpost of the North's gulag system, the fish quickly died. Kang didn't fare much better. For the next decade his life was hard labor and starvation. Ravenous and desperate, Kang and the other inmates ate whatever they could find. He caught rats and snakes to supplement his meager daily fare of corn and salt. He learned to eat live salamanders quickly, to grab the creatures by the tail and swallow them in one gulp before they could discharge their revolting secretions. One by one, the gruesome details were etched into his mind, details that would later drive his memoir, 'The Aquariums of Pyongyang,' the first account of the gulags by someone who had survived them.
Yodok shaped Kang as a fighter who would become an investigative journalist covering North Korea, a reporter who each day seeks a rematch with the regime that stole his boyhood. In prison, he watched friends slowly die of overwork and malnutrition. But what could he do? 'At Yodok, you couldn't worry about someone else,' he said. 'The fear of your own death was too strong.' Kang and other inmates were often forced to watch public executions. Before being hanged, the condemned were starved and tortured, their broken bones often breaking through their skin. The teeth of many were pulled and replaced by a mouthful of stones. But Kang endured. He learned to steal belongings from corpses he was forced to bury, digging shallow graves in the frozen ground. In 1987, Kang and his family were suddenly released from the gulag. No explanation was given. Five years later, Kang defected, bribing a guard so he could cross a river border into China. Once on the other side, he stopped for one final gesture of spite and rebellion: He produced a badge honoring then-North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and smashed it on a rock. [...]"

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