Who Killed Geum-sook?
Half a year has already passed since I left North Korea. Thanks to the encouragement and support of the South Korean government and people, I am studying and living at Hanawon, which seems like a dream come true. For someone like me whose freedom was suppressed and who barely managed to survive with minimal subsistence, this place feels like heaven. But despite the difficulties and having lost so much in the North, I cannot help my affection and longing for my hometown. I grew up in a small farming village inland of the Yalu riverbank in the north. Long ago, this place used to be famous for its beautiful landscape and fertile soil, and people envied those who lived here. But now, both the people and the land feel abandoned and hurt. This is where I was born and raise. Aside from the time I spent for military service, I literally have not been anywhere else. I learned to farm here and I spent many years as a section manager (overseeing aspects of farm formation). People often try to preserve romanticized memories about their hometown. Despite the fact that I had no choice but to leave my homeland, I too want to decorate the notion of my hometown with pleasant memories. However, so many tragic events are embedded in my memories that it prevents me from doing so.
Among those, there is one instance in particular that I will never forget, which pertains to the bad fortune of a woman. What happened to this woman was devastating and I wonder if memories of her pierce my heart so much because traces of me have been intertwined into her short life. If she was alive today, she would be in her late thirties; she would be a simple and average farmer. Her name was Geum-sook. The first time I met her was when I was appointed to section manager and went for my first day of work. It was the break of dawn, some 5 years ago, when the chilly spring wind made the atmosphere cold and the mountains and hills were turning green as things were coming to life. “Comrades! In accordance with the high political confidence and consideration of the General and the Party whom we love and esteem, brother Gwang-myung who formerly worked in the Lee Youth League has been appointed the section manager of Class 1 Section 2. Comrades must actively obey the undertakings of the new section manager and make sure that this section is exemplary and in accordance with the desires of the Party.” The Party Secretary came and spoke to the work group for the inaugural announcement. With my sallow face, I looked around the room at the members; while paying particular attention to each person standing in front of me, I said, “I am young and inexperienced and need the help of my fellow comrades. I hope we can help and urge one another to work well together and make good progress.” Then we started taking attendance of the group. Out of 20 people, one was absent. I became quite furious thinking, “What kind of person doesn’t show up to greet the new section manager?” I asked out loud, “Why is this comrade missing?” “We think that she is very ill. The lady is absent quite frequently…” answered the oldest section member, Sun-ok. I furrowed my brow and asked Young-cheul, who acted as deputy section chief, to show me Geum-sook’s files. I was told that she did not have any reports on file. “How can you believe that someone is sick if there aren’t any medical notes? This is truancy. How can someone be truant in this busy farming season? Absence without leave! Be aware. As long as I am the section manager here, those who are absent without permission will not be forgiven. Remember the times we are in. We are in a crucial moment where it will be decided if we can protect our socialist system from the imperialists’ scheme of isolated assassination! How can you be loyal to the General and uphold the Red force if you lack the spirit of revolution? Let us all stand firm in our revolutionary resolve and devote ourselves to the fulfillment of our assigned revolutionary duty.” I was in the habit of inspiring youth alliance members with revolutionary words that these political statements came out of my mouth unchecked. The section members must have heard similar rhetoric a million times; they remained standing without any reaction. Thinking to myself that it would be difficult to govern these people, I gave the members their tasks for the day and sent them out to work. Then, I took Young-cheul with me and headed to Geum-sook’s house. I was determined to set a proper tone from the beginning. Behind the farm’s modern living quarters, there was a shabby house that looked unlivable for any human being. Geum-sook, who apparently couldn’t go to work because she was ill, was nowhere in sight and the entrance door was locked from the outside. I remembered what Sun-ok had said about Geum-sook missing work from time to time, and I became quite furious. “What kind of a person is this?” I asked Young-cheul. Young-cheul let out a sigh and answered, “Don’t be too outraged. If you know her story, it’s quite sad.” “Ever since Geum-sook was little, she and I lived in the same neighborhood. She had a kind heart and even worked hard. But she experienced a lot of hardships in