“If I had devoted the passion I had when I joined the Labor Party to self-development…”
“The great leader’s authority must be protected and preserved by all means available.” The 10 Principles clause I memorized when I joined the Labor Party is still vivid in my eyes.
In South Korea, every year on October 10th (the anniversary date of the North Korean Labor Party) I am reminded of how I scrambled about to win my Labor Party membership in North Korea. I am not alone in this sentiment, as I believe my fellow defectors who were also formerly Labor Party members are in agreement with me. This day evokes a bittersweet feeling for us, former party members.
It is because all the time, effort, and faith it took to have the honor of being a party member proved to be in vain. Generally, for those who became party members upon the completion of 10 years of military service, the prime of their youth was spent worthlessly while crying out “safeguard the great leader!”
Such heart and soul was poured out for the sake of attaining a party membership and yet, there must be many besides myself who buried that certificate underneath a pine tree near home. For me, who joined the party on October 10, 1980, during the 6th Congress of the Labor Party, my feelings come flooding back to me on this day.
To me, the party membership was hard earned through 10 years of lying on the frozen ground holding a gun to my chest. It was also something that caused the destruction of my family, as I was relocated to the coal mines after being discharged from military service.
Since coming to South Korea, what preoccupies my mind is the thought that, “If I had known about freedom a little sooner, and if I had devoted the passion for party membership to self-development, then I would be much better off.”
Even now, when I see students on the streets with their book bags brimming with intellectual appetite, I cannot help but envy them. I wonder “how happy they must be who have the freedom to learn,” and I cannot hide my regret.
Coming to South Korea at the age of 43, I was much too old to be learning and had to give up going to college. In South Korean society where a university diploma is essential, I thought that the only place I could work was in a factory or doing menial services. With an education from North Korea, where Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s revolutionary history takes up half of the curriculum, there is not much one can do in an information and knowledge-oriented society.
Every time I see famous South Korean professors and scholars around my age standing behind a university pulpit, I am filled with envy; my heart sinks filled with a sense of despair as I count all that I have lost.
Gazing into my former post from the “Victory Observatory”
I enlisted in the army when I was 17 years old. I started and ended my military career at Cheorwon-gun, Yujeong-ri, the front checkpoint of the military demarcation line where the First Corps of the North Korean army was stationed. When I arrived in South Korea, the first place I visited was the “Victory Tower” in Cheorwon-gun, Gangwon-do district. I climbed onto the platform and I gazed into my past guard post. I saw the sinuous ravine that swallowed up my youth along with 10 years of sweat and devotion to gain the party membership.
Winter and summer trainings were a given, we were also expected to raise hundreds of rabbits and clean the yard; there was no distinction between lofty and dirty tasks. My sole purpose was to become a Labor Party member and return to my hometown.
As a result, I received my Commanding General Commendation Award and was given a Level 1 Warriors Medal of Honor. It was most gratifying when I was the first among my peers to ascend to party membership. The first night I held the party certificate in my arms, I was so overwhelmed with a sense of accomplishment that I lay in bed the whole night thinking how “I finally met my parents’ expectations.”
My father, who had enlisted in the army during the Korean War and gone all the way to the Nakdong River, had been a dedicated party member working diligently for the North Korean regime. The day I came out of the army, my father taught me, “Hyeong-sik, you must join the Labor Party if you want to live like a man. You must be faithful to the party and obey the great leader in order to find fulfillment in life.”
During my service in the military, every mail that my parents wrote me instructed me to “listen to superior officers and join the Labor Party.” As I fulfilled my father’s such wishes and hopes well, there was nothing else I wanted.
At that time, the measure of success in North Korea was first, becoming Labor Party member; second, going to college; third, becoming a schoolmaster; and finally, rising in rank. Because of this mindset, both boys and girls alike served in the military for the purpose of gaining party membership. Only after joining the Party could you be appointed as a leader somewhere and then your future was secure. If you were a North Korean citizen, becoming a Labor Party member was almost a rite of passage that you strived for, and non-partisans were treated like animals without human function.
