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North Korea’s Real Life Hunger Games
What it's like to fight for your life in North Korea.
My second day at the detention center, I was sent to weed the rice fields. The task was exhausting, slogging for hours through the flooded rows of dirt, pulling at the weeds and digging down with my fingers for the grub-white roots. Around noon, we marched under a hot sun back to the detention center for lunch. Not knowing the routine, I simply followed everyone else, trying not to stick out. After we ate our meager portions of corn noodle soup, the guard, a lean teenager with an angry face, yelled: “It is your break time.” I watched as the other boys lay down and fell asleep instantly. I could tell how precious this time was by how fast they dropped to the floor.
When a famine struck our region of North Korea in 1995, I was five years old and living with my father, mother, and older sister Bong Sook in the province of North Hamgyong. In the difficult years that followed, my father died of starvation and illness, my mother was arrested for trying to cross the border into China, and Bong Sook was either sold into sex slavery or bought as a wife by a Chinese man — I never found out which. After my family scattered, I spent my early teenage years as one of the many Kkotjebi, or “wandering swallows,” homeless children who begged in the marketplace and slept wherever they could. Some had been abandoned by parents who couldn’t feed them; others had watched their family disintegrate under the pressure of the famine, as mine had. In the summer of 2005 — a year before I escaped to China and two years before I made it to the United States — the Saraocheong, the government branch that oversees minors, placed me in the detention center for three months for not attending school.
Housed in a crumbling building that used to be an art school and filled with hundreds of frightened youths, the detention center terrified me. My first day there, I’d seen a teenager beaten so severely I was sure his brain had been damaged; darkness brought the shrieks of girls being raped in the next room. The detention center had once been the best art school in Hoeryong, but now, like many things, it was broken and wild, a place of seething chaos.
That second day, I heard a voice calling in my dreams: “Up, up.” I opened my eyes. The guard was screaming at us, kicking the sleeping boys, threatening the slow ones with a long stick — actually just the handle of a garden hoe — which he held menacingly in his right hand. Everyone began scrambling to find his shoes that sat in a pile at the center of the room. My hands shook. I found one shoe but not the other. I was stooped over, hunting among the remaining pairs, when something struck me between the shoulder blades with great force. “Bastard!” he shouted. “Why are you so slow?”
It hurt terribly, but I managed not to fall over. I knew that showing weakness could mean death. I bowed to the guard, his face twisted in a bright grin, as the flesh above my spine throbbed.
“Please, sir,” I said, “I’m looking for my shoes.”
He raised the stick again and screamed “Bastard!” He slammed it down on my left shoulder, trying to break the collarbone. I wanted to kill him, but I thought he must have allies among the other guards, and they would come for me when the sky grew dark.
From then on, the guard chose me as his No. 1 victim. I learned later that his parents were middle class and could have afforded to get him out of the prison, but chose not to. The guard had been abandoned and then sent to detention, where he got a job watching over the other inmates. (There was no formal process for choosing a guard – the job went to the strongest and most intimidating inmates.) To show his dominance, the guard attacked people for no reason at all. And he made a special case out of me.
I learned to put my shoes in a place where I could find them, but the guard didn’t care. Bastard was my name, and beatings were my regular fate. Sometimes he hit me with the big stick; other times he slapped my face with his open hand. I only bowed in response. But rage was building up inside me. I could feel the blood pump hot to my face when he slapped it. Out on the streets, I was considered a good fighter for my age. Some even feared me.
I’d come to the detention center after many months of barely surviving as a beggar and thief. I’d been living with my mother and her abusive partner, who beat me if I didn’t steal enough to feed our makeshift family. Depressed and angry, I’d thought my life had reached its nadir — until I was taken to the detention center.
One day, after weeks of the guard’s abuse, I heard him approach me from behind. “Hey, bastard,” he said, almost jovially. I could feel the eagerness in his voice, the anticipation of a good slap, a release of his hatred and frustration from his skin into mine. It was almost like he craved the letting go of the dark electricity that had built up in him all morning. I could feel how he savored these moments. But today, I couldn’t take the thought of him touching me. I spun around.
“Why are you always picking on me?” I cried, my voice breaking. “Leave me alone, please. Leave me alone or else!” Even as I said it, I knew that I’d opened myself up to danger. But it was too late.
