On the Boundary Between Paradiso and Inferno – Kim Su-Cheol

Kim Su-Cheol (Yoduk Camp, 1992~1995)

A Real Reactionary Who Loved to Listen to South Korean Radio

I was arrested and imprisoned in Yoduk while on active duty with the Border Guards. I was a member of the 5454th Regiment6, a large unit that guarded coastal areas and political prisoner camps. I was technically a driver for one of the battalion commanders, but since the battalion political commissar was more powerful, he used the car. In other words, I was the political commissar’s driver. He was a very open man with an interest in the outside world, who listened to South Korean and Chinese broadcasts freely. He even liked to help defectors when he could; however, he was an officer so he had to be cautious. Therefore, helping defectors was my mission.

I was arrested in August, 1991, after I had been facilitating defections for two or three years. Kim Il Sung’s 80th birthday was coming and the competition for loyalty was growing intense. As part of this, regimental regulations were tightened up. It was no different with my battalion, and soon enough the commissar and I were arrested after one woman we had helped to defect was caught in China and confessed to our involvement. The National Security Agency put a wiretap in the car to find more evidence, and found that we listened to South Korean radio in there sometimes. In the 1990s, listening to South Korean radio was a rare and serious crime.

The political commissar was sent to a Total Control Zone, while I and one other man were sent to the Revolutionizing Zone. However, the other guy was subsequently released because his father was a high-ranking official on the Fisheries Committee of the West Sea. The political commissar even had a friend in the Central Party, but his crime was simply too serious. When I was released I tried to find him, but neither he nor his family were anywhere to be found.


From Arrest to Yoduk

The day I was arrested, August 1, 1991, is still very vivid in my mind. Having been told we were being sought, the political commissar and I went to visit the Security Command office. The commissar went first, and I followed. As I entered the room, they handcuffed me. There was no Ku-Ryu-Jang on the base, so they ordered us to repent our sins and dispatched us to a police station in Sadong. After twenty days, we were taken to the provincial National Security Agency office in Pyongsung.

The Ku-Ryu-Jang where I was investigated is different to a Cho-Dae-So. Both interrogate criminals, but in a Cho-Dae-So, criminals are forced to write confessions, while in a Ku-Ryu-Jang investigators record the confession. However, both types are equally painful. I heard about the Cho-Dae-So from a guy I met in Yoduk called Hee Tae. He said it was painful to write testimony, because it had to be written and re-written until the interrogators were satisfied. Ultimately it depended on status; high-ranking people went to Cho-Dae-So, where portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hung and there were beds. In a Ku-Ryu-Jang, there was only the floor. However, whether in a Ku-Ryu-Jang or a Cho-Dae-So, one week was usually enough to get a confession. Nevertheless, the investigation would take up to eight months, not because of the interrogation itself, but because backgrounds had to be investigated. I did not meet the interrogator more than eight times during that entire time.


Road to Yoduk

We set off for the Revolutionizing Zone on March 25, 1992. They said I was going to a ‘good’ place, which turned out to be the 5454th Regiment. I thought that I was returning to my original regiment for good because the Ku-Ryu-Jang guards kept saying so, but when the regiment gave me pork and rice in a vinyl bag, I realized that I was not being released but sent elsewhere. They gave me not only the food, but also a new bag, clothing, shoes, winter inner clothes, underwear, soap and socks. Later, when I found out that most camp newcomers arrive with nothing, I was grateful to the regiment for their care. So, I left the 5454th and travelled by sealed truck to NSA headquarters in the Seosong district of Pyongyang. Inside the truck there were seven prisoners; I think they picked the day in order to take as many prisoners as possible.

Inside the truck there was a row of benches, with an empty spot in the middle for a furnace, but there was no furnace. Behind the bench there was a bar for shackles, but we did not use it. At lunchtime, we stopped for food near a stream. I looked around, but decided it would be impossible to escape. We had all been in detention for a long time and were weak, but equally, the place we were eating at had a steep cliff on one side and thorny plants on the other. They had chosen the site intentionally.

I only learned that we were going to Yoduk when I saw the sign. At first I thought I was being sent to Bukchang. Inside Bukchang there is a coalmine, and I was depressed because I thought I was doomed to work there. Then the car took the Yangduk Pass into Yoduk County, and I realized that I was going to Yoduk. The 5454th Regiment handles security for Yoduk Political prisoner camp, so I knew very well that it was there.

After a few more hours on mountainous roads, we arrived at the front gate. Guards checked the number of inmates in the truck, and Yang Su Cheol, a commissar, hopped in. We rode 80 more ri (20 miles) to Daesuk-ri.

At around 5PM, we arrived in the newcomers’ area. They told me that I had to live there for three years. Later I asked other survivors in South Korea and found out that they were never told how long they would serve. However, I was still very depressed, and could only think of dinner.


My Life in Yoduk

I spent about twenty days in the newcomers’ ward, before being dispatched to an agriculture team on April 13th. The NSA officer for the team was Kim Hyong Sob. I remember him well, because after two or three days he publicly criticized me. I was late for a meeting and he openly criticized me, pointing out that not only had my father graduated from Kimchaek University, but I was also a former Border Guard, and yet had still betrayed the country. Since he was also from the 5454th Regiment, he hated me more than he hated the other inmates. Anyone hailing from the same regiment received the same kind of hatred. seeding season started, so Hyong Sob reorganized us. We were divided into two platoons, with Kim Chol Woong, a guard-prisoner, becoming the platoon leader of the first, the one to which I was assigned. This was good; I was a friend of his, and had a relatively easy life for the next two years.

Maybe because we were both former military men, Kim and I got along well. In political prisoner camps the officers have completely arbitrary powers, but if a prisoner is a platoon leader then he also has a little strength. Of course, an inmate without a title is not allowed any freedom, but a platoon leader has authority over the platoon. Anyway, Kim assigned me the task of preparing snacks for him. If a platoon leader orders something, platoon members must follow without delay. Some guys report the unfairness of the order to the guards, but in many cases platoon leaders are spies for officialdom anyway, so they do not listen and do not care.

After three months, I was transferred to the firewood detail at the cafeteria. Working on the firewood detail was not an easy job, but did mean that I could move around the camp relatively freely. Also, firewood gatherers got more rice in the cafeteria. The reason Kim told me to do the job was because we needed firewood for Mi Hwa. Mi Hwa was a Korean-Japanese woman who had come to the camp with her family.

There were some Korean-Japanese people in the camp who had lived there for more than ten years. After the immigration of large numbers of Korean-Japanese in the 1970s, many were imprisoned and never released. Mi Hwa was one of them. She was infamous for her relationships with other male inmates, and had the ear of the NSA officer, prison manager and platoon leader. She was meeting Kim, my platoon leader, at the time.

While Hyong Sob hated me, Mi Hwa liked me, and that helped me more. For example, in the fall of 1993, I was involved in a tractor accident that put the tractor out of commission. Riding a tractor without permission was a crime worthy of a trip to the Ku-Ryu-Jang, and I had caused an accident too. However, Mi Hwa prevented me from going to prison. Grateful, I did everything she asked of me, helping her not only with firewood but also many other things. For her I was a useful person. However, in January 1994 an anonymous letter surfaced about a relationship between Hyong Sob and Mi Hwa, and I was imprisoned. Thereafter, right up until my release in 1995, I did hard labor on an agricultural team, which was a much more difficult life.