(38) Kang Chol-hwan: harbinger of N. Korean defectors
By Andrei Lankov
The North Korean resistance movement does not have many recognizable faces. This is understandable: a really brutal dictatorship would not allow any dissenter to stay alive. The fact that dissent was possible in Brezhnev’s Russia and, for that matter in Park Chung-hee’s South Korea, is yet another reminder that these two dictators were softies if compared to really serious practitioners of the craft ― like the hereditary dictators of the Kim family in the North
One of the few who can be seen as a spokesman for the North Korean pro-democracy movement is Kang Chol-hwan, the first escapee from a North Korean concentration camp to make it to the South and speak of his gruesome experiences to the general public.
His fate is all the more dramatic because his imprisonment was not his own fault ― he was only nine years old when he was sent to prison with his entire family. Until quite recently, the family responsibility principle was a peculiar feature of the North Korean prison system. In case of a political crime, not just the culprit but all members of their immediate family were to be shipped to concentration camps. This is one of many cases when North Korea proved itself to be more Stalinist than Stalin’s Russia. Under Stalin, only adult family members of the most significant victims of the purge were sent to the camps, while under Kim Il-sung this was a standard procedure, applied even to families of relatively minor political criminals, with no exception made for small children.
Kang was born in 1968 into the family of then recent returnees from Japan. In the 1930s and early 1940s, a large number of Koreans moved to Japan in search of a better life or were forcibly sent there as part of labor mobilization programs. Among these people were his grandparents.
In due time, his grandfather was remarkably successful, becoming one of the most affluent Koreans in the Osaka area. Meanwhile, Kang’s grandmother became a prominent political activist. Like the majority of politically active Koreans in Japan at the time, she became a prominent member of “Chongryon,” or the General Association of Koreans in Japan. This was (and still is) an openly pro-Pyongyang group whose members are technically citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea’s official name). It was also assumed that eventually all members of Chongryon would be repatriated from Japan.
Kang’s grandmother was full of political fervor and revolutionary enthusiasm and so she pushed her husband into joining the repatriation movement. Kang’s grandfather was not especially political but bowed to the pressure of his beloved and charismatic wife and was repatriated to North Korea in 1961.
For a brief while, the family enjoyed what in North Korea would be seen as a life of extreme luxury by the standards of the time. Kang’s grandfather worked as an advisor in one of the state’s foreign trade companies. The family had a nice four-bedroom apartment and a private car (roughly as common in the North Korea of the time as private jets are in the United States today).
However, on one July day in 1977, Kang’s grandfather did not come home from work. He was never seen again and to date nothing is known about his ultimate fate. He was accused of treason but it seems that it was his hyperactive and activist wife who was the root cause of the problem. Kang’s grandmother had reportedly had disagreements with some of the people who would go on to become top leaders of Chongryon and they eventually had their revenge.
What followed was standard procedure. Police came to the Kangs’ luxurious apartment and put the family of the traitor into a truck, which departed to Camp 15 at Yodok, the largest of the North Korean concentration camps, where the families of political prisoners have been since the late 1950s. Together with Kang, his sister, his grandmother, his father and his uncle were all sent there. Only Kang’s mother, being the daughter of a successful North Korean spy, was spared this fate.
As any other Stalinist state, North Korea has an extensive system of prison camps whose number of inmates was estimated to be some 150,000 in the early 1980s, and Camp 15 was the largest, with some 50,000 people living there.
What followed was a pretty standard experience of North Korean prison: hard labor, beatings and constant malnourishment. Sine Yodok is a relatively mild camp, a significant part of the inmates are allowed to live with their families, and the children are even attend prison schools where the teachers are security police officers. Until children turned 15, they had to spend mornings at school, and then work from 1 p.m. till dark. The adults ― everybody above the age of 15 ― had to report at work by 6 a.m. and work 12 hours or more for the allowance of 500 gram of corn. Occasionally, the prisoners were lucky to kill a rat or snake, which were the only source of animal protein in their diet.
Inmates talked of escape, but the attempts were rare and usually ended badly (no escapee of the pre-1980 period is known to survive to tell the story). Since an occasional public execution was an obligatory show in the camp, Kang saw a number of escapees being handed for their attempt. He witnessed 15 executions. In one case the condemned stole a large amount of corn, but all others were punished for an attempt to flee.
Release from the camp came in 1987, as suddenly and abruptly as the arrest itself. It is not known why they were granted this reprieve, but it seems that it was customary at the time to release families after the major culprit of the family was dead. As a former prisoner, not just Kang but also his children (if he had any) would face lifetime discrimination.
For a while, Kang was happy with his new circumstances. His father did not enjoy freedom for long and died soon after leaving the prison gates, but the family demonstrated a remarkable level of solidarity. Relatives in Japan were supportive as well, and sent money, so the family was soon able to enjoy a standard of living mildly affluent by the then North Korean standards (this did not mean there was no official discrimination). But very soon Kang was to find himself in trouble again.
It is seriously illegal in the North to listen to foreign radio broadcasts, but Kang’s experiences had made him highly skeptical of the official news, so he began to listen to South Korean and foreign broadcasts. His dangerous habits were discovered by the security police, but Kang, having been warned of the coming threat, ran away to China (back then this was much more difficult than it has become subsequently).
Eventually, with the help of some sympathetic Chinese, he reached the city of Qingdao, a relatively short boat ride away from South Korea. In late 1992, Kang finally arrived in the South, smuggled aboard a ship (in those days it was not an uncommon method of defection).
Defectors (refugees) then were a very rare species ― merely 625 people had managed to flee the North since the 1953 armistice until January 1992. Kang, with his experiences, was quite unusual even by the standards of this small group.
He wrote a book about his life, eventually published in English and French under the title “Aquariums of Pyongyang” ― arguably, the most influential and widely read book on North Korea so far. He also became the first North Korean to be employed as a journalist by a major South Korean newspaper ― he still is “Mr. North Korea” at the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s national daily. The book became an instant success and has arguably made Kang the best known (and intellectually most influential) of all North Korean defectors. He did not convert his fame into political prominence, however, but lives the life of a journalist and a human rights advocate in Seoul.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.