The guard’s face went still with surprise. Then it blushed dark and his eyes slitted. “How dare you talk back to me!” he said in a low voice. We began shouting at each other, the other boys gathering, wide-eyed, to watch. The team leader came running over.
“What’s happening?” he said, pushing boys aside. “What are you two yelling about?”
Before the guard could open his mouth, I quickly spoke up, and described what had been happening under the team leader’s nose. He listened and nodded, gesturing for the furious guard to be silent. When I finished, the team leader nodded. “I don’t need to hear any more. I will do what’s fair! And that means only one thing: you two will fight it out!”
The team leader looked very pleased. He was clearly bored with his daily routine, and here was an opportunity for excitement. I knew that losing would be dangerous. The guard would have total control over me, and because I had humiliated him by defying him in public, he would show no mercy. I decided I would do whatever it took to win.
The team leader gathered all the boys together in the center of our room. I studied my opponent. He was bigger and heavier, but I knew he’d led a more privileged life, while I’d been sleeping rough and learning how to survive on scraps. You are mentally stronger, I said to myself. Whatever you do, don’t give up.
The guard and I grabbed each other by the shoulders and arms and pushed back and forth, grunting with effort. He quickly slipped his hand away and landed a punch on my jaw, mashing the flesh against my teeth. I tasted blood, and this frightened me. I shoved him back, trying to topple him over. But he was strong. After a few minutes of furious wrestling, my left knee gave way and I rolled to the ground. The guard’s hands went to my throat as he fell on me. We rolled back and forth, punching each other and snorting for air.
After what felt like 20 minutes of wrestling and blows, my arms were slick with sweat. I was exhausted. It felt as if my arms were hanging from their sockets by thin strings. But I had more to lose, and I’d always been a stubborn fighter. I eventually managed to throw the guard to the ground and climbed on top of him, sitting on his heaving chest. I pinned both his hands with my left hand and started punching him in the face as he turned it this way and that, trying to evade my blows. I felt no rage anymore, no emotion at all. I was like a miner gouging out a seam of coal. There was no hatred left in me, only determination. Bang. I gashed his lower lip on his teeth. Again. I took a deep breath, leaned forward, and gritted my teeth. Bang. Harder. Bang.
“I give up!” he shouted finally. A cheer went up from some of the spectators while others blew out their breath in disgust. I rolled off the guard and lay on the floor, gasping.
I’d only wanted to serve my time as quietly as possible, but by winning I’d brought myself to the attention of “the gangster brothers” — the older criminals who essentially ran the detention center. That afternoon, I learned my reward. They named me the new guard. This meant more and better food, and freedom not to work all day in the intense heat.
The guard I had beaten became a regular inmate, and would go out to the fields to weed. The gangster brothers handed me the stick, with the understanding that I would use it indiscriminately, and with great harshness. I didn’t want the long stick, I didn’t want to be a guard, but I had no choice. I vowed to be a better person than the teenager who victimized me — I didn’t want become a brutal creature, like the gangster brothers who ran the detention center. I wanted to keep a part of the old me alive.
But it felt good to have power. In the mornings, older boys approached me and bowed deeply, asking me how I had slept. Most of the time I wouldn’t answer them: It didn’t pay for me to be too friendly with the inmates. As the weeks went by, I sank further into cruelty. If someone disobeyed me and I didn’t punish him, I would be beaten and replaced — the team leaders made this clear. So I beat those who refused my orders; I beat them with my fists as they looked at me with hatred.
Months after I left the center, I’d found a temporary home with a friend of my mother and returned to a life of thievery. The same boys I had beaten at the center were still chasing me on the streets of Hoeryong, with the same rage in their eyes that I’d felt when the stick rapped me on the spine. We were angry, I think, because of what had happened to us, but also because of what we’d become.
The famine in North Korea killed hundreds of thousands of people. Some of their graves are still visible on the low hills outside Hoeryong. But the famine also did secret things: It dissolved families as if they’d been dipped in acid (mine, unfortunately, was a good example); it broke up deep, committed friendships over something as small as a cornmeal cake. Everyone in the West talks about the oppressive, invasive government of North Korea, but what I experienced was a complete absence of authority. And that was far more frightening.
This article is adapted from the book, Under the Same Sky.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Pomnyun/Korean Buddhist Sharing Movement