Yu-Kyung Kim


Yu-Kyoung Kim

The Gulag

Sold to Phillippe Piquier/France

Setting the Scene | Kim’s novel centers around the lives of three main characters: Wonho, part of the Pyongyang elite and an up-and-coming journalist; Wonho’s wife, Suryeon, a talented gayakeumperformer; and Mingyu, a political internment camp guard and long a secret admirer of Suryeon. The novel begins with Wonho and Suryeon, along with Wonho’s mother, being unceremoniously snatched up by security officers and whisked away to an internment camp. They are not told where they are going or why. We later find out that Wonho’s father worked as a spy to South Korea and evidently had been captured. This consequently led to Wonho’s family being branded “traitors” and sentenced without trial to one of North Korea’s “revolutionary zones,” or more specifically a political prison camp (정치범수용소), which becomes the main setting of the novel.

From the onset of the novel, Kim makes clear the difference between a political prison camp and that of a Total Control Zone (완전통제구역). The political prison camp allows families to live together and prisoners are put to work cutting wood and cultivating crops. A Total Control Zone, nicknamed “The Valley of Ghosts” (귀신골) is located not far from the camp. Prisoners in the Total Control Zone are segregated by gender, with male prisoners working in a mine. Prisoners who misbehave in a political internment camp are sent to the Total Control Zone as punishment. This distinction is important. Infamously, Shin Donghyuk in 2016 admitted to having been interned in a political prison camp rather than a Total Control Zone, in contradiction to a previous claim. In fact, the setting of Inganmodoksomirrors Shin’s internment in a “revolutionizing zone” near Camp No. 15 in Yodok, where the emphasis is on re-educating prisoners rather than interning them until death.

Camp Life | This is not to say that life in political prisoner camps is easy. In Kim’s telling, hunger is constant, and just six months into their stay Wonho’s family is described as “having lost half of their weight” (pp. 92). Becoming a “camp person” (수용소 사람), however, is not just a dreadful physical, but an appalling mental state as well:

When seeing a camp guard, they (camp people) mechanically bow down at a 90-degree angle, and when they see grass that’s edible their hands rush to grab it first. Camp people respond not through intellect, but through their five senses. Their sense of smell is the first to become sensitive. At the faint smell of corn porridge coming from faraway their minds center only on the porridge and their noses begin to flare. Their pale eyes glaze over with the desire to eat. (p. 93)

This hunger-induced mental state is compounded by the utter lack of solidarity amongst the prisoners. The guards methodically switch out work partners on a daily basis to ensure no one forms alliances, and delegate the heavy lifting of “motivating” prisoners through fear to other, model prisoners, reminiscent of the kapo of Nazi concentration camps. Despite living in family units, the utter exhaustion of the daily work leads to a deep sense of loneliness:

Camp people work in groups, but are perfectly alone. They lead a solitary existence even within their families. This is because their own share (of the work to be done) is so large. All the pain, from the difficult labor, to the hunger and cold, must be endured completely by oneself, and there is no one to share the burden or lend a helping hand. They do not have empathy for others, and the pain of others is considered less than their own. They are just happy that it’s the person next to them getting hit and spitting out blood, and they work ever more selfishly to become more solitary to avoid getting killed. (p. 179)

On top of these descriptions of camp life, Kim weaves together a story of love, betrayal, and survival. Mingyu, a camp guard, takes advantage of his position to form a relationship with Suryeon soon after her arrival at the camp. Mingyu coincidently had long admired Suryeon outside of the camp (they are from the same town), and ensures that she leads a slightly more comfortable life through the provision of extra food and a job as a work team accountant, a prized position. In return, however, he desires a relationship, which reflects the widespread practice of guards taking on mistresses among the female prisoners. This understandably upsets Suryeon’s husband when he learns of the affair, and his anger soon borders on insanity. Years pass and Wonho is unforgiving to his wife. Even when the characters – all three of them — miraculously make it to South Korea, Wonho’s anger fails to subside. The novel’s storyline is effective, colorful and sprinkled with North Korean phrases, though long at a hefty 404 pages.

Towards New Perspectives on North Korea | Kim’s novel adds to a growing literature in the form of novels and short stories on North Korea’s human rights abuses. She also has added one more to the rising trend of defector novelists writing about their home country. Her novels, however, are set apart from other writers in the community. Defector writers have at times tried to argue that their works are “fact-based”. Kim Pyong-gang’s recently released Punggyeri (풍계리, 2017), for example, has been marketed as a “fact-based” novel. Jang Hae-sung, whose Dumangang (두만강, 2013) was a straight forward story of defection from North Korea, recently released a novel entitled The Misfortune of Jang Songthaek (비운의 남자 장성택 1 and 2, both 2016) that is marketed as providing an inside story based on “fact.” There is no doubt that these novels weave in some “facts” among the fiction, but it is curious that so much emphasis is placed on the problematic concept of “fact.”

In contrast, Bandi’s short stories, marketed without the “fact-based” emphasis, succeed because they are all stories of people going about their daily lives, clearly mixing realistic sounding storylines with naturally fictionized characters. Kim’s novel also succeeds in this respect, mixing experiences she either went through herself or heard from others with her own creativity as a novelist. That she is an unknown entity, like Bandi, gives her a mysteriousness yet also some odd sense of credibility as a writer, who is focused simply on informing the world of her perspective on her own country. That’s perhaps how it should be, fact or no fact aside. After all, gaining new or different perspectives is why we read novels.

Kim’s novel has, perhaps unsurprisingly, caught the attention of publishers overseas. The novel’s Korean publisher, Camelbooks, has sold the rights to Editions Philippe Picquier, a French publisher. An English edition should, we hope, be in the offing soon.