Commentary Magazine


The Prisoner

Park kept his eyes on the two guards near the entrance to the gravel pit. The heavyset soldier the men called Toothache massaged his swollen cheek with his stubby index finger, rubbing the flesh in tiny concentric circles like a woman applying rouge. Cho would handle Toothache when the time came.

It was the other guard, Bear, who worried him. Park would have to take Bear down with the first blow, a feat Park could easily have performed in his former life. But five months of eating only a few handfuls of boiled corn a day had wasted the powerful body that had once earned him the privilege of protecting Dear Leader.

Now Park struggled to lift the last shovelful of gravel at the end of his twelve-hour shift.

The final rays of the sun disappeared behind Mount Tok-san, casting the pit into near total darkness. Park lifted his shovel, the crushed granite covered in a fine layer of snowflakes, but instead of dumping the load into the low metal railcar headed for Pyongyang, he loosened his grip. The clang of metal against metal startled the other prisoners, except for Cho, who had been expecting it.

“Clumsy idiot,” Toothache shouted.

“Sorry. My fingers are stiff from the cold,” Park said, holding up his raw, reddened hands as Bear moved menacingly toward him, the rifle aimed at his chest. The other men cleared a path, and Toothache began herding them down into the pit, shoving the rifle butt into the backs of those who moved too slowly.

“You think you’re cold now?” Bear pushed the barrel into Park’s sternum until he stumbled back against the railcar. Park clenched his fists tightly to keep himself from grabbing the rifle.

“You were lucky today,” Cho said as he squatted beside Park near the stove in the tiny hut they shared with ten other men. The wind, which blew fiercely after sunset, whistled through the wide cracks in the weathered boards. It was nearing midnight and only Cho and Park were still awake. The other men lay on their icy mats, bundled in blankets and wearing every stitch of clothing they possessed, down to their caps. Cho handed Park a box with a half-dozen misshapen matches inside. “You better light it before we all freeze to death,” he said, though both men knew that the longer they waited, the more likely the stove would still be warm when they were wakened before dawn by the camp loudspeakers broadcasting the Dear Leader’s voice.

“If I can’t disable Bear, we’re doomed. Did you see how quickly he reacted?” Park struck the match, which broke in two without lighting. He looked up at Cho, whose face wore the same impassive expression as the first time Park had broached the issue of escaping.

“Let me try.” Cho took the stub with its thin coating of sulfur and ran it slowly across the rough exterior of the stove until it burst into flame, scorching his fingertips. He dropped it onto the dry twigs at the base of the woodpile and began to blow gently until the wood caught fire. “The trick will be surprising him. We can count on the others after you’ve taken down Bear.”

“Worthless. Not one among them who would not turn on us if it meant a few more cabbage leaves in his soup,” Park said. Cho said nothing but his eyes spoke their disapproval. Park wondered, not for the first time, whether it had been a mistake to bring him in on his plan. But what was done was done. And Park needed Cho. Park could handle one guard but not two.

Cho stood up, pulling an old quilted blanket tightly around his shoulders. “We should get some sleep while we can. Bear will be ferocious tomorrow.”

Park slowly lifted his body from his crouching position. He eyed Cho shivering in the icy air of the hut. The man’s back bent under the blanket as if he were still carrying a load of gravel. Park squared his shoulders and spat into the fire. The thin sliver of spittle sizzled on the dry twigs as he closed the firebox door. He stood warming his hands over the iron stove for a few minutes before retreating to his mat. Cho was snoring by the time Park pulled his blanket and coat over his own body. He had hoped to have a few more minutes to talk him through the plan, but there would be time enough in the days ahead. It was almost a week before all the preparations would be complete.

The prisoners were already lined up outside the hut, ready to be led to their work detail, though sunrise was still more than an hour away. The dozen men beat their hands against their sides to keep their fingers from freezing. The snow had fallen all night and now covered the ground in a thick white blanket lit by the setting moon, a sight Park would have thought beautiful under other circumstances. A few of the men wore old gloves and others had wrapped rags, even paper, around their hands, but nothing could provide much protection at -10°C. The best they could hope for when the guard showed up was an assignment inside one of the unheated factory huts, but Park knew he would not be so lucky on this day.