In South Korea where there is political freedom, people choose party membership based on personal preference, but this is not the case in North Korea. As the Labor Party is the only political party in North Korea, the Party commands all activities within the society.
The Labor Party has absolute control over the economy, military, social organizations, and all other aspects of the society at large. Within every organization there is a Labor Party Committee that holds more power than the de facto head of the group; this allows the party to micromanage all activities of any organization.
Hence, the authority of a Party Committee Secretary is very strong and it is a position that nearly everyone covets. Political power is the sole determinant of wealth and honor. Non-party members have no choice but to live as a laborer or a peasant farmer. In no case has a non-partisan become an operations lieutenant or even a cellular secretary.
Since the mid-1990s, the party membership started to take a back seat to wealth, but at that time you could only marry if you were a party member. When looking for a spouse, women ranked men in the order of party membership, military service, and college diploma.
When non-party members are dating socially and they are asked about party membership, the men are at a loss of words and often make the half-truth half-jest joke of “I joined the party on a rainy day.” (It is a play on words. 비당 (bidang) means “not a member of the party” but 비 (bi), by itself, means rain.)
Caught in Kim Jong-il’s ‘Policy Discharge’ and sent to the coal mine
I was off to a good start joining the Labor Party, and all was going well in my life until 1987, when I was caught in the ‘policy discharge.’ The ‘policy discharge’ signified ambiguous discharge from the army to be sent wherever Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il decided.
According to what I heard, Kim Jong-il was directing in the field at the Anju Coal Mines and asked, “Why are we not mining any coal?” and the coal mine workers answered, “We don’t have enough people to mine the coals.”
Kim Jong-il replied, “Fine, I will send you 10,000 discharged soldiers, so increase the coal production,” and thus people my age were taken out of the army under the “policy discharge” and sent to work the coal mines.
After receiving the discharge order under the “policy discharge” I did not think that coal mining work would be all that difficult. I, along with 500 others my age, was sent to Pyeongnam Deokcheon mines.
As we were welcomed into the coal village and the coal cave, I was struck dumb. The entire coal mining village was black and tiny cottages lined the mountainside, looking around I wondered in disappointment, “Am I going to become a mole here?”
To record our party affiliation, we went to meet the secretary in charge of the coal mine who patted our backs and remarked, “We must go through thick and thin to obey the party’s calling.”
After about 3 months of working as a drilling technician, one day I came across very disappointing news. All of the Pyongyang municipality officer’s sons and Pyeongnam province executive committee officer’s children used college as an excuse to leave the coal mines. I asked my fellow comrades and it turned out that all of them left for college. The ‘policy discharge’ follows Kim Jong-il’s orders and therefore no one is allowed to evade it, even the leader who helped release those persons could be punished. It angered me to hear that those kids who were loitering instead of working had become “exemplary coal miners’ and left for college.
At the turn of the 1990’s, there was a succession of fatal accidents at the coal mines due to outdated drilling equipment and poor mining facilities. Also, the rice supply was interrupted. I thought spending 10 years defending a country and then being relocated to the coal mines was bad enough, but I began thinking that I could die any day now. I could not bear the thought of rotting my life away in the mines. The children of the elite used their parents’ power to easily escape, while the children of laborers without extra money or connections were left to suffer. I was filled from head to toe with indignation.
Burying my Party certificate underneath a pine tree near home
I went to the Party Committee and asked to be sent home. Then the party instructor labeled me a ‘policy derelict’ (a person who does not fulfill his duties and fails to comply with party policies) and scolded me at a full staff meeting.
Usually ‘policy derelicts’ fittingly endure tough penalties and banishment, but at the coal mines there was no worse place for us to be sent. After working for a month, I entered an indefinite endurance mode.
