Friday, March 22, 2013

Eyes of the Tailless Animals (book)

The book Eyes of the Tailless Animals: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman is the first-hand story of Soon Ok Lee's (author) prison experience. Soon Ok Lee states that she was married to the communist party from birth and "since there had no been a man in the family for four generations, [she] was thoroughly trained under the Communist doctrine. As a child of patriarchs, [she] received special treatment and attended the prestigious People's Economic College. After [she] graduated, [her] parents helped [her] enter the Noh-dong Party, which is the Communist labor party. [She] was assigned as a supervisor of the material distribution center and was considered one of the most successful women." (p1).

And then one day in 1985 all things changed. As the saying goes, "the soybeans were cooked at the speed of lightning" and her whole life changed. Security officers secretly arrived at her textile office and arrested her and took her to the interrogation center where she was ordered to sign papers admitting her "crime". She could not conceive of what her "crime" was but after deeply pondering on her sudden change in status it dawned on her that perhaps a superior officer who had come to her office demanding more than his allotted share of yardage for making the casual jackets popularized by Kim Jong Il on official occasions and who had threatened her had turned her in as a traitor to the Party. She remembered that though she needed 100 yards of material, the received shipment had only been 80 and so to be fair, she could not allow one Party member to have more than his share especially when all the orders could not be filled.

Interrogation and torture

Her main interrogator was Hak Nam Kim, age 28 and eleven years her junior, and from him not only physical torture began but psychological torture as her position and age were both higher than his but he used demeaning, abusive and vile language to her and all language structures were to someone of the lowest status. The psychological "damage", a modern term, is what she remembers most clearly about her time with Hak Nam Kim.

As to her physical torture, Sook Ok was thrown into a room with men who kicked her into unconsciousness and when she revived sufficiently, she was trussed like an animal and not allowed to close her eyes for three days while being continuously interrogated. She was thrown in a hot brick kiln where she passed out and was revived with cold water. She was belted naked to a chair and lashed with a leather whip, she was hung by her wrists from window bars and left till her arms and legs were as fat as trees, her teeth were smashed out, she was given "frozen fish torture", an hour every night in the cold, and much more. Transferred to another interrogation center, the furor to get her to sign the "crime" papers was so great that the interrogator "jumped up and down like a tiger with a burned back."

Finally, after 14 months of interrogation she signed, and from there she was transferred to the resocialization center (Nov 23, 1987) where she became #832 and one of the tailless animals where she was to serve her 13-year sentence.

The Tailless Animals

The tailless animals were the people populating the prison, who were voiceless and powerless about controlling their own lives, and who were treated worse than animals as an animal might be allowed to growl or cry out in pain, but these actions were not to be tolerated in the humans locked against their wills in the harshest of prisons. Some of the most vilely treated "tailless animals" in the prison were the Christian prisoners, those who believed in "invisible power", those who believed in 하나님, the God of the heavens, and for this reason the Christians were not allowed to look up to the sky but forced to look forever at the dirty earth. And so their backs grew misshapen with huge humps like basketballs resting on them while their faces perpetually looked downward.

The resocialization center was filled with "criminals", 80% of which were women who were housewives and were serving for petty thievery deemed necessary to feed their families and especially their children. The prisoners were forced to work, and Soon Ok was assigned to work in the factory making clothes, sewing on buttons, whatever, under such rigorous quotas that no one could hope of achieving the quota. Often to meet quotas, prisoners sat in front of their sewing machines and slept there during the night. Soon, she was transferred to the export factory, the factory that generated foreign currency for the regime at the expense of the labor of prisoners. As a factory accountant, she was to wear clean clothes and take a shower as she had to interact with officers who didn't want to hold a handkerchief over their noses when giving orders. Also, she was allowed a bit more food over that of the other prisoners who were fed about 700 grams of food per day (60% corn, 30% beans, 10% rice) ... if the officers didn't take the beans and rice for themselves.

Examples of factory labor for generating foreign currency were (1) rolling 1000 paper roses a day per prisoner to meet the quota of a paper rose order placed by France, (2) making costumes for the International Youth Festival held in Pyongyang in November 1989 ... to make an error was seen as a discredit to Kim Il Sung's authority and therefore an anti-Communistic act, (3) making 3000 pair of shoes a day in the shoe factory, a process requiring 58 steps and all was done by hand ... the majority of these prisoners were bald from lack of sodium from excessive sweating and other malnutrition problems, and (4) in 1992 making 10,000 student uniforms and 20,000 pieces of clothing for government workers by April 15 for celebrating Kim Il Sung's 80th birthday ... not to mention that all prisoners were required to memorize word-for-word Kim Sung Il's New Year's Day speech after listening to it only nine times ... and the firing squad or some other torture was for those who didn't.

