Kang Chol Hwan was 9 years old when his grandfather, a high-level government official and ethnic Korean immigrant from Japan, suddenly disappeared. Within a few weeks, soldiers came for the rest of his family, summarily stating that Kang’s grandfather had been convicted of “high treason” but giving no details. The entire three-generation family would immediately be sent to a reeducation camp. The government confiscated the family’s house and nearly all its possessions, though the soldiers took pity on the tearful Kang and allowed him to carry out an aquarium of his favorite tropical fish. Soon after the family’s arrival at the Yodok concentration camp in the country’s northeastern mountains, the fish floated dead in their tank.
The family would spend the next decade in one of Kim Il-sung’s most notorious gulags. Kang’s daily life alternated between school—rote memorization of communist propaganda—and slave labor in the camp’s cornfields, lumberyards, and gold mines. For a time, Kang’s work detail included burying the corpses of prisoners who died daily from starvation or perished in mine cave-ins and dynamite accidents.
Children who disobeyed even slightly were beaten. Adult transgressors spent days, or even months, in the sweatbox, a tiny windowless shack in which victims could only crouch on hands and knees. Sometimes prisoners, including Kang, would be required to witness executions. Once he and other inmates were ordered to stone the hanging corpses of would-be escapees. “The skin on the victims’ faces eventually came undone and nothing remained of their clothing but a few bloody shreds,” Kang would later describe it. “I had the strange feeling of being swallowed up in a world where the earth and sky had changed places.”
As the years passed, Kang became a resourceful survivor. He learned to eat wild salamanders in a single swallow and catch rats with a lasso he designed out of wire. Their meat sustained him and several family members on the verge of starvation through winters at subzero temperatures. Continued