North Korean Writers in a Land of the Rising Sun

I’m flying home from the 78th PEN International Congress in Gyeongju (Kyongju), South Korea, peering out the airplane window under the shade at the floor of clouds. The sun is just beginning to emerge above the horizon, turning the white billowing floor red as if fire were simmering beneath. On the horizon the orange-yellow line of sunlight glows then diffuses into the blue sky. The sun itself suddenly appears, a solid bold globe of fire, and the fire beneath the clouds grows dark.

However many sunrises I watch in however many circumstances—on air planes, on a beach, in a city building, I take pause in wonder, breathe in and watch the larger movement of life.

Returning at 30,000 feet from a conference of writers from 85 PEN Centers around the world, I remember the first time I was in Korea 24 years ago—over 8700 sunrises ago. At PEN’s Congress in Seoul in 1988, a week before the Olympic Games security was high with bomb sniffing dogs and extensive car checks. The political environment was tense. Writers and publishers were in prison in South Korea, and PEN was divided on how to conduct its business in a country where freedom of expression was challenged.  A contingent visited the writers in prison; I visited with the family of one of the writer/publishers. We lobbied inside and outside the official Congress for the freedom of these writers. After the Congress a number were released, including the one whose family I had visited.

Now 24 years later there are no writers or publishers in prison in South Korea. The PEN gathering in the mountainous city of Gyeongju, the ancient capitol of the Shilla Dynasty where the rays of the rising sun first touch the land, focused instead on writers from North Korea, where there is no freedom.

“People in North Korea are deprived of their human rights. It is a living hell,” said one North Korean writer who escaped. “I ask help of writers around the world.”

Myourng-hak Do, a North Korean poet was imprisoned for writing two satiric poems, ‘The Country of Hunchbacks’ and ‘Pass the One-eyed,’ which told the real story of a one-eyed man being conscripted into the Army when North Korea was experiencing severe depopulation. The Army said he could shoot with the remaining eye. These poems were private, never published nor submitted for publication, but were shared with a friend who turned out to be a spy

“The security department instructed the prison guards to treat me especially cruelly. Prisoners in the camp were forced to wake up at 5am and sit motionless until 11pm. The pain was beyond imagination,” he said.

Before his arrest, Myourng-hak Do had been a member of the Joseon Writers Alliance and was supposed “to compose dozens of poems that inspired loyalty to the regime.”

Young-soon Kim, a North Korean dancer turned writer, grew up in a favored position because her brother had been a young army general who had been killed in battle. She had a close friend Seong Hye-rim, who was the second wife of Kim Jong-il and the mother of Kim’s oldest son.  “One day she dropped by my house and told me that she would go to ‘house No. 5’ (the residence of Kim Jong-il) I doubtingly asked her about her [real] husband….She didn’t reply…It was the last time I saw her.  After she went into the house, she got completely disconnected from the outside world. And I had no idea that a horrible fate would soon befall me because of my relation with my friend.”

Young-soon Kim was imprisoned without knowing the reason or the term.  Eight of her family members were also detained. “My aged parents starved to death…To simply express how I spent nine years in the camp, I ate everything that flied or crawled, and I ate every grass on earth…..Prisoners in the camp are treated worse than animals until their death.”

Young-soon Kim managed to escape after nine years and made her way to the South. “I realized anyone among a population of 50 million can freely publish books and that people read and actively talked about books by foreign writers. The saying ‘people make books, and books make people’ is one that deeply touches my heart.

“I came to South Korea in the later years of my life, but I have no regrets. Life has a beginning and an end. And the glow from a sunset is as beautiful as a sunrise.  I will write to let the world know about what I have been through.”

Young-soon Kim and Myoung-ha Do are two of the founding members of the new North Korean Writers in Exile PEN Center which was voted in as the 145th center of PEN International on the closing day of its 78th Assembly.