Diseases in the resocialization center

Malnutrition was something which every prisoner suffered from. Who could survive on cabbage soup and corn for extended periods of time, or even on the beans and rice that were supposed to be in their daily allotment? Food poisoning was another major problem for cooks had to cook such huge quantities of food and shortcuts in preparing the foods were taken - not washing the cabbages and other foods before preparing them. Soon Ok related that in one bout of food poisoning over 150 prisoners died and many more, including herself, lay on the floor for days in their own pools of diarrhea, hardly consciousness. Survival was more vicious than death. In 1989 and 1992 paratyphus epidemics stuck. The illness is caused by a colon bacillus so drinking water or eating food made the problem worse causing severe twisting stomach pains and high fever. Pleurisy from malnutrition and hard labor was something else Soon Ok suffered from. These were the diseases mentioned in the book, but in an atmosphere where nutrition is given less regard than sanitation, which was vile beyond words, many more diseases were rampant.

The prison had its medical officers, but as one medical officer Shin Ok Kim who came to Soon Ok in a moment of desperation said torturedly, "I thought that studying medicine would allow me to help save people's lives. I believed that I would be so happy to save them. But look at me! I'm using my knowledge to hurt people. Doctors are called only to save people, not to kill." These things she weepingly said in dismay to Soon Ok after a friend had told people about using dead babies as medicine. Both medical officers quietly disappeared.

Release and return to society

In December 1992, Soon Ok Lee was pronounced as having faithfully served her resocialization time in prison before the 6,000 prisoners. Even the 140 Christian prisoners lifted their eyes to witness this astounding and unusual news. As she walked out the black iron gates of the prison, she looked back at the 12,000 eyes of the tailless animals who silently pleaded with her to not let their - and her - story go untold. On February 21, 1994 Sook Ok, who had lost her North Korean citizenship and Party status, and her son, who had lost his privileges and right to education after his mother had been put in political prison, defected across the frozen Tumen River to freedom.

Comments on the book and the writing

The book Eyes of the Tailless Animals was written simplistically but filled with evidence of a regimen gone mad and cannibalizing itself. When officers order factory sewers to surreptitiously make 8,000 gloves out of scraps in order to bribe other officials but still other officers come and pilfer those gloves for their own purposes, the sociopolitical system can only be said to be poisoned from within. It's interesting about Soon Ok's writing - although she writes matter-of-factly, there is always a sense that she is defending her actions, and not once does she equivocate about having an iota of blame in any of her actions throughout the book. I get the sense that this is related to her experience in North Korea where no one could admit wrong for fear of some kind of retribution. Also, if someone was thought to have done wrong, the Party demanded self-criticizing documentation. It seems that the lessons of political purity are so deeply ingrained in Soon Ok that she cannot even consider having erred ... all erring was on the part of higher political officers, but only it seems was seeing their faults possible in hindsight (or at least that's how I'm reading between the lines.)

A last comment regards the use of the prisoners being resocialized, very few of whom would ever see the other side of the great black gates of Khechen Prison. The prisoners regarded the forced labor with impossible-to-meet quotas for generating foreign currency as "earning in hell". While in her elevated status as Party member, she never considered those lesser on the status ladder than herself, but once experiencing the viciousness of prison and being exposed to the greed of the officers in the Party who disregarded humanity for satisfying their personal wants and comforts, Soon Ok speculates on the upside-down world as she has come to know it:
"I thought about the foreigners who would buy what the prisoners in North Korea had made. They would never know that the products they purchased were made in exchange for a prisoner's life. They wouldn't know that the products were made in a prison where all kinds of bacteria and viruses were rampant. And that among the prisoners, earning foreign currency was called 'earning in hell.'" (p73).
Since reading this book, looking in dollar of 1,000won stores is no longer appealing. I can't help but read labels on where products were manufactured. What goes on in China that allows simple but hand-painted  items to be sold for $1? I also know there's a huge international debate between North Korea and South Korea on the use of the label "Made in Korea". While South Korea has for years used the label, North Korea is now also using the same label ... and the international community does not support South Korea's claim to using the phrase. Both are "Korea" so how to award so it seems the label will have to made more specifically for South Korea's product if they want to make a distinction .... and yet the problem remains, will the rest of the world be knowledgeable about the difference? Most likely not.

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