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Inside North Korea's gulag

North Korea is the most closed nation on earth, its regime infamous for repression and the personality cult of its leaders. But until now the terrifying story of the country's concentration camps has never been told. Kang Chol-hwan offers the first survivor's account of life inside a Korean death camp

After the partition of North and South Korea in 1948, Kang Chol-hwan's family returned to North Korea from Japan, where his grandparents had emigrated in the 1930s and become fairly wealthy. They were idealistic and committed to the communist cause. But in 1977 the family was removed without trial to Yodok, a remote concentration camp, apparently because the grandfather was suspected of counter-revolutionary tendencies. Kang was nine years old.

I remember perfectly the moment I first heard pronounced the name of "Yodok". One of the Security Force agents had begun rifling through my mother's lingerie, and seeing her private things tossed across the room, my mother allowed her voice to rise. Outraged, the man with the notebook jumped to his feet, ordering her to shut up, then pulled out a paper from which he read out loud. According to the document, my grandfather - who had already "disappeared" - had committed "a crime of high treason," the consequence of which was that his family - all of us there gathered, my father, mother, grandmother and sister - was "immediately" to present itself at the secure zone in Yodok. Everyone around me seemed to go dead.

A truck was stationed in front of our building. The men began loading the crates and the few small furnishings the agents didn't want for themselves: a low table, some kitchen utensils, and a 125-pound bag of rice, the maximum the camp would allow.

My family climbed one by one into the back of the truck, except for my mother, who, to my great surprise, remained standing on the pavement. I still remember the immense sadness in her face, streaming with tears. "You're not coming?" I asked. "No, not right away, my love. I'll join you soon."

Reassured, I squeezed myself up against my aquarium, which I had filled with a selection of my most beautiful fish, topped with a plank of wood to keep the water from sloshing out.

My poor mother! It must have been terrible for her. Much as she tried, she couldn't hide her sadness. Yet her nine-year-old son had understood almost nothing. He had climbed into the truck quite happily, his fish pressed to his chest. The daughter of a "heroic family", she was spared a trip to the camp. Shortly after our imprisonment, the Security Force made her get a divorce and terminate all ties with our family of "traitors". She was never asked her opinion, never gave her signature. I later learnt that she had repeatedly appealed for permission to join us in the camp, but her requests were seen as aberrant and never granted.

We started out just as the day was breaking.

Towards midday we reached Wolwangnyong, the King's Pass, 3,000ft above the tree line. North Koreans also call it the Pass of Tears, because it's the last stretch of road on the way to Yodok. It was two o'clock before we arrived at the perimeter of the camp. In front of us, soldiers were swinging open a gate, the only opening in a long concrete wall. Above it rose two watchtowers. Farther off, the walls gave way to a series of steep bluffs, fringed with barbed wire deep into the horizon.

The guards then pulled the canvas cover off the truck and we all stood up. Men and women were standing around the truck and stepped forward for a closer look. How frightfully filthy they all were, dressed like beggars, their hair caked and matted with dirt. Half of my all-important fish were already dead. At a loss for what else to do, I started counting the victims. The prisoners stared silently at the extraordinary spectacle standing among them: a child in the middle of the camp, crying softly over an aquarium in which floated, stomach up, the most fantastical assortment of exotic fish.

We were shown to our designated hut. My father pushed the wooden door in silence. We joined him, and what we saw left us stunned. This was where we were going to live? Under a roof of bare wooden planks, with dried earth for walls, and packed dirt for our floor? The guards ordered a few prisoners to help us finish our resettlement. It didn't take long.

The hut was a four-family building. Our unit, the largest of the four, had a partition down the middle splitting it into two rooms. The dividing wall stopped short of the ceiling, so that a single bulb hanging directly above it could illuminate both spaces. Every hut was surrounded with a patch of fenced-off dirt where the prisoners could grow whatever they wanted. Or rather whatever they could, for they worked so hard during the day, they had neither time nor energy at night for anything but sleep.

Our immediate concern on our first night was working out how to start a fire without matches or a lighter. Fortunately, our neighbours came by and taught us a few of the camp's basic survival skills. They demonstrated how to chop down a tree quickly and safely, how to keep a flame alive on a pine-resin-soaked wick, how to cook cornmeal over a wood fire.

All the water had to be drawn from the river that was a 10-minute walk. To a well-fed person these trips would be boring and uncomfortable. Weak and undernourished as we would soon be, however, they were nothing short of exhausting. The other thing we didn't have was heating fuel. Instead we had to forage for wood that was dry enough to catch fire. Our room had a wood-burning furnace that doubled for a stove.

The next morning our brigade leader came by to explain the camp's work details and rules of conduct. In North Korea - as I later learned was the case in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany - camp guards aren't satisfied to do all the surveillance themselves: they designate prisoners to become local chiefs and carry out responsibilities the police can't execute on their own. They collect information and have the power to punish recalcitrants, most notably by denouncing them to their superiors. The brigade chiefs are important links in the chain of command between the camp's authorities and the common detainee.