Cho cleared his throat and coughed, the signal that Bear was approaching. Park had been expecting Toothache since Bear often managed to find someone to substitute for him on the coldest days, but Bear strode quickly down the line of men until he reached Park.

“Too cold to work?” Bear stood with his feet apart, staring into Park’s eyes, his lips pursed.

Park waited, unblinking. “I am ready to serve the Dear Leader as he chooses.”

“No. It is too cold for you to be in the pit today. You must stay indoors.” Bear’s lips spread into a full grin, revealing his small, perfect teeth. They reminded Park of a child’s teeth, out of place in the massive, square-shaped jaw. Park nodded and stepped back out of line with the other men.

Cho suddenly cleared his throat again and Park turned his head to see Toothache approaching, out of breath. He realized his mistake too late as he felt the icy metal butt of the rifle against his cheek, a noise like a large tree branch cracking under the weight of snow filling his head. He stumbled backwards and would have collapsed had the hut not broken his fall. The pain in his cheek nearly blinded him. He slid his back up against the hut, struggling to raise himself erect once more. He felt his legs give way but pushed harder, thankful that the wall bore some of his weight.

“We better take care of that cut. Looks pretty deep,” Bear said, grabbing Park by the sleeve and pushing him along the line.

Park tried to catch Cho’s eye as he passed in front of his friend, but Cho had lowered his head. Park staggered along, driven by Bear, who propelled him forward with his rifle. They walked perhaps 300 meters through the now deep snow, beyond the rows of barracks and guard posts that broke the monotony of the flat white landscape until they came to a barren section of the camp. Park felt his knees buckling but struggled to maintain his balance. The sunrise over the granite peaks to the east turned the snow a pale pink, and Park began to feel woozy just as they reached their destination. Before them were what looked like a series of snow cubes. It was the first time Park had actually seen the deadly boxes.

“Let’s see how this suits you,” Bear said, shoving Park forward. The edges of the structure were sharp under the soft contours of snow and dug into Park’s ribs as he fell against the box. Bear reached down and pushed Park aside, lifting a hatch door. The heavy layer of snow that had covered the box slid from the now visible wooden structure with its tin roof.

“Get in,” he shouted. “I told you that you would learn what it meant to be cold. We’ll see how long you last in here.”

Darkness enveloped Park as Bear slammed the door shut. He listened to the clang of the metal bar shoved into the latch to secure the door, the last sounds he would hear, except for his own breathing, for who knew how long. He crouched on bended knees, his heels digging deep into his buttocks, his head bent at a nearly 90-degree angle so that his forehead rested against his kneecaps. The ligaments and tendons in his knees and ankles stretched taut, making them burn white hot as if they were being stretched on a rack. He barely felt the swelling in his cheek, which had closed his left eye, though he suspected that the agony from being forced into such an unnatural position had simply blocked out all other sensations, even the pain of a broken cheekbone.

He had demonstrated an almost superhuman capacity for punishment during his training for the Bodyguard Command. But Park knew then that there would be an end to the agony, indeed a great reward if he survived. There would be no end to his current ordeal. Survival would bring only the prospect of more suffering. Only death would release him. Unless he was able to escape.

He breathed deeply through his nose, surprised that the moisture in the air did not form tiny icicles in the hairs in his nostrils. The snow that covered the box was now trapping his body heat, which had no avenue to escape. Even the hole for human waste seemed to have been shut since he could feel no rush of cold air beneath him. The box had been designed to punish prisoners during the summer months, when its metal roof intensified the rays of the sun so the temperature rose inside to 45°C or higher. He had not been this comfortably warm at any time, awake or sleeping, since the heavy snows began in mid-December. If it were not for the excruciating pain of his flexed knees and ankles, he would consider himself lucky to be out of the elements on a day as cold as this one.

He exhaled through his lips, slowly, driving the pain out as he expelled the air from his lungs. Again, he breathed in through his nose and held it for only a second before releasing it in one long, steady motion as if blowing on a bowl of hot soup.

And again. In. Out. Counting.

