Heungnam Prison in the Snow

After food, the most valued possession in prison was a needle and thread. Our clothes would wear out and be torn during the hard labor, but it was difficult to get a needle and thread in order to mend them. After a while, prisoners began to look like beggars in their rags. It was particularly important to mend the holes in our clothes in order to block, even a little, the cold winter winds. For this, a small piece of cloth found lying on the road was extremely valuable. Even if the cloth were covered with cow dung, the prisoners would fight each other to try and pick it up. Once, as I was carrying the bags of fertilizer, I discovered a needle stuck in one of the bags. It must have been left there accidentally when the bag was made. From that time, I became the seamster of Heungnam Prison. It was such a joy to find that needle. Everyday, I would mend pants and knee breeches for other prisoners.

Even in the middle of winter, it was so hot inside the fertilizer factory that we would sweat. So you can imagine how unbearable it was during the summer. Not even once, however, did I roll up my pants and let my shins show. Even during the hottest part of the summer, I kept my pants legs tied in the traditional Korean fashion. Others would take off their pants and work in their underwear, but I kept myself properly dressed. When I finished work, our bodies would be covered with sweat and fertilizer dust, and most prisoners would take off their clothes and wash themselves in the filthy water that flowed from the factory. I, however, never washed myself where others could see my body. Instead, I would save half of the single cup of water we were rationed each day, then get up early in the morning while the others still slept to wipe myself off with a small piece of cloth dipped in that half cup of water. I also had the purpose of using this time to focus my spirit and pray, but I considered my body to be precious, and I didn't want to casually expose it to others.

The prison cell held 36 people, and my space was in a small corner next to the toilet. Fluid would overflow from the toilet in the summer, and it would freeze in the winter. It was the space that everyone avoided. We called it a toilet, but actually it was only a small earthenware jar without even a lid. There is no describing the incredible smell that came from it. The prisoners often experienced diarrhea, because of the salty soup with hard rice balls that we ate every day.

I would be sitting by the toiled and hear someone say, "Oh, my stomach." The person would make his way to the toilet in quick short steps. As soon as he exposed his buttocks, the diarrhea would come shooting out. Because I was next to the toilet, I was often splashed with watery feces. Even during the night, when everyone was asleep, sometimes someone would have abdominal pain. When I heard people yelping in pain as they were being stepped on, I would know that someone was making his way to the toilet and would get up and press myself against the corner. The person coming to the toilet wouldn't quite make it in time, and his diarrhea would start to flow even before he pulled his pants down. He had been holding it for a while, so it would come out with great force, and the pieces of shrapnel would be horrible. If I were asleep and not hear him coming, I would be covered by diarrhea where I lay. Still I kept the spot by the toilet as my own during the entire time. "Why do you choose to stay there," other prisoners would ask. I would answer, "This is where I feel most comfortable* I wasn't just saying this. This was, indeed, the place were my heart felt most at ease.

My opinion is that literature and art not something special. Anything that makes me feel an affinity of heart can be literature or art. If the sound of feces dropping into the toilet sounds beautiful and fun, then that is music. Also, the feces that splashed onto me as I lay next to the toilet could be a work of art, if I think of it that way.

My prisoner number was 596. People called me "Number five nine six." On nights when I couldn't sleep, I would stare at the ceiling and repeat this number to myself over and over. If I said it quickly, it sounded very much like, "eo-gul," the Korean word used to describe how a person feels when he has been treated unjustly. I truly had been imprisoned unjustly.

The Communist Party initiated dok-bo-hoi, or gatherings where newspapers or other material were read aloud as a way of studying Communist propaganda, and had us engage in self criticism. Also, the Security Detachment kept a close watch on our every move. Every day, we were told to write what we learned that day in the form of a self criticism, but I never wrote even a page of these. We were supposed to write something like this: "Our Father Kim II Sung, out of his love for.

us, gives us food to eat each day, give us meals with meat, and lets us lead such a wonderful life, and so I am grateful." I could not write anything of the sort. Even if I. were looking death in the face, I could not submit a self criticism to the atheistic Communist Party. Instead of writing a self criticism, I worked tens of times harder than the others in order to survive in the prison. The only way I could get away with not writing a self criticism was if I were the number one prisoner. Because of this effort, I became the best prisoner, and even received an award from a Communist Party official.

My mother visited me many times while I was in prison. There was no direct transportation from Jungju to Heungnam. She had to take a train to Seoul, where she would change to a train on the Seoul-to-Wonsan line. The trip would take her more than 20 hours, and so it was very difficult for her. Before starting out on a trip, she would go to great trouble to prepare mi-sut-karu, or powdered rice, so that her son, who had been imprisoned in the prime of his life, would have it to eat. To make this powder she would gather rice from our relatives, and even the distant relatives of my older sister's husbands. When she came to the prison visiting room, and would see me standing on the other side of the glass, she would immediately begin to shed tears. She was a strong woman, but the sight of her son undergoing such suffering made her weak.

My mother handed me the pair of silk trousers that I had worn on my wedding day. The prison uniform I was wearing had become threadbare and my skin showed through the material. I did not wear the silk trousers, however. Instead, I gave them to another prisoner. As for the mi-sut-karu that she had gone into debt in order to make for me, I gave it all away right there as she watched. My mother had invested her full heart and dedication to prepare clothing and food for her son, and when she saw me give away the trousers and the food without keeping anything for myself, she was heartbroken.

"Mother," I said to her, "I am not just the son of some man named Moon.

"Before I am a son of the Moon clan, I am a son of the Republic of Korea. And even before that I am a son of the world, and a son of heaven and earth. I think it is right for me to love those things first, and only after that follow your words and love you. I am not the son of some small-minded person. Please conduct yourself in a manner befitting your son." My words were as cold as ice to her, but it hurt so much to watch her weep that I felt as though my heart would be torn apart. I missed her so much that sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking of her, but this was all the more reason for me to be in control of my emotions and not become weak. I was a person doing the work of God. It was more important for me to clothe just one more person a little more warmly and to fill his stomach with a little more food than it was for me to be concerned about my personal relationship with my mother.

Even in prison, I enjoyed taking whatever time I could find to talk with people. There were always people around me who wanted to listen to what I had to say. Even in the hunger and cold of prison life, there was warmthm the sharing with people with whom I had an affinity of heart. The relationships formed in Heungnam left me with 12 people who were both compatriots and as close as family to me with whom I could spend the rest of my life. Among them was a famous minister who had served as president of the association of Christian churches in Koreas five northern provinces. These were people with whom I shared intense emotions in situations where our lives were on the line, and this made them closer to me than my own flesh and blood. Their being there gave my prison experience meaning. I would pray three times each day for the people who had helped me and for the members of my congregation in Pyongyang, calling out each one by name. When I did, I always felt that I needed to repay a thousand fold the people who would slip me a handful of mi-sut-karu they had hidden in their clothing.