This week’s Ask a North Korean deviates somewhat from our usual formula. Instead of publishing answers to readers’ questions, we’re publishing the third part of a series of excerpts from an upcoming e-book, “Goodbye, Pyongyang”, by one of our longtime contributors, Ji-Min Kang, which will be released later this year.
In this excerpt, Ji-Min, who now lives in London, recounts being called in for questioning by state officials.
I woke up to someone knocking loudly on my door.
“Comrade Ji-Min! Open the door!”
When I opened the door, an agent was standing there.
“This is urgent. You need to come with me right now.”
“What’s all the fuss about? Do you still think I’m a student? You don’t need to come all the way to my apartment as if I was late for school or something.”
“That’s not it. The first secretary is looking for you. You need to come with me immediately.”
The first secretary knows me? Why would he want to meet me? I couldn’t figure out why someone like him would be looking for me. I shut the door behind me and was escorted out of the apartment by agent Kim.
A luxurious Benz was waiting for us. I took a look at the plate of the car. It read Pyongyang 02-XXXXX. It belonged to the Central Committee of the Party. Inside the car, a young man clad in a luxurious suit was seated and he stuck his head out of the window.
“You must be Comrade Ji-Min, aren’t you?”
Before I could respond, he waved at me to get in the car.
It went pitch black and my legs were shaking really bad. I didn’t want to be executed or sent to a prison camp like this. I wasn’t sure if this was because of my mom, or my uncles on my mom’s side.
It wasn’t fair that I should be punished for what my relatives did. Since my uncles had been sent to a prison camp, my family had been worrying day and night that something like this would happen to us. It was widely known that you could be taken away in a black car by the State Security Department at anytime. That’s how my maternal grandfather was taken away, as were my uncles.
The State Security Department raided people on the street or at their homes at night. Once they take you away to prison camp, you are never heard from again. When my mom waited for days in front of the State Security Department in order to ask about the whereabouts of people taken away, they responded in their usually vicious tone:
“If you don’t want your family to be taken away, you need to leave us alone and go back immediately.”
My mom put in a request to the Central Committee three times but they rejected her request each time. An officer at the Central Committee even paid a visit to speak with her for hours.
“I will be honest with you on this. If we look into this case all over again and say, your family returns home. Then, those who are responsible for this will be punished. From then, this fight will be between you and those people. Those are the people who have money and power. Do you think you could win a fight against them?
“It doesn’t matter anymore whether your family has committed a sin or not. If you had power, your family wouldn’t have been sent away to the prison camp in the first place. Make a choice now. Do you want to protect your remaining family or do you all wish to be executed?”
My mom never talked about her brothers ever again.
I thought I might be on the verge of life and death – I could be executed. For something my maternal grandfather and his brothers have done – although I haven’t even met them – I could be executed.
There was a possibility that I end up tortured, stuck in a dungeon for several months, or I could be subject to forced labor at a prison camp. Maybe I would meet my uncles and relatives. Who knows? My maternal grandfather, whose face I had never seen, could still be alive.
Isn’t it ridiculous that the destiny of your life changes dramatically for what your ancestors have done? My maternal grandmother comes from an anti-Japanese guerilla family. Everyone on my maternal grandmother’s side worked as an anti-Japanese guerilla or provided financial assistance for those working in the combat against Japanese imperialists.
One of my maternal grandmother’s uncles was a general leading a group of combats fighting to achieve the independence of Korea. He maintained a good relationship with Kim Il Sung and he penned a memoir titled “In this Century”. Thanks to such achievements, my maternal grandmother received benefits from the party and she was able to marry my grandfather, who was one of the most promising grooms in North Korea at that time.
But when my grandfather was executed during the tumultuous sixties, his family was sent away to a rural town far away from Pyongyang and my grandmother was sent to the prison camp. Under the government pressure, she married someone else. But things didn’t get much better after that.
I haven’t met my grandfather – I haven’t seen a single photo of him. But for the reason that he was shunned by the government, I didn’t have anything to hope for. I just hoped that my father and sister would be safe. My legs were shaking really badly when I got in the car.
I looked at agent Kim who was seated beside me in the car. He seemed nervous and tense, as if he didn’t know why I was called upon. Before I knew it, the car pulled off in front of the office building. Feeling dizzy, I got out of the car. It was warm and shiny. Maybe I would never be able to be outside again. A guy in a suit escorted me as I was shaking from head to toe.
I wanted to run away from the reality. I couldn’t think properly. I froze on the stairs.
“Are you feeling okay?” asked Kim.
I took a deep breath in front of the room of the first secretary.
Knock, knock, knock. The door was decorated almost flamboyantly.
This was my first time inside the first secretary’s room. Hand-written letters and certificates hung on his wall. A few party officers, bald and chubby, were seated.
“Why aren’t you bowing to us?” One of them yelled.
I lowered my head in front of them. There was a pile of papers and documents on the desk. They whispered, glancing at me from head to toe. They spoke to me again.
“You must be Ji-Min, aren’t you? Let me see…you’re 22… 173cm tall and 59kg.”
Without telling me who they were, they kept asking me a bunch of weird questions.
“You dad is a journalist at the Minjoo Chosun and your mom is a member of Women’s League. And your sister is a student at the College of Music and Dance?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“Your mom played the piano at the Mansu Arts Company, right?”
“I’ve never seen her play there, but, that’s what she’s told me.”
They kept looking down at the documents about my family’s background while asking me a row of questions. They relentlessly asked me questions, and they seemed to know more about my family background than I did. They even examined the shape of my fingers and fingernails and they wanted to check if I had an athlete’s foot or bad breath.
When they were finally done with asking me these weird questions, they finally told me who they were.
“We’re from the 9th department of the Central Committee. The first secretary recommended you for us. We were told that you’re clever and smart and have a good reputation among your friends.”
“We think that you could do something for the country. We think that you’re suitable for this position. You’re still young. We will keep an eye on you and recruit you at a later point. You need to study and work hard in the meantime. Do you understand?” said one of the officers, who was wearing a pair of horn-rimmed glasses – it must have been considered fashionable to wear horn-rimmed glasses among party officers.
“Yes, sir. I will try to lead an exemplary life”
I was just relieved that they hadn’t come to arrest me.
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