He began to feel drowsy. He had managed to keep his one good eye open, even though there was almost no light that seeped through the tight seams of the box. He marveled at how the Chosongul could build such a perfect structure while, even in Pyongyang, new buildings crumbled from poor construction and shoddy materials. He thought of the Ryugyong hotel, which had dominated Pyongyang like a deserted wasps’ nest for two decades. The 105-story pyramid would have been the tallest hotel in the world had it been completed on schedule. Instead, construction halted when the Arduous March emptied the city of workers who took to the countryside in search of food, stripping bark from trees and every blade of grass for nourishment. Now, the Ryugyong, too dangerous to enter, haunted the skyline. He pushed the image from his mind. Such thoughts had a way of spilling out at the wrong time.

Park opened his eyes. How long had he slept? Had he slept at all? Or was he simply in a state of suspended animation? He could not feel his feet, or much else below his waist. Even the agonizing burning in his ligaments was now numb. He butted his head against the tin roof and turned it side to side, the reverberations of the metal ringing in his ears. He unclasped his hands, which were wrapped around his knees as if to maintain his balance, though there was no place for his body to fall in this torture chamber. His fingers tingled as the blood began to circulate in them once again. He touched his injured eye, which was caked with blood. He pressed his cheekbone below the eye socket and a thick substance oozed out over his fingers. His lips were parched. He had not had any water or food, which was perhaps a good thing since he had had to relieve himself only three times in the, what was it, two days he’d been there. The stink was bearable. He remembered his father saying a dog doesn’t smell its own.

The numbness in his body troubled him even more than the pain. If he stayed in this position too long, he would lose the ability to walk. He recalled the tale of one prisoner who had survived in the box nearly a month and lost the use of his legs, which had turned black from lack of circulation. The man eventually died, slowly, as the flesh rotted. It began with his feet and spread up his legs until the stench drove the men in his hut to force him to sleep outside, though the nights had turned bitter.

Park shifted his weight, hoping to reawaken the nerves in his extremities, even if it meant pain. He felt a stab in his Achilles tendon and reached behind him to massage the back of his ankle. The sharp pain changed to a deep burning sensation, which spread up into his calves like kudzu tendrils. He held his right hand on his knee, gently working the thumb and fingers of his left into the indentations of his ankle and up his calf. He shifted his weight to perform the same motion on his right leg but lost his balance. His shoulder fell hard against the wall of the enclosure. He had spent years building the muscles in his body so that he was fit to serve in the Bodyguard Command only to have them whither in a matter of months in the camp.

His training had prepared him to suffer—sleep deprivation, starvation rations, beatings, solitary confinement, all so that he could not be broken should he ever be captured and compelled to betray the Dear Leader. Was it only his love for Dear Leader that saw him through the pain? For years he would fall asleep each night recalling his childhood days, cataloguing them into the episodes of drunken rage when his father struck him and hurled insults, his speech slurred by alcohol. By the time Park was a teenager, he had become more powerful than his father and the beatings stopped. But not the torrent of words. More than once he had thought of turning his father in, as the alcohol-driven rage took on more dangerous targets. The night Park announced he had been chosen for the Dear Leader’s elite guard, his father sneered. “He’ll never be the man his father was,” he had said, pointing up at the gilt-framed pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il that hung on the wall above the small black-and-white television set. “Fucking clown—and a coward. Like you, boy,” he hissed, keeping his voice low so that the neighbors could not hear.

Park felt the old anger returning. He should have done it. He leaned forward, resting his forehead on the cold slats to relieve the weight on his legs. He wouldn’t be in this predicament now if he had ratted out his father. No. If he had done so at the time, instead of being accepted into the Bodyguard Command, he would have been sent with his father, mother, and two living grandparents to a camp like this one. “Factionalists and class enemies, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations”—how many times had he himself recited the words of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, Dear Leader’s father?

But he ended up here anyway, despite his service to the man his father despised. Or because of it. An offhand remark, so innocent that he had trouble recalling it when confronted later. “The Dear Leader looks tired today,” he had commented to one of his fellow guards as they watched Kim Jong Il stumble getting out of his Mercedes. Park did not see the Dear Leader on the compound for several weeks afterward, which he thought little of at the time. But when General Kim appeared again, one hand hung limply at his side and his head seemed too big for his body, which had shrunk visibly. Soon after, Park was taken into custody, accused of accepting bribes from foreign enemies to spread lies about the Dear Leader’s health. He wondered if the others who had seen the Great Man stumble had suffered his same fate.

