Getting to Know Your Snitches

Yodok and the hard-labor camps did have several points in common, the first of these being the snitches. During the first days and weeks of our detention, my father and uncle felt most oppressed by the physical demands of forced labor and the looming threat of punishment. The slightest wrong move, it seemed, could mean extra work or a stint of solitary confinement in a sweatbox. This fear, they soon realized, was the consequence of the network of snitches that pervaded the camp. The informants were at every turn. There was no one to confide in, no way to tell who was who. The veteran prisoners sometimes laughed at my father and uncle because of all the naive questions they asked, which only made them more depressed. The only advice their fellow prisoners could offer was to have patience: they would learn to pick out the snitches soon enough. Until then, they would do well to keep their thoughts to themselves. The camp’s common wisdom turned out to be true. Within a few months, we all developed a sixth sense–a snitch radar, if you will–that told us who could be trusted and who could not. Yet a snitch is not necessarily a bad guy. The prisoner is usually picked for the job without being asked his or her opinion, and, in most cases, the honor is not one for which he or she is proud.

SOURCE: The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, translated by Yair Reiner (Basic Books, 2001), p. 77

My impression, during my year in Ceausescu’s Romania (as a privileged foreigner, not a prisoner!) was that many of the Romanians who befriended us, and thus had to report periodically on our activities, were among the more interesting and entertaining of our small circle of local acquaintances there. The building manager who lived just across the hall from our apartment, however, was a complete sleazeball. I went out of my way not to ruffle his feathers.

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