Standing alongside a guard, the brigade leader spoke. Grandmother would be the only one exempt from working, it being her responsibility to stay home and cook for the rest of us. The routine for my sister and me was school in the morning and manual labour in the afternoon. There would also be the common chores of chopping wood and hauling logs, growing corn, pulling weeds, and so forth, as well as obligatory participation in the Party's recently initiated campaign for the foraging of wild ginseng in the mountains, a project sure to be "close to our hearts", given our desire to redeem our bad conduct.

When the brigade leader had finished his orientation, the guard stepped forward to say his piece. "You people don't deserve to live," he announced, "but the Party and our Great Leader have given you a chance to redeem yourselves. Don't squander it and don't disappoint him."

The two then left without another word. The guard really scared me. I later learned to distinguish the real zealots - the ones who lay in wait for a word that might betray the family criminality - from those you could talk to. The guards were almost all uneducated, rough people. There were a few exceptions, but they could never stand their assignment for long. Eventually the camp's atmosphere would get to them, and they would ask to be transferred.

The school was a square compound composed of two facing buildings joined on either side by a wall. A flower bed and a lawn stretched between the buildings. The classroom floors were heated in the traditional Korean manner, but only when the temperature dropped below -10C. Above the blackboards, dominating every classroom, hung the portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

There was no comparison between the lives of Yodok students and those of students on the outside. Our teachers generally addressed us in the harshest, crudest manner. Instead of using our first or last names, they blurted things like "Hey, you, at the back of the room! Hey, you, the idiot in the third row! Hey, you, son of a whore." It was also common for them to beat us. The worst teacher we called the Wild Boar. Almost as ruthless was Pak Tae-seu, aka the Old Fox, who sometimes punished his students by making them stand naked in the courtyard all day with their hands behind their backs.

One of the most common forms of school punishment was latrine duty. There were always two monitors - fellow prisoners both - who stood at the school entrance to watch over the arriving students and pick out the latecomers. A student who was late could expect to get a week's worth of latrine duty, which consisted of cleaning the stalls or emptying the septic tanks. The tanks had to be emptied once a year, and if there was a dearth of students requiring punishment, the teachers would choose children at random. One time a friend of mine from class started complaining to us because he'd been picked for the nasty job several times in a row.

"I'm always the one," he whined. "Don't the teachers have anything better for us to do? It's probably because they like shit!" Someone must have gone to squeal to the Wild Boar, because a minute later we saw him walking toward us looking mad as hell. He grabbed the guilty student and started beating him savagely. Battered and wobbly-legged, the boy fell into the septic tank, where he remained trapped for a long time, unable to find a foothold or get anyone to reach in and help him. Content with his work, the teacher lost interest and walked away. After a long struggle, my friend managed to reach the edge and climb out, but he was in such a sad state that no one wanted to help him wash up or bandage his wounds. A few days later he died. We never quite knew of what.

Classes ended at noon. We had an hour to rest and eat the cornmeal we brought from home in a mess kit. Afterward we worked outdoors. That's how I learned to plant rice, grow corn, and chop down trees. My first work assignment was on a team that assisted adults who were logging up in the mountains. We were charged with hauling the logs down to the village, where another group of adults cut the wood into small pieces, about a metre long, and loaded them on to a truck. The logs were terribly heavy, even with two of us carrying them, and the place where the trees were being felled was three or four kilometres from the village. To fill our daily quota, we had to finish 12 round trips each, which added up to about 40 kilometres, with a log on our shoulder half the way. The work would have been exhausting for the heartiest of children; and for a city boy like me, it was simply impossible. I was dead on my feet by the third trip and had to ask the kid working with me to stop a minute so I could catch my breath. He grudgingly agreed. I sat down. In an instant, a black curtain descended before my eyes and I fell to the ground. I was out for about an hour. When I came to I was surrounded by the kids in my work group, who were all furious with me.

Like the adults, we worked in groups of five. If illness or physical incapacity caused one of us to lag, the whole group fell behind and risked being penalised. The policy had the effect of breeding animosity among the detainees and destroying any solidarity. The guards could sit back and relax: the prisoners were forced to create a system of self-surveillance, which while perfectly effective at maintaining order, required little outside intervention.

When we returned to our hut at night and sat around the little low table eating our corn, hardly anyone said a word. As soon as we had eaten, we hurried off to bed, knowing we'd need to recuperate all the strength we could.

Still, before getting into bed, I would spend a few minutes hunched over my aquarium. It seemed too large now for the few fish that still clung to life. Eventually there was only one survivor. As temperatures dropped throughout November, he continued to hold strong. Yet winter deepened and the temperature soon fell below freezing in our hut. Despite all my care, he died. Seeing his lifeless body floating on the surface of the water filled me with great sadness. Yet I wasn't distraught. By this time I was struggling with the problem of my own survival and had little energy left for grieving. What I was staring at was the final dissolution of my former life: a door that was closing.

