North Korea’s ‘Papillon’

When I was a boy, I devoured the great work of escape fiction, Papillon, which chronicled the astonishing life of Henri Charriere. The French courts sent Charriere to a series of penal colonies off the coast of South America, for a crime he didn’t commit. Nicknamed Papillon (butterfly) for the tattoo on his chest, Charriere managed to break out of several prisons, including a harrowing escape on a raft of coconuts from the virtually inescapable Devil’s Island.

Kim Yong has accomplished a similar feat. Camp #14 is North Korea’s version of Devil’s Island, a penal colony where the convicts go in and never leave. They spend years underground mining coal in unspeakable conditions with nowhere near enough food to survive. But, like Papillon, Kim managed to escape and tell his tale. It is now available in English as Long Road Home (Columbia University Press, 2009).

Also like Papillon, Kim Yong was an innocent man. Before his interrogation and sentencing, he had been at the top of the North Korean elite. As a lieutenant colonel, he negotiated hard currency deals for North Korean exports like pine mushrooms and seafood. Only when he began to dig into his past did he discover the buried secret that would be his undoing.

Kim had been adopted as a young boy by a high-ranking couple following Kim Il Sung’s directive to take care of Korean War orphans. They raised him in what passes for North Korean luxury: “There was no shortage of anything in the new household. Plenty of everything. Plenty of food, plenty of toys, plenty of clothes, and plenty of well-to-do guests poured in. All the guests brought something for us children — sweets, pocket money, and other things — while they asked our parents for favors: to recommend their sons and daughters for a promotion in the party, to hire their relatives at the department store, to secure goods from the department store for them, et cetera.” This finely-tuned system of favors and bribes would be Kim’s saving and undoing.

A true believer, Kim went to Revolutionary School where he did much better at judo than his academic studies. Thanks to his athletic skills, he joined the Army’s judo team and quickly rose through the ranks. But he had a fatal curiosity about his origins: who were his real father and mother?

Eventually tracking down his birth mother, Kim finally heard his family story. The North Korean authorities had executed his father after the Korean War for collaboration with the enemy. This had marked the entire family as suspect. His mother made the wise but heartbreaking choice to send her youngest child to an orphanage to protect him from North Korea’s system of generational guilt.

Although his uncle and mother did their best to obscure Kim’s origins, the security police ultimately ferreted out this information, ironically during a routine background check for a plum promotion. Kim Yong was a completely indoctrinated member of the elite who labored intensively in volunteer construction projects, served faithfully in the army, and gifted Kim Il Sung with hundreds of thousands of dollars in export revenues. None of this mattered. His father’s guilt was his guilt. He was arrested, interrogated, and tortured. If he had confessed, he would have been executed. But he clung to his innocence. And was sent to Camp #14 for what was supposed to have been the rest of his life.

The years he spent at the camp defy the imagination. Fed a handful of boiled corn kernels and wheat and forced to work for more than 12-hour shifts, Kim became one of the Muselmanner, what the Nazi’s called the “walking dead” of the concentration camps. He tried to commit suicide, but failed. He dreamed of escape, but it seemed impossible. He witnessed beatings and executions. He ate anything to survive: rats, grasshoppers, lice. His sentence coincided with the worst of North Korea’s famine. So it is even more remarkable that he managed to cling to life.

He was lucky to be transferred one day to a nearby camp, #18, where life was somewhat more bearable. There, he was reunited with his real mother. The workday was somewhat shorter, it was somewhat easier to scavenge food, and his mother set aside a portion of her ration for him.

Then, one day, he discovered an unexpected hiding place at the bottom of a coal car. He could just squeeze into the space and, propping open the hatch with a lump of coal, survive the compression of all the freight that would be piled on top. He was transported out of Camp #18 in a kind of coffin. Kim’s knowledge of North Korea and his many connections, accumulated during a lifetime of wheeling and dealing, stood him in good stead once he was out of the labor camp. But to get to safety, out of North Korea to South Korea through Mongolia, he needed the help of many, many people.

Like Papillon, Kim Yong had to make multiple escapes. He endured unbelievable suffering. And today, resettled in the United States, he retells his story and campaigns against North Korean human rights abuses.

Kim Yong’s story is a reminder of the brutality of the North Korean regime. It is also a reminder that these atrocities, like those on Devil’s Island, take place far from the lives of average people. Estimates vary, but less than one percent of the North Korean population labors in these camps. In the United States, approximately one percent of the population is behind bars, but most people go about their lives without a thought of the penal system. The conditions are not comparable, of course, nor are the penal systems. But North Korea is not Cambodia under Pol Pot where the entire population was in one form of penal servitude or another. Do not underestimate the capacity of average people to ignore injustice masquerading as justice.

Those of us who support engagement with North Korea must come to terms with stories like Kim Yong’s. We must have no illusions about the North Korean system. We support political engagement with Pyongyang because we believe there is no other feasible alternative. We hope that we can help improve the lives of the majority of North Koreans — through humanitarian aid and investment. And we hope, eventually, to help those who are still in the labor camps. Sanctioning the regime and further isolating it only encourages hard-line policies in Pyongyang.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Let me amend that slightly. The test of a first-rate policy toward North Korea is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time — the horror of the labor camps and the imperative of political engagement — and still retain the ability to function.

John Feffer is co-director of the Foreign Policy In Focus project at the Institute for Policy Studies.