A blinding flash of light hit him as the lid of the box opened, followed by a gush of frigid air.

“On your feet.” The voice was familiar, though Park’s good eye had still not adjusted to the light to confirm that it was indeed Toothache.

Park reached up to grasp the sides of the box trying to pull his body up.

“Take it slow. You need to get your circulation back.”

He felt a hand under his armpit, lifting him on one side. The guard hoisted the rifle over his shoulder and reached down pulling Park upright, but his legs gave way immediately. He managed to sit on the edge of the box and began rubbing his calves vigorously. The pain was immediate, like an electric shock.

“Don’t put up such a show. You’ve only been in three days. I’ve seen prisoners in better shape after a week. Where’s all your elite training now?” Toothache yanked on his arm. “Let’s go. There’s no time to rest. You want to eat? You work first.”

Slowly, Park rose to his feet, a sharp pain shot up his legs, a good sign, he thought. He wished now that he had not wasted his time in the box reliving the past. He should have been planning out every detail of his escape. If Toothache was right about how long he had been in the box, he had very little time left. He had planned to leave by late December when the snows became almost steady during the shortened days. It would be difficult to traverse the granite mountains that surrounded the camp, but his training would serve him well. He had marched 100 kilometers in freezing weather, though he had been better clothed and provisioned. It was the only way. If he waited too much longer he would be too weak to keep ahead of the trackers, though they would give up quickly assuming no one could survive in the unforgiving terrain. And Cho? He could not last long.

Park moved forward, his eyes adjusted to what initially had seemed a floodlight but turned out to be a gray dawn with the mist just rising over the mountains. He could make out a sliver of light through his injured eye when he closed the good one, but the image was fuzzy and he feared it had suffered permanent damage.

“We don’t have all day,” Toothache barked at him, shoving the rifle muzzle into his side. He marched unsteadily, stung by the cold. He had grown unaccustomed to it in just a few days in the box. The body forgets both pain and pleasure quickly, he thought. He was weak with hunger. It would take all his power to keep from fainting in the pit.

When the men returned to the hut after the evening meal, Park found that his blanket had been taken and in its place was another, no better than a rag. He lay down on the thin scrap, stretching his legs. The ligaments in the back of his knees still throbbed as if they had shrunk several centimeters in just the few days in the box. He waited for Cho to approach, but his friend sat with his back to him talking to a prisoner Park couldn’t see. Cho was being cautious, no doubt. It would not be wise to appear too eager to talk to a prisoner who had just been released from the box.

Park put his arms behind his head, bending his knees slightly, and began a series of sit-ups. By the tenth repetition, he collapsed backwards. He had had nothing to eat in three days but the single bowl of cold, watery cabbage broth and a handful of uncooked wheat kernels served after his work shift. It would take weeks to regain the strength he had left, and he did not have weeks. He thought of the provisions he had saved under the floorboard: a few handfuls of dried corn and the carcasses of five skinned rats hidden in a metal box he had stolen from one of the other prisoners. It was enough so that he would not have to forage the first day, possibly two. It was imperative that in the first 72 hours he put as much distance as possible between himself and those who would be chasing him. The guards assigned to track him would be nearly as ill fed as the camp prisoners and eager to abandon the search. Everyone assumed that the mountainous terrain and temperatures would eventually kill those few prisoners who managed to escape, so it was not in the interest of the trackers to spend much time in pursuit. Of course, two men would be easier to track than one.

He stood up and walked toward the front of the hut where a small cistern of foul water stood near the door. He was so thirsty that he would drink anything.

“Don’t touch that, friend, you’ll regret it.”

He turned around to face Cho, who had come up quietly behind him.

“Here, drink some of this.” Cho handed him a cracked ceramic bottle. Park pulled out the stopper and lifted the vessel to his lips. He was surprised to taste alcohol as he threw his head back.

“Where’d you get this?”

“Don’t ask too many questions.”

Cho smiled and Park took another deep swig of the slightly bitter liquid. He handed the bottle back to Cho.