life and both her body and mind became ill. To be frank, there are a lot of other members who don’t make it to work from time to time. Because the Party Secretary was bringing the new section manager today, everyone was forced to come to work. You saw the faces of the members today, was anyone full of energy? Most of the people are barely surviving off of porridge because of the lack of rations. It’s not going to be easy being their section leader.” Young-cheul took out some potent tobacco leaves from his tobacco pouch and started wrapping a cigarette for himself and offered me some as well. He began puffing the pungent and bitter fumes and continued his story, as if he was the one who had experienced it. “Geum-sook’s husband died in the reformation center. About 2 years ago, did you ever hear about Chae Myung-ho, who stood trial for stealing 2 bags of rice from the workroom?” I remembered. Kim Jong-il’s national policy was set to thoroughly eliminate any attempts to encroach on farm-products. A security decree announced that perpetrators would be executed by a firing squad in public. As a result, there were public executions in almost every city and county and a lot of people were taken to the reformation centers and labor camps. In our farm, Chae Myung-ho was made an example and received 3 years of imprisonment as his court sentence. Chae Myung-ho was Geum-sook’s husband… I had only known that Chae Myung-ho was a grain thief. I wanted to know more in detail about Geum-sook, who I would have to watch over in the workplace. “Please tell me more specifically. If Chae Myung-ho was stealing, then Geum-sook must have known what was going on. How come she did not stop him? It is said that clean begging is better than dirty stealing, how can he have committed such a folly? And it was said to be rice seeds. There’s a saying that farmers die but seeds first bud and then die; it is unforgivable for any farmer to steal seeds.” Without realizing it, I burst with fury. Young-cheul took a close look at my face with cautious eyes and replied, “If you had experienced the same thing, you wouldn’t just steal, you probably would rob someone as well.” “What do you mean? What kinds of things had happened to him?” I asked him seriously. “Something very sad. Chae Myung-ho and I were middle school classmates. After finishing school, he served in the army for 10 years. When he finally came back, there wasn’t a soul at home to greet him. He was an only child and his parents had starved to death during <the Arduous March>. Myung-ho had returned home, but he was so defeated that all he could do was cry. Having nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat, he wandered between his friend’s homes to sleep and he drank night and day to quell his bruised heart. The only person that showed sympathy and kindness to him was Geum-sook, who had lived close by and were good friends with him growing up. At that time, Geum-sook had lost her widowed mother and could understand Myung-ho who was in the same situation. She tried to comfort and take care of him. Naturally, the two came to rely on and understand one another. They ended up starting a family before getting officially married. They had nothing and it was a scanty livelihood, but the two were grateful and considered the other precious, even (ka) would have been jealous for their conjugal harmony. However, their blissful living didn’t last long. It is said that even kings can’t cure poverty; poverty became the source of all troubles. The day of Myung-ho’s incident was the day Geum-sook delivered their baby. She gave birth to a daughter… The first daughter is the ‘golden girl’ and Myung-ho should have been ecstatic, but instead his heart was heavy. Far from being able to provide rice and seaweed soup for the thin and pale new mother, they didn’t even have a kernel of corn to eat. They had been living off of grass porridge, but he could not bear to give more of the same to the new mother. He asked around but the tough times had made the people calloused and no one was willing to lend the poor parents some rice to eat. That day, our friends brought 3kg of rice and a bundle of seaweed and I will never forget Myung-ho who saw that and cried like a child. None of us were living very well, and we felt bad that we weren’t able to gather much more. Myung-ho came to me and confessed with tears that it was a sin for someone like him who couldn’t even provide for a family to have gotten married. That was how he came to commit such an act.” You could see a sudden burst of emotions in Young-cheul’s eyes. I had a sense of what motivated Myung-ho to steal. Young-cheul interrupted my train of thought and spoke again, “Of course that was the basic problem, but there were other factors.” “What do you mean by other factors?” I asked in surprise, but he showed a certain hesitancy and seemed reluctant to share. It must have been something that you couldn’t share with everyone. I stopped pressing for an answer. Whatever the reason was, after hearing Young-cheul’s story, my ill feelings toward Geum-sook dissipated and I simply pitied her. I understood how she left her place, but I wondered where she was now.