Using my headache as an excuse, I stayed in the hospital for 3 months. If you can get a patient certificate, then you are listed as a socially protected person, which allows you to avoid going back to the coal mines. But such a certificate is impossibly difficult to obtain. I tried laying sick for 6 months in the hospital ward, but I was never given the prized title.
Even if I wanted to quit my job and leave, I wavered because I could not get my party registration released. I had to continue work, but being employed meant living by the rules of the organization. If I did not do either of these things, then people from the law enforcement agency could arrest me and sentence me to forced labor. This is how the North Korean authorities keep the citizens under the reigns of organizational life and manage them under the system.
Even if I wanted to switch jobs, the biggest hassle would be regarding the party registration. The Party Committee does not remove registered party members. So the 10 years of my youth that I dedicated to earn a party membership proved to be a lasso that tied me up like cattle. If a party member is not active in the party’s affairs for a fortnight, then the membership is automatically cancelled according to regulation.
Towards the end of 1995, dozens of people died from suffocation during a gas explosion in the pit. I decided that there was no future for me there, so I abandoned everything, including my party registration, and I returned to my home town of Onseonggun in North Hamgyong province.
Not long after I returned home, the police started monitoring me saying that I violated policy and escaped. With no hope left in North Korea, I made up my mind to escape north to China.
The day I left, I took the once desired party certificate in my arms and climbed the mountain behind my village. I searched my conscience once more and thought about what I was doing. “What is a Party member? Isn’t it merely a pawn that supports the dictator? Why am I so hung up on this party member certificate?” Upon confirming my conviction, I dug under a pine tree and buried the party certificate. I buried my youth and my past, along with the certificate. In a carefree spirit, I left for China the next day.
My first 500 Won (about .50 USD) in two years, ‘a citizen without a state is worse than a beast’
On the day of my departure, I promised my wife and then three-year-old daughter that I would return after making some money and asked them to wait for me. Because of the unfamiliar route, I decided that it would be better if I left alone and settled down in China, instead of traveling together from the beginning and having to worry about various trials along the way. I begged them to stay alive until I came back for them.
I climbed Mount Wangjae all day and memorized the path, including the locations of the border guards’ posts. The Tumen River usually thawed in late March, and it felt immensely cold on my skin. The moment I entered the water it felt like my heart stopped, and because the current was fast I slipped and went drifting down the river.
I was drifting with all of my clothes on and I helter-skelter made it to China’s side of the river bank. As I exited the water, my whole body was beginning to freeze. My teeth were chattering and I thought that I would freeze to death, so I recklessly went into a random Chinese person’s house.
With help from a Chinese couple, I barely managed to change my clothes and headed north without destination. I arrived in one of the rural villages of Wangqing County.
I started farming. The Korean-Chinese landlord and I agreed that I would receive 2,000 Yuen (around 260,000 Korean Won) a year for cultivating 7 divisions of land.
Different from North Korea where we could not even eat afford to eat corn and porridge, in China I could eat all the rice I wanted. But making money proved to be very difficult. Some Chinese take advantage of North Korean escapees’ lack of legal status to manipulate us into laboring without pay.
At the start of my 3 years in China, I told my landlord that I wished to return home and asked for my pay. He replied that if I worked one more year he would give me 6,000 Yuen all at once and he planned to keep me for another year. The landlord did not like to do manual labor and he was a swindler who spent his time playing mah-jong and gambling.
The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that I would not get any money from this man who was always running from debt. I told him, “Sir, my family in the North is dying of hunger , please settle my account so I can go see them.”
A citizen without a state is worse off than a beast; I could not even raise my voice as a stranger in a foreign country. Even a small dispute with the landlord could result in imprisonment on grounds of public safety. I lied that I would come back next year and I barely got 500 Yuen (RMB) and left for home after two full years.
Broken family, dragged to labor training camp
With the thought that at least I can feed my family, I opened the door to my home but to my dismay I found out my mother who had been longing for me died a year ago, and my wife and only child had disappeared to somewhere.
