A young man who spent ten years of his youth in a North Korean prison camp tells the story of his life before his family’s arrest, of his dreary years of imprisonment, of his release, and of his perilous escape through China to South Korea.
Rigoulot speaks only in the introduction, where he declares that this is “the first detailed testimony about a North Korean prison camp to be published in the West.” And a chilling testimony it is. With his family in Pyongyang, Chol-hwan was living fairly well, by North Korean standards. His principal childhood interest was tropical fish—at one time he had ten aquariums lining the walls of his room. After an interlude for some family history and a description of daily life in Korea, Chol-hwan reports the ominous disappearance of his grandfather in 1977 when the author was only nine. The old man had been guilty of some vague treason against what is portrayed as a quintessentially paranoid government. A few weeks later, four security agents appeared, helped themselves to most of the family’s possessions, and then sent virtually the entire family off to the mountainous Yodok prison camp. Only the mother was spared: her family had a “heroic” background. In remarkably serene prose, Chol-hwan describes the deprivations and horrors he and his loved ones experienced for the next ten years, including living in fetid quarters, dressing in rags, suffering continual humiliations and beatings, eating salamanders (raw) and rats (cooked), working in brutal conditions, and witnessing numerous executions—almost always for attempted escapes. An enterprising and strong boy, Chol-hwan learned the ropes and how to twirl them and so managed to survive and even to feel some sorrow at leaving his friends when, unexpectedly, the authorities released his entire family. The final third of the narrative deals with the author’s reintegration into North Korean society and his eventual escape to the south.
Displays little art or artifice but freezes the heart and seizes the soul.