“Not now. We may need it later,” Cho said, reaching out for the small piece of cork Park still held in his hand.

Park awakened early, before the sound of the sirens and the Dear Leader’s voice crackling over the camp loudspeakers roused the men from their sleep. The two days following his release from the box had passed too quickly. He had run out of time to prepare for the journey to freedom across the Tumen River. And he had become increasingly fearful that Cho would slow him down. The two men had argued the previous night. Park had informed Cho that they would have to secure the other prisoners once they had disabled Toothache and Bear: “There is no way we can let them follow us. A group will be too easy to track. We will all die.” But Cho seemed hesitant, and the two men had retreated to their separate pallets without settling the matter. Now, Park looked toward his friend’s place near the front of the row of sleeping men but could not make him out.

He stood up, making as little noise as he could. He had already stuffed his trouser pockets with the few items he would take with him: matches, a flint, a few small pieces of wire, some nails. He was wearing all the clothing he possessed, which he would need to protect himself from the elements. But, in truth, he would be wearing all his garments even if he were not planning an escape that day. Frostbite could strike the careless. He squinted in the twilight trying to see if Cho was awake, but when he came to Cho’s mat he saw that his friend was not there. He was about to go outside to check when Cho appeared in the doorway. He looked frightened as Park approached.

“I’ve been awake all night,” Cho whispered. “I can’t do it. I’ll help you, but I can’t leave the others behind.”

 “They will execute you. But not before they get whatever information they can.” Cho dropped his head to his chest.

Park grabbed Cho by the shoulders. “I am immoral because I want to live, even if it means others will die, is that it?”

“I am not judging you. Either we all try to escape or I must stay behind,” Cho said, his voice rising in a plaintive whine.

Park dropped his hands and walked back to his blanket. Their voices had awakened a few of the prisoners. One man—the oldest in the hut, who looked ancient though he could not have been more than fifty—spat as Park walked down the row. Park wondered if he had heard their conversation. A man could survive only so long in the camp without giving in to the temptation to betray others. He would have to keep a careful eye on the fellow if they were assigned to the same detail that day.

Park crouched down next to his sleeping mat. He rubbed his knee to ease the pain from the box with one hand, and with the other he reached under the blanket and ran his fingernail along a gap between the planks. He felt the edges of the photograph and gripped it between the nails of his thumb and index finger. He had not intended to bring the picture with him even though he had carried it from place to place since the day he left his parents’ home. He pulled it gently from its hiding place and laid it on the blanket.

The light had begun to filter through the dirty windows of the hut. Park leaned over his bed mat to stare at the faded black-and-white images in front of him: a handsome, dark-haired man smiled into the camera; a tiny woman in a genja stood stiffly by his side, her face showing no emotion; and a boy of six in short pants stood in front of them clutching a tiny ball in his small fist, a wide grin revealing two missing front teeth. A prisoner even then. They all had been. He tucked the photo into a small pocket sewn into the waistband of his trousers and stood up to join the other men as they filed out of the hut into the bitter dawn.

The sound of metal against rock reverberated in Park’s ears as he swung his pick in a wide arc, allowing the weight of the sharp instrument to perform much of the work. He gripped the wood tightly so that it would not fly out of his hands. He had seen what happened when a man got careless, impaling his own thigh. When the pile of small stones reached a cubic meter, Park bent and loaded them into two large buckets attached to a pole. In the days that he had been in the box, the pit had grown deeper. Instead of emptying the buckets’ contents at the rim of the pit for others to shovel into the railroad cars, Park now had to carry them back up the steep embankment. He had done this a hundred times already, each time feeling he might stumble on the loose gravel, balancing the heavy load at the end of the pole that dug into his shoulders. He could not afford a mishap. But the bigger problem was that the shovels were gone. He had counted on using the shovel against Bear. Now he would have to improvise.

The sun had begun to set behind Mount Tok-san in a cloudless pale sky, the color of pink jade. Park approached the car and set the buckets down. He wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. The day was unseasonably warm, slightly above freezing. The socket around his eye remained tender and his vision blurred but the swelling had gone down. He looked toward Cho, who was dumping his own load of stone into the railcar. Toothache stood behind Cho, his fingers working the side of his face absentmindedly. Park could sense Bear’s eyes on him, though he dared not turn around to confirm his suspicion. Instead, he lifted the bucket off its hook on one end of the pole and poured the granite pieces slowly into the nearly full car. He squatted as if to lift the second bucket off the pole, the pain in his knees nearly forcing him to tumble forward.

