Daily Archives: 29 October 2005

Perils of Privilege in Prison Camp

My uncle was the [Yodok camp] distillery’s technical chief for seven years. No one had ever held the position for that long, and only the handful of detainees who worked in the guards’ office or in the bachelors’ kitchen ever enjoyed as many privileges. To land such a job, a prisoner needed to win the protection of a guard, which is what my uncle somehow managed to do. His ascent had begun with the unpleasant surprise of being called on to serve as an informant. My uncle was not overjoyed at the prospect but was afraid to refuse. He also knew that if his reports were sufficiently useless, he would be cut loose from the duty in no time anyway. As it turned out, my uncle’s reports were not bad, though, just innocuous. This avocation earned him a few packs of cigarettes and some extra food, but more importantly it gave him the chance to befriend a guard, whose good word later helped him get the job in the distillery. My uncle’s degrees in biochemistry, which gave him a competence in matters of distillation, no doubt also influenced the authorities’ decision. After becoming lord of the alcohol bottles, my uncle wielded enormous power and prestige in the camp, though his position was mined with countless dangers and intrigues. Security agents were always dropping by to ask for a bottle on the sly, which left my uncle with a very dubious choice. If he refused their request, the agents had no shortage of ways to exact their revenge; if he relented, he could run into serious trouble during the next production audit.

His work also came under the daily supervision of a security agent who was assigned to the distillery, a man not likely to forgive irregularities. My uncle had to play it slick, fulfilling his substantial clandestine distribution while making everything appear on the up and up. Pressured by a number of different guards–some of whom were rivals–my uncle had plenty to keep him up at night. One day he was called before a camp official who wanted him to admit he’d given alcohol to a colleague who ran the distillery. My uncle firmly denied the charges, guessing correctly that the interrogation stood on little but rumors and suspicions. The official wasn’t so easily put off, however, and at one point he suggested the sweatbox might help stir my uncle’s memory. The thought was almost enough to make him confess, except that a confession would land him in the sweatbox all the faster–and as a confirmed criminal, rather than a mere suspect. Moreover, the guards compromised by his confession would become his sworn enemies and make him pay for their troubles. He would also risk a transfer to Senghori or to one of the other camps of no return. So he kept his mouth shut. Toward 3:00 a.m., the tone of the interrogation changed. The official suddenly stood up, perfectly calm, and led him out of the office. Outside, he turned to my uncle and said, “Your silence is appreciated. Keep it up!”

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), pp. 92-94

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