At the end of the day, as I was compiling the tasks, I looked carefully at the faces of the section members again. As Young-cheul noted before, all of the faces lacked vitality. (Do these members have similar stories like Geum-sook? What can I do to work well with these people? Do I have what it takes to lead them forward?) What seemed like a golden opportunity quickly faded from me. I couldn’t believe that my confidence didn’t even last a day. But reality is reality. I attended the governing committee (farm management extension organization) meeting and when I came home it was very late into the night. After the first day of work, my mind was not very peaceful. I began thinking about the things to come and Geum-sook crossed my mind. I put on some clothes and headed out towards her home. It was late, but luckily I saw an oil lamp shining from her house. I wondered if she came home late. “Is anyone home?” I asked as I made my way into the home, and a lady stared at me as if wondering who would came into a woman’s home this late in the evening. Her face looked so emaciated in the glimmering lamplight, only her cheekbones were noticeable. It was just as the children say; the cheekbone proceeds forward and the two cheeks regress backwards. According to Young-cheul, she must have been in her mid to late thirties, but her face looked deceivingly old. I instinctively took a quick look around the house. The smoke of the kerosene lamp had turned the wall and ceiling black, the kitchen was made up of mud, pieces of blue vinyl awkwardly made up the linoleum lining the sam-hwa-toh (made in North Korea from mixing three kinds of dirt) floor… the poor standard of living was evident with a single glance. In front of her was a little girl of 3 or 4 years, who was so emaciated that it made my hairs stand on end. After assessing the situation, I felt like a madman for coming over to see why she was not at work today. I stood dumbfounded for a while until I asked if she had eaten. Then she gave me a strange look and asked who I was. “Oh… yes. I am the new Class 1 Section 2 manager. I did not see you at work today, so I came to see you. Where were you today?” “I was not feeling well, so I could not make it to work,” she answered coldly upon hearing that I was the section manager. It must have been difficult to survive as is, and I understood that she probably didn’t want to deal with someone like me. I’m not sure why, but I really wanted to be cordial to this woman. “Look. It looks like things are difficult here; please tell me what is troubling you. They say that each section is like family, perhaps there is something I can help you with. It is important for the section to work well, but the worker’s family needs should be met too. Let’s try to figure out the difficult situations together.” In my attempt to be friendly, I ended up speaking idle phrases. She gave me a strange smile and replied, “Nothing is difficult. Just know that I will not be able to make it to work for a few days.” It was ill-humored, but I had no choice but to accept it. I could not expect to have an intimate conversation with her from the first day, so I left her house without a word. Back at home I kept thinking about her gaunt face and her cold demeanor. I felt composed thinking that this was the first trial in my work as section manager. I became very curious to know the other reasons that Young-cheul alluded to. I did not want to night to pass like this, so I took a bottle of alcohol and made my want to Young-cheul’s house. Young-cheul was very surprised to see me in the middle of the night. “Brother, I came to get your advice on how to faithfully do my duty as section manager. I am still young and I don’t have much experience farming. I also don’t know much about operating a section. I ask that you help me as an older brother and my senior.” I gave this excuse and took out the bottle. Young-cheul was not much of a drinker. His words started to slur after the second glass. I figured that this was the time. Even Buddha statues are said to talk if they are drunk… and so I schemed, “Brother, I was at Geum-sook’s house earlier and everything in her house was dreadful. Her daughter is another story. She must be about 3 or 4 years old, but it was so unfortunate. Things wouldn’t be as bad if her husband was there. Why did Myung-ho do such a thing?” I tried to sneak in the question. Young-cheul was already tipsy when he replied, “Even worms are expected to squirm if they are stepped on. Myung-ho was so fed up that he threw a fit.” “Why was he so angry?” “It just happened that way. That night he went to keep watch at the research center (in North Korea, subdivisions of companies alternate guarding the Kim Il-sung Study Room). The leader of the operation approached Myung-ho to help him with a task. The leader told him to package two bags of rice seeds in the warehouse. When Myung-ho finished, the leader told him to wait for a car to come and pick it up. After some time, a car came by and he noticed that the car belonged to a military group secretary. He asked why they were sending the bags away and he was told that it was for a military group secretary’s daughter’s wedding. When Myung-ho heard this, he became furious. The poor couldn’t even find rice to feed their wives after childbirth, and the party executives were using the country’s rice for their daughter’s wedding ceremony. And they have the nerve to command us to protect the socialist system. If they can tap the rice reserve, I should be able to as well. After all, we are the rightful owners who actually farmed the rice. All these thoughts led Myung-ho to demand the operation leader for some rice. He managed to get a bag, but was caught by the patrol on his way out. Because it was rice seeds in the bag, he was arrested and tried on account of plotting to ruin the rice crops. Myung-ho told the newspaper agencies about the operation leader and the group secretary, but they were all let off the hook and only Myung-ho was punished. Then again, who would dare to point fingers at the elite? The poor are always the victims. We figured that he would come back once he finished serving his sentence, but he didn’t last and passed away last year.” “If things really happened as you say, can’t you report it to the central authorities?” “Geum-sook tried to at the municipal level, but because people stick up for their own kind, it was ineffective.” I was left speechless. I had only heard of such things happening, it was shocking to think that this happened so close to me. Young-cheul saw me sitting distraught and continued talking, “seeing her husband be taken away only a few days after giving birth, Geum-sook became sick physically and emotionally and acquired tuberculosis. You saw her daughter, right? At age 4, she can’t even stand up straight because of malnutrition. The little girl might be worse off than being dead. They are both on the very last of their strength and have nothing left to fear. The previous section leader didn’t even consider Geum-sook a part of the group. Be careful or you might just be humiliated.” Sympathy for her found its place in my heart. I made up my mind to heed Young-cheul’s words and leave her be to live as she wanted.
