Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Stories from a North Korean prison camp

Today is "Veteran's Day" in the United States: a day to honor those who have served in the Armed Forces. I've found that learning about people who are not free is often a good way to appreciate the value of freedom and why it's worth sacrificing for. Today's post is about a man who experienced one of the places most absent of freedom on this earth... and lived to tell about it.

Kang Chol-Hwan was born in Pyongyang, North Korea sometime around 1968. His grandparents had spent some time in Japan, where the family had made a comfortable living. Caught up in a wave of North Korean nationalism, they decided to return to their native country and serve the Communist party. Shortly after arriving, they realized they had made a mistake; but by that time it was too late to turn back.

The family, especially Kang's grandmother, remained loyal to Communism and continued working toward better times in North Korea. But one day, when Kang was 9 years old, his life was turned upside down as government police stormed his family's house. The government suspected Kang's grandfather of treasonal motives, and decided to sentence Kang and most of his family to the Yodok prison camp.

Kang endured a Communist education and hard labor duties in the Yodok camp. School was no picnic as a prison camp wasn't nearly the first choice of assignment for the teachers. The curriculum demanded that the students parrot the merits of the "Dear Leader" with a satisfactory element of fervor. Lack of enthusiasm was duly punished.

Manual labor duties after graduation were no better. Often the prisoners had to work in freezing temperatures under the watch of abusive guards, then scramble at the end of the day to find any scrap of food they could. Escape was not an option. The prisoners were forced to witness executions of those who attempted it. Other would-be escapees perished on their own due to the harsh weather and terrain.

To his surprise, Kang was released from camp after 10 years. He didn't ask any questions. He returned to civilian life in North Korea, trying to eke out some existence as a young man. Understandably hardened against Communism after his experience in Yodok, Kang began listening to South Korean radio through an illegal transmitter. Sensing some suspicion from the government, Kang decided to flee the country.

Kang found someone to sneak him across to a Chinese border town with relative ease, but he had to keep on the move. As an ally of North Korea, China could not be too kind to defectors. Kang traveled through China and finally found a long-term hiding place with some friends who operated a brothel. Eventually he was able to "escape" again on a boat to South Korea.

Kang tells his story in the book Aquariums of Pyongyang. The increasing shades of freedom Kang describes as he passed through North Korea, China, South Korea, and finally the United States brings the value of our country's freedom into clarity. It's amazing to think how the story of life in a North Korean concentration camp could make its way to the free world. This book will cause you to thank God for your freedom, and pray to God for the freedom and comfort of those who do not yet have it.