The “Prison Tales” series is based on the narrative of Lee Jun Ha, a defector now taking refuge in China who has given an account of his experiences over five years in the No. 12 Reeducation Camp in Jeongeu-ri, Hoiryeong, North Korea.
Lee says, “I wrote them out of a desire to share with the people of the world, including our South Korean brethren, news about the evil deeds and violations of human rights that happen in North Korea’s reeducation camps.”
Daily NK wants everyone to experience indirectly North Korean prison life through Mr. Lee’s vivid descriptions of the reeducation camp, written with the sweat of his own tragic experience.
This story was first published in South Korea in a book entitled “Reeducation Camp Stories” by the publishing company “the Zeitgeist” in 2008. Daily NK is releasing Lee Jun Ha’s experiences with the kind permission of the Zeitgeist.
My mother saved money by selling candies and eating only spinach porridge in order to visit me in the reeducation camp. Truly it seems you have to leave home before you can ever know the depth and warmth of parents’ love. I learned this truth during five years in the camp, which is similar to a prison in other countries.
This is what happened in 2000.
One day in late December I decided to send mother a letter for the upcoming New Year’s Day. I wrote to her hoping to console her since, during her visit to the camp, she would only be able to see my face and we’d be far short of an embrace. It would even be unlikely that our hands would touch.
That evening in bed I took a pencil and some paper in hand and started thinking about what to write. But as I lay there nothing came to mind that seemed likely to be of any strength to her. Alas, only the events of that day, which up till then I had not thought of even once—no, more than that—the memory of which I had spurned and avoided, kept flashing up in my wandering mind.
The day was November 26th 1998. It was the birthday of my friend, Kwang Il, and after playing together for the morning I returned home at around one in the afternoon. Mother, who was usually there to greet me with a welcoming, “Is that my boy?” when I walked in, for some reason was lying on the floor, sighing heavily.
“Mom, are you not well?”
I had to ask her several times before she finally told me what had happened.
“Jun Ha. You didn’t know this but I lent 2,000 won to your Uncle Ki Chol (at the time the average wage was only 70-100 North Korean won a month) and didn’t think it would take more than a year for him to pay it back. I’ve been asking about it since then and every time he’s told me he’ll be sure to pay me back and I’ve been pretty understanding. But today when was I was over to visit he tried to hit me, saying, ‘Do you see I got some money?’ I gave him the money out of the goodness of my heart but now I don’t think we’re going to get it back. What can I do?”
I called him “uncle” though he was a distant relative of my mother’s. He lived off the bottle. He was so desperate for it that he went as far as to sell his own family’s possessions (without their knowledge) in exchange for alcohol money and then said that a thief must have gotten into the house. I always ignored him when he was around and if I ever passed him on the street I pretended not to see him.
“Now that he’s ruined his own house he’s got to ruin ours too…”
Beyond the money, I couldn’t stand the thought of him trying to hit my mother. As I sprang to my feet, mother tried to stop me at first. I told her, “I’m going to bring the money back” and she could no longer hold me back. At the time 2000 won was not a small amount of money in North Korea.
Soon I arrived at my uncle’s house. When I stepped inside I could see my aunt weeping.
“Jun Ha, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to do. That man…he’s even used up all of your mother’s money on his drink. Not even I can live with him anymore.”
“What do you have to be sorry for, Aunty? This is all your husband’s fault!”
I grabbed my uncle, who with blood-shot eyes looked as though still half drunk, and came out of the front door. My uncle leaned against the wall and lit up. When I told him to pay off the debt by the following day he reacted obstinately.
“You think I have that much money?”
“So when you borrow money, you just take it with no thought of how you will repay it?”
“Kid, this is a thing between your mother and me. Why are you sticking you nose in it? Snot-nosed brat—you got no manners?”
Before he could finish speaking I was already swinging. I knocked his head into the wall and when he doubled over, blood was running.
“This is my mother's affair. It has everything to do with me. What?”
My aunt came running and threw herself between us, begging me to stop hitting my uncle.
“If you don’t pay up by tomorrow, I’ll kill you.”
“OK. Just a few days. I’ll pay within a few days.”
“Within 10 days, you kid!”
After getting him to swear that he’d pay us back within exactly ten days, I returned home. I thought about how hard my mother had saved that much money and he had tried to bilk it. I walked home grumbling to myself about his unreasonable attitude.
After I got home, officers of the Peoples Safety Agency (PSA) came to my house out of the blue. They told us that my uncle had lost consciousness and had been taken to the hospital. They told me to come with them to the PSA. They ignored my mother’s resistance and took me there, then locked me in a waiting room.