It had been about 2 and a half years since I started my job as the section manager. It was autumn and everyone was working hard to finish harvesting the rice. The fields were swarming with farm supporters from the interior military establishments, public enterprises, and middle schools; you could see red flags fluttering everywhere and various message boards with phrases like: “Rice planting battle mode!” “What the Party decides, the people execute!” “Life will soon be socialist!” On one side there was the military and police re-motivation assembly (a performing arts group that was assigned to the military party for propaganda purposes), whose every blow of the horn spoke slogans of high intonation and provided an onsite public announcement. My section members and I were hard at work cutting the rice stalks with sickles. Unrelated to the chaotic surrounding, my mind was burdened with what had happened in the morning. That morning at the farm management committee meeting, we discussed what could be done to increase the attendance rate of the farm workers. When the management chairman began going through the attendance, I started feeling rather anxious. Geum-sook had not come to work today. In the last two years, I followed my initial determination to be considerate to Geum-sook. But still, my powers were limited. My superiors did not look favorably upon me for using my authority in such ways. The management chairman, in particular, always criticized that my lack of principles prevented me from governing the people better. I thought to myself “Why don’t you try yourself. You sit behind a desk and give orders but I actually have to deal with the people. How can you expect people to work if you can’t even provide food for them? I too can make big empty statements if I am the management chairperson.” I grumbled to myself. I was expecting to be sworn at and humiliated again in front of many people. The chairman howled at me, “Class 1 Section 2 manager! Who is not present today?” “Geum-sook is absent because she is ill.” “Geum-sook again? You, the manager, are too soft on the people… it’s because you cover for your people that the workers are in such shape! Why is that lady sick again? Do you realize what kind of time we are in? We are in battle. Do you think our enemies will accommodate for us if we are sick or injured? Even if she’s rotting, tell her to die on the rice paddy fields. If you listen to everyone’s concerns, who will be there to protect the red flag? Go and bring her at once. If she refuses to come, I will go get her myself.” I had already dropped by her house earlier in the morning; my heart broke to see her suffering from tuberculosis but I had no choice but to go see her again. I suggested that she get a report from a doctor, but according to her, doctors will only give you a report if you bribe them with expensive cigarettes. She did not have enough to eat for the day, so obviously she could not afford to offer a bribe. The moment I opened the door to her house, I could hear her coughing and heavy breathing. “Ma’am, the management chairman’s pestering brings me to your place again. Could you go and plead your case to the management chairman yourself?” She and I had established a good rapport and she usually responded favorably to me, but suddenly she snapped, “Tell that bastard to come here. His wife is probably at home right now in her living room; why is he so demanding of a sick person like me? Does he not have a heart?” She screamed at first and then started to cry. “I should just quit now. This is becoming too much for me to handle. I should do something that’s less stressful for my mind,” I thought to myself as I was about to leave. Abruptly, the door opened and the management committee chairman came in. I was utterly mortified. He must have followed me there. He probably heard Geum-sook’s rant from outside; he was red in the face and looked furious. “I am here. Why don’t you repeat what you said? What did you say? That’s right, I don’t have a heart. If you don’t want to go to the labor camps next year, I suggest that you come to work at once. If you’re going to die, die on the farm field.” The chairman’s words made my body shudder. Is he really human? Or is he some beast disguised as a person? Geum-sook could speak freely while the chairman was not present, but she was so taken aback by him that she was at a loss of words. Ultimately, Geum-sook had to drag her ailing body to the field and I had to hear a mouthful of offensive things from the cruel chairman. While working on the paddy field, I kept looking over at Geum-sook who was struggling to gather clumps of rice. Is this the cruelty of socialist cooperation? Is it that even the kindest of persons becomes merciless if they reach an executive position? The ambition and blind obedience necessary to win the favor of the Party and get promoted makes one barbaric. Without regard for the people’s poverty, the elite’s obsession to maintain the regime and the constant fight for power struggle are the fruits of Kim Jong-il style political system. Thinking that I should call it quits before I become