My first winter in the camp was very trying. I was always hungry and had problems digesting the little food I did get. Our diet was so unvaried it started to make me sick. Grandmother noticed what was happening and, to break the monotony, sometimes cooked me some of our remaining rice. But she had resolved to make our little stock - the one buffer we had against extreme deprivation - last as long as possible, and would never cede to my pleas for more.

More than 100 people died in our village every year - out of a population of two to three thousand. The newly arriving prisoners were usually the first to die. If you made it through the adjustment period, though, you could expect to live for a good 10 years more. Most of the camp's diseases were not very serious, but in our weakened state a simple cold could kill. If I were to improve my nutritional intake and realise my dream of becoming the family's provider of meat, the better option was rat.

One of my co-workers - a camp veteran - was the first to introduce me to the dish. Despite my revulsion, I couldn't resist the odour of grilled meat - which was not deceptive, because the rat was truly delicious. Though the rodents were everywhere, trapping them was difficult, especially because most were quite small. I eventually perfected a design that used wires strung across the entrance of the rats' nest to snare and strangle the animals as they tried to exit. Thanks to its increased catch, I was able to supplement the family's small food ration.

Cold and malnutrition were not the only causes of death at Yodok. There were also accidents - terrible accidents - such as the one I witnessed while on special assignment at the camp's clay quarry. A group of children had been ordered to excavate a ton of fine earth in a single afternoon, an absurd quota. Working without the benefit of either adult supervision or scaffolding, they burrowed child-sized tunnels into the foot of the cliff. My job that day was to carry the excavated earth over to the trucks that hauled it away. I was just finishing one of my trips when I heard a muted rumble, then screams. I ran towards the tunnel.

There had been a cave-in. A number of children were trapped. As I worked furiously to help dig out the rubble, I overheard my schoolmaster bantering with one of the guards. "What a piece of work, these kids!" he mused. "Gone and collapsed the cliff again. What idiots! Guess they won't be siring any little ones!" We managed to pull five or six of the kids out alive, but all the rest were dead. I remember their bodies, blue but not yet stiffened. I felt a terrible anguish. These kids were my age; fate had simply been less kind to them.

Having reached the age of 15, and majority - as defined in the camp - I was obliged to begin attending a ceremony I would have preferred to skip. The first public execution I saw was of a prisoner who had attempted to escape. The whole village was there.

The head of the camp stood up to read the condemned man's resume. "The Party was willing to forgive this criminal. It gave him the chance here at Yodok to right himself. He chose to betray the Party's trust, and for that he merits execution." During the silence that followed, we could hear the condemned man scream his final imprecations. "You bastards! I'm innocent!" It must have been ages since he had last eaten. As he passed in front of the prisoners, some shut their eyes. Others lowered their heads out of respect.

The guards were now tying him to a post with three pieces of rope: at eye level, around the chest, and at the waist. As they withdrew, the commanding officer took his place beside the firing squad. "Aim at the traitor of the Fatherland ... Fire!"

The custom was to shoot three salvos from a distance of five yards. The first salvo cut the topmost cords, killing the condemned man and causing his head to fall forward. The second salvo cut the cords around his chest and bent him forward further. The third salvo released his last tether, allowing the man's body to drop into the pit in front of him, his tomb. This simplified the burial.

And then one day the nightmare was over. On 16 February 1987, all the prisoners in the village were summoned to the meeting hall for the chance to celebrate the birth and sing the praises of Kim Jong-il. The camp's security chief gave a speech about the benevolence of our Dear Leader. He then announced that some of us were to be released: I heard my family's name being called!

The memories of everything that had happened in the past decade began to sweep over me. I was actually afraid of leaving that place, of no longer seeing those mountain ridges all around me. Deep down, I had come to love them. They had been the bars of my prison and the framework of my life.

Towards the very end of February, liberation day finally arrived. We left in the same kind of truck that had brought us to the camp 10 years earlier. When it started up, I was taken back to our departure from Pyongyang, and to my mother's tear-lined face as it receded into the distance. The vision struck me with new and unexpected force - for I had all but forgotten my mother. Her memory had become so faded and distant it hardly seemed real. Now, as the truck slowly spat and rattled into motion, her image raced back to me in a flash. In an instant I understood that I could start thinking of her again without it being simply painful and absurd. I was bowled over by the intrusion of this memory and the meaning it might have.

Kang was reunited with his mother in 1990. In 1992 he escaped from North Korea to China and then made his way to the South, where he is a journalist and campaigns 'on behalf of the unfortunate souls attempting to flee repression and famine' in the North. This extract is taken from 'The Aquariums of Pyongyang' by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, published by Atlantic Books this month, £8.99. To order your copy for the special price of £8 (including p&p) call 01903 828503, quoting 'Aquariums'

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