He could feel the bulk of Bear’s body behind him, now nearly touching his. Park gripped the pole in his fingers and sprung up, twisting his body around as he leapt into air. The thick bamboo hit Bear across the face and knocked his rifle to the ground, granite stones and dust showering all around. Park could not afford to take his eyes off Bear but he could hear the commotion from Cho’s end of the railcars. He was on top of Bear now, bearing down with all his strength on the pole that pushed against Bear’s windpipe, his knees buried in the man’s thick chest. The guard’s lips snarled, revealing those small, perfect teeth, so close now Park had the urge to lift the pole so that he could smash them. Bear’s eyes bulged as he tried to pry the pole loose, but Park had pinned him down with his own body so that Bear could get no leverage. Bear’s feet thrashed beneath him, growing weaker as the cheers from the other men confirmed that Toothache, too, had been disarmed.

 The steel barrel of the rifle entered his field of vision from the left. Park eased up on Bear’s neck, ready to turn the pole against whoever held the rifle. But the barrel came to rest against Bear’s temple as Cho bent over to touch Park’s shoulder. Park grabbed it and pushed it away. “Don’t waste the bullet. We may need of it later,” he said, rising to his feet.

Bear gasped for air, unable to speak.

“Get a pick,” Park yelled at one of the prisoners who now stood in a circle staring down on the two men.

Park lifted the pole and stuck one end against Bear’s throat to keep him pinned down while Cho kept Toothache’s rifle aimed at the guard’s chest. Bear opened his mouth to speak and Park quickly shoved the end of the pole against the man’s clenched teeth, leaning in until he could feel them crack under his weight.

“Careful,” Cho yelled as the man with the pick swung it over his back and down into Bear’s chest, almost hitting Park. Park reached out and grabbed the man, shoving him back. The man stumbled over Bear’s rifle, which still lay on the ground. No one had picked it up, as if the gun itself held the power of retribution. Park reached down and lifted the rifle by its leather strap.

Cho lowered his rifle. The other men had already begun to strip the two bodies, pushing and shoving each other in their eagerness to secure a jacket, boots, a fur hat.

“You’ll need this,” Cho said, extending the rifle toward Park. “And you may as well take this, too.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the flask he’d offered Park the night he returned from the box.

“You’re not coming?”

Cho lowered his head. Park reached out and squeezed his friend’s shoulder. The fellow with the pick was moving toward them, having wrenched the bloody implement from Bear’s body, bits of flesh and wool still attached to the tip. Park watched as the man came closer. He could not take a chance. He aimed the rifle at the prisoner and felled him with a single shot. The other men dropped to the ground, cowering over the naked bodies of the two dead guards.

“Get going,” Cho said. Someone will come to check now.”

Snowflakes landed on the barrel of the rifle, melting against the still warm steel.

“Look at them,” Park said, pointing the rifle at the men who had gathered into a small circle near Bear’s body. “You will sacrifice your life for theirs?” He stared into Cho’s eyes, which showed no fear, just that same impenetrable blackness. He could feel his chest constricting, the muscles in his arms tightening down into the finger that rested just above the trigger.

“I wouldn’t last out there,” Cho whispered.

Park swung the rifle back, aiming it at his friend’s heart. Cho took a step forward, pressing his chest against the barrel to absorb the sound. Park hesitated, then squeezed the trigger. Cho’s body flew back before hitting the ground. A dark stain spread beneath the body into the fresh snow that now stuck to the ground. The other men stared up, open-mouthed, but none uttered a cry or moved. Park looked down at Cho’s face, the implacable eyes still open. He slung the second rifle over his shoulder and sprinted down the rail line a distance before cutting up into the mountains. 

About the Author

Linda Chavez, president of the Becoming American Institute and the author of three books, is a syndicated columnist. This is the second short story she has published in Commentary about North Korea; the first, “Afterbirth,” appeared in our May 2011 issue. 




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