A Grain of Rice Is Greater than the Earth

On May 20, three months after being placed in Pyongyang Prison, I was moved to Heungnam Prison. I felt indignation on the one hand, and also ashamed before Heaven. I was tied to a thief, though, so I could not escape. We were taken by vehicle on a route that took 17 hours. As I looked out the window, a powerful feeling of grief welled up inside me. It seemed incredible to me that I would have to travel this winding road along rivers and through valleys as a prisoner.

Heungnam Prison was, in fact, a concentration camp for special laborers working in the Heungnam Nitrogen Fertilizer Factory. During the next two years and five months, I underwent hard compulsory labor in this place. Compulsory labor was a practice that began in Russia. The Soviet government could not simply kill members of the bourgeoisie and other people who were not Communist, because the world was watching and they needed to be mindful of world opinion. So they invented the punishment of compulsory labor. People who were exploited in this way were forced to continue working until they died of exhaustion. North Korean Communists copied the Russian system, and sentenced all prisoners to three years of compulsory labor. In reality, the prisoners would die from the labor before their terms were up.

As prisoners, our days began at 4:30 in the morning. We were made to line up in formation on the field, and our bodies and clothing were inspected for contraband items. We took off all our clothing, and each item was thoroughly inspected. Each piece of clothing would be beaten for so long that even the last speck of dust would not remain. The entire process took at least two hours. Heungnam was on the sea coast, and in the winter the wind was as painful as a knife as it cut into our naked bodies. When the inspection was over, we would be fed an awful meal. Then we would walk the 4-km distance to the fertilizer factory. We were marched four abreast, were made to hold the hand of the person next to us and could not even hold our heads up. Guards armed with rifles and pistols surrounded us. Anyone who caused his row to start falling behind, or failed to hold on to the hand of the person next to him, was beaten severely for trying to escape.

In winter, the snow would be deeper than a person's height. On cold winter mornings when we were marched through snow as deep as we were tall, my head would start feeling as though it was spinning. The frozen road was extremely slippery, and the cold wind blew so ferociously it made the hair on our heads stand up straight We had no energy, even after eating breakfast, and our knees kept collapsing beneath us. Still, we had to make our way to the job site, even if it meant dragging our exhausted legs along the way. As I made my way along this road that took us to the edge of consciousness, I kept reminding myself that I belonged to Heaven.

At the factory, there was a mound of a substance that we referred to in a shorthand way as "ammonia." In reality, it was almost certainly ammonium sulfate, a common form of fertilizer. It would come in by conveyor belt, and it looked like a white waterfall as it fell off the belt onto the mound below. It was quite hot when if first came off the belt, and fumes rose from it even in the middle of winter. Soon, though, it would cool and would become as solid as ice. Our job was to dig the fertilizer out from the mound with shovels and put it into straw bags. We referred to this mound that was over 20 meters high as "the fertilizer mountain." Eight hundred to 900 people were digging away at the fertilizer in a large space, making it appear as though we were trying to cut the mountain in half. We were organized in teams of ten, and each team was responsible to create and load 1,300 bags a day. So each person had to create 130 bags. If a team failed to meet its quota, its meal rations were cut in half, so everyone worked as if their lives depended on making the quota. In an effort to help us carry the bags of fertilizer as efficiently as possible, we made needles out of steel wire, and used these to help us tie the bags after they had been filled. We would put a piece of wire on a rail track that ran along the floor of the factory. The wire was flattened by having one of the small rail cars used for hauling materials run over it, and then it could be used as a needle. To open holes in the bags, we used shards of glass that we got by breaking factory windows. The guards must have felt sorry to sec their prisoners working under harsh conditions, because they never stopped us from breaking windows in the factory. Once, I broke a tooth while trying to cut a piece of wire. Even now, you can see that one of my front teeth is broken. This remains with me as an unforgettable memento from the Heungnam Prison.

Everyone grew thin under the pressure of the hard labor. I was the exception. I was able to maintain my weight at 72 kg, making me an object of envy for the other prisoners. I always excelled in physical strength. On one occasion, though, I became extremely ill with symptoms similar to tuberculosis, I had these symptoms for nearly a month. 1 did not miss even a day of work at the factory, however. I knew that if I were absent, other prisoners would be held responsible for my share of the work. People called me "man like a steel rod," because of my strength, I could endure even the most difficult work. Prison and compulsory labor were not such a big problem for me. No matter how fierce the beating or terrible the environment, a person can endure if he carries a definite purpose in his bosom.

Prisoners were also exposed to sulfuric acid, which was used in the manufacture of ammonium sulfate. When I worked at the Kawasaki steel mill in Japan, 1 witnessed several instances where a person cleaning vats used to store sulfuric acid had died from the effects of acid poisoning. The situation in Heungnam was far worse. Exposure to sulfuric acid was so harmful that it would cause hair loss and sores on our skin that oozed liquid. Most people who worked in the factory would begin vomiting blood and die after about six months. We would wear rubber pieces on our fingers for protection, but the acid would quickly wear through these. The acid fumes would also eat through our clothing, making them useless, and our skin would break and bleed. In some cases, bone would become visible. We had to continue working, without so much as a day's rest, even when our sores were bleeding and oozing puss.

Our meal rations consisted of less rice than it took to fill two small bowls. There were no side dishes, but we were given a soup that was radish greens in salt water. The soup was so salty it made our throats bum, but the rice was so hard we couldn't eat it without washing it down with the soup. No one ever left even a single drop of the soup. When we received our bowl of rice, prisoners would put all the rice into their mouths at once. Having eaten their own rice, they would look around, stretching their necks sometimes to watch how the others ate. Sometimes someone would put their spoon in someone else's soup bowl, and there would be a fight. One minister who was with me in Heungnam once said to me, "Let me have just one bean, and I will give you two cows after we get out of here." People were so desperate that if a prisoner died at meal time, the others would dig out any rice still in his mouth and eat it themselves.

The pain of hunger can only be known by those who have experienced it When a person is hungry, a mere grain of rice becomes very precious. Even now, it makes me tense just to think of Heungnam. It's hard to believe that a single grain of rice can give such stimulation to the body, but when you are hungry you have such a longing for food that it makes you cry. When a person has a full stomach, the world seems big, but to a hungry person a grain of rice is bigger than the Earth. A grain of rice takes on that much value to someone who is hungry. Beginning with my first day in prison, I made it a habit to take half of my ration of rice and give it to my fellow prisoners, keeping only half for myself. I trained myself this way for three weeks, and then ate the whole ration. This made me think that I was eating enough rice for two people, and it made it easier to endure the hunger. Prison life is so terrible that it cannot even be imagined by someone who has not experienced it Half the prisoners would die within a year, so every day we had to watch as dead bodies were carried out the back gate on a wooden slab. We would work so hard, and our only hope for leaving was as a dead body on that wooden slab. Even for a merciless and cruel regime, what they did to us clearly went beyond all boundaries of humanity. All those bags of fertilizer filled with the tears and grief of the prisoners were loaded on to ships and taken to Russia.