barbaric myself made me feel as though my life had been spent in vain. “Ma’am, take a seat and rest a while. No one asked you to work. Just sit still for a bit,” I said to Geum-sook in a sympathetic manner. “Section leader, I’m sorry. I know that things have been tough for you because of me. I couldn’t help it since my body is not well.” “Ma’am, you don’t need to say such things. I know about your sickness. What does it matter if I get criticized? You should really get better soon…” “Thank you. Section leader, even if I die, I will not forget your kindness to me.” As Geum-sook and I were in the middle of this conversation, Young-cheul approached us. “Section leader, shall we have a smoke?” We each rolled and lit a cigarette. “Section leader, why should we be living like this? In some ways, doesn’t it remind you of the slaves in feudal society that we learned about in middle school? Slaves who leave when they’re forced out and who can’t properly speak their mind… if even the children of peasant farmers are forced to labor in the field, what pleasure is there in living?” In the last 2 years, Young-cheul and I became close enough to share the deepest things in our hearts. “Brother, don’t say that out loud anywhere else. If someone hears you, you may get reported and killed.” “I’m only saying this because I trust you. Who else could I be honest with? Recently, I’ve been feeling quite un-human. I wonder if this dog-like life will ever change.” “Brother, it will get better some day. I’m also thinking of quitting my post. I can’t take this anymore. If I stay, I fear becoming as brutal as the management committee chairman.” The two of us sat and chatted for about an hour. All of a sudden, we heard someone urgently crying out, “Geum-sook!”; “Bome’s mother!” We turned around and saw Geum-sook lying on the field after having vomited blood. Young-cheul and I ran over to her as fast as we could; we tried to make her conscious and asked, “What’s the matter? Open your eyes.” In the meantime the section members and other workers had gathered around us muttering, “Bome’s mother, what’s happening? You can’t die! What are we going to do?” People with some knowledge of medicine tried to give emergency treatment. I had been yelling in panic, and I took her on my back and started running to the hospital. At the hospital, there was a big commotion after the doctors gave her CPR and some shots. “Doctor! How is she?” I asked urgently and the doctor full of white hair replied, “It’s going to be difficult. She coughed blood and the disease is so far along that I’m not so confident. However, I will try my best.” I was plunged into despair. I can’t really put it into words but I felt like I was at fault for dragging her out of the house. I wondered why I couldn’t stubbornly convince the management committee chairman. I should have argued with him and done everything to keep her at the house. I felt ashamed for my incompetence and weakness. “Doctor, this lady cannot die. If she dies, what is her daughter going to do?” I cried anxiously. Then we heard a faint moaning, “Bome. Bome.” Geum-sook was calling for her child in her unconsciousness. Tears fell uncontrollably from my eyes. Despite her ailing body, she worked with unbelievable determination; in desperate agony, she tried to give her daughter hers as well as the absent father’s share of love… and now she was silently dying away. Poor Geum-sook. She should have had more days to live. She was dying at such a young age, without any last words and without being able to freely despise the world that she resented. In a little while, she drew her last breath. She did not have any parents or siblings to mourn for her. The section members shed their tears for the poor lady. At once, the Party Secretary (리당비서) and the chairman entered the hospital. Upon hearing the news of death from the chairman, the secretary said, “Sister Geum-sook cherished her loyalty to the Dear Leader and the Party; she was working faithfully for the country and died in the line of duty. Let us never forget our sister Geum-sook.” What did he mean by allegiance and patriotism? Who were the people working and dying for, all the while suffering in hunger? In this country, allegiance and patriotism was embodied in blind loyalty that drove one to endure starvation and work until death. The chairman stood tall with dignity, despite having driven poor Geum-sook to death. Bome was not only lame from being born in the wrong part of the world, but the cruel world took away her parents. Flames blared in my eyes and indignation and frustration filled within me. Sadly, I could not speak my mind. In order to live, I could only suppress my feelings and thoughts. Writing about this injustice revives the anger and frustration I felt then. In that land, so many Geum-sooks are dying daily without a voice. I bemoan that land of grievance and bow my head in memory of the many souls that have gone before me. I cannot help but feel compassion for Bome, wherever she may be. When will we be able to save those poor souls, and as fellow countrymen, emerge from the united land of Korea with 70 million strong…