The 140 days of waiting ended Wednesday morning, August 5, when American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee descended the steps of a private plane at the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. They narrowly escaped a 12-year sentence to hard labor in one of North Korea’s labor camps. Having been convicted in June, the two women received amnesty a day after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il met with former President Bill Clinton.
However, says Kim Suk-Young, an associate professor of arts and theater at UC Santa Barbara, the journalists’ imprisonment is only a chip off the mountainous history of North Korea’s human rights violations.
In her new book, released last June, Long Road Home: Testimony of a North Korean Camp Survivor, Kim Suk-Young tells the harrowing story of a North Korean man, Kim Yong, whose father’s secret past as a spy condemned him to a labor camp. The practices in such camps, she says, result in “slow death.”
Kim Yong worked 17-hour days in a coal mine 2,400 feet below ground, and was rationed only three handfuls of salty corn and a bowl of watery soup daily, according to Kim Suk-Young. “They have to eat anything that’s alive-rats, mice, sometimes human flesh,” said Kim Suk-Young of the labor camps. “If you don’t do that then you will die of starvation sooner or later.”
Before entering camp, Kim Yong lived a life of privilege and peace as a devoted husband and lieutenant colonel in North Korea’s National Security Agency (NSA). In 1993, he was looking at a promotion to colonel. But after a background check found that his father had been a spy for the United States during the North Korean War, executed before Kim Yong could remember, the young lieutenant was sent to Camps 14 and 18 by Kim Jong-il. Yong spent six years between the camps before fleeing.
Based on several interviews with Yong that began fall 2005-one of which lasted 20 hours over four days-Kim Suk-Young describes the former prisoner’s determination to escape the camp’s drudgery and dangers. Trekking through China, Mongolia, and South Korea to the United States, he became Camp 14’s first known-and Camp 18’s only-survivor, according to this account.
Kim Suk-Young first met Yong at a conference on North Korean human rights, in November 2004, where Kim Yong was the guest speaker. Kim Suk-Young, who was then teaching at Dartmouth College, said she was both “shocked and moved,” and told her students that atrocities in a league with the Holocaust still haunt our times.
“We somehow tend to perceive [the Holocaust] as this absolute past that is over and has no kind of immediate resonance or reference point in our time,” said Kim Suk-Young. “But it’s happening as we speak, and that was very shocking; it’s why I decided to write a book about [Kim Yong’s] story.”
Kim Suk-Young said conditions Ling and Lee endured were nowhere near as brutal. She said this is probably due in no small part to the intense publicity their case received. “From what I can tell, they were treated very well by the North Koreans,” said Kim Suk-Young. “They were placed in a guest house facility run by the state, which is very nice from what I hear, some say it’s even better than hotels.”
And even if they had been placed in a labor camp, said Kim Suk-Young, they would have been placed in a “showcase” facility and treated as foreigners, instead of enemies of the state. “[Kim Jong Il] was going to use them as a bargaining chip, so he had no reason to treat them badly,” said Kim Suk-Young.
But although human rights violations undoubtedly serve as the cornerstone for the book, and are the primary concern of co-author Kim Yong, Kim Suk-Young said she wanted to give a “broader perspective” of North Korean life.
“[Yong’s] very proactive in terms of promoting how international and national communities should condemn North Korean for human rights abuse,” said Kim Suk-Young. “While I fully agree, I have a mission to tell my readers that North Korea is also a very complicated place.”
Though she grew up in South Korea with what she called a “strict anti-communist education,” Kim Suk-Young said she believes that her cousins to the north share common values of family and education, and she wanted to show this by illustrating Kim Yong’s adolescent years in her book.
“We tend to think of North Korea as this sort of hell on earth,” said Kim Suk-Yong. “But that’s not the entirety of life going on there.”
Constructed as a narrative spanning 50 years of Yong’s life, Kim Suk-Young begins by giving the survivor’s family history, describing his placement in orphanage at the age of three, and his joining the NSA and rising in its ranks. Yong even went on to become vice president of a trading company under the auspices of the NSA.
Kim Suk-Young is currently anticipating the release of her latest book, Illusive Utopia, in May 2010. That book, she said, discusses how North Korean theater, film, and everyday performance “mobilizes” and educates people.