“I am a worthless man! I could not even care for my family, why did I even get married?”
I hurriedly began traversing the entire country looking for my abandoned family. Some friends mentioned seeing my wife in Sunchon, Pyeongnam province and others said she was selling rice in Hanghae province.
Sunchon station, Hamheung station, I searched thoroughly anywhere my wife could possibly be. I looked through Camp 9.27 (꽃제비labor camp)’s record books meticulously, but among all of the little children, how could I possibly find my own daughter?
I took my defeated heart and turned back for home. Not long after I returned home, my door swung open and the village security agent came in.
“Hey, Hyungsik! Long time no see. Where have you been all this time?” The instructor’s eyes told me he already knew that I had gone over to China.
I explained that I went to the sea to find shellfish. When I returned, my wife was gone so I have been going around looking for her. When I finished presenting my case, the instructor recklessly dragged me to the agency’s detention center.
I don’t know how but there, they knew intimately everything from where I was for the past 2 years, when I crossed the Tumen River, and when I returned to North Korea.
The more I held out, the more I thought I would suffer at the detention center; they were not going to let me go easily.
I finally answered, “I went to Wangqing, China to make some money, but I barely made 300 Yuen and came back.” The instructor asked me if I had met any Koreans who had gone to China, if I had attended church, etc. They seemed to have believed my claim that I had only farmed, and they transferred me to the security division. While I was being interrogated at the agency, my self-criticism report became quite thick.
I was investigated for another 3 months at the security division and then sent to the labor training camp. After 6 months of physical labor, I was released only after writing an oath to never enter China again.
‘My daughter, please be alive’
When I reappeared in society, my friends kept their distance from me and the town labeled me “traitor of the fatherland’ and started monitoring me. My party membership was expectedly cancelled as a result of my 2 year absence. The Party’s cell secretary even notified me to hand over my party certificate to the party committee.
Being alone at home, thinking about the loss of my wife and child drove me crazy. I kept imagining my precious daughter crying from hunger.
It became too difficult to live in my own hometown, let alone North Korea. Hence, I made my second escape to China. This time I decided my final destination would be South Korea, so I first went to the city of Yanji. I was making money and studying the Bible, waiting for the right time to go to the South.
About 2 months later, I found a missionary team that was leading escapees into third countries. From China, we boarded a train to Thailand, in Thailand we made our way to the South Korean Embassy, then on to the defector’s asylum; we were living abroad just like in the movies.
When I finally boarded a plane bound for South Korea, the moment the plane took off, I felt a certain terror, as though my body was floating mid-air, and tears started gushing out of my eyes. It was so difficult. And it was so unfair. What did we do so wrong that we had to lose our family and live this life of a slave?
However, my mind was also relieved to put all the suffering aside and start a new life as a new person in a land of the free.
Some of my friends consoled me saying, “Work hard in South Korea, make good money, and you can find your wife and daughter again.”
My first 3 years in South Korea I lived very resolutely. I did everything I could to make money. From working at a construction site to sweeping and handing out flyers, there is not much I have not done. Meanwhile, I paid someone to check out my house in North Korea to see if my wife had returned.
I am incredibly sorry to my wife who only found trouble and pain after meeting me. This is why I want to bring her to South Korea and feed, dress, and support her properly. Unfortunately, I still do not know where my wife is. It has been nearly 8 years since I last saw her, and it is doubtful that she is even alive.
At the time of our marriage, my wife regarded me with such respect for being a party member. She entrusted her life to me but I failed to take care of her. Even now when I see South Korean children, I think of my daughter and my heart is heavy with sorrow. “If my daughter was alive, she would be about that age… please don’t die, please be alive…” I often pray these prayers in my mind.
So when October 10th rolls around, I am all the more reminded of my party certificate.
Heo Young-sik (Age 43, year of entry 2003)
Translated by Sooyeon Kang / Edited by Jeesoo Nam