The book begins with Kang's family background, which is crucial to understanding all that follows: his grandparents were committed socialists of the Chosun Soren, essentially the North Korean socialist party in Japan, who moved to North Korea in the 1960s. His grandfather was well-off, which earned the family a higher-class status within the Worker's Party in Pyongyang. However, somewhere along the way, Chol-Hwan's grandfather did something to offend higher-ups in the Party--exactly what, the family has never discovered--and the family (minus his grandfather and his mother) were sent to a "re-education camp" called Yodok.
In one instant, he was transformed from a child of privilege (never mind how that can exist in a socialist state) to a child of desperate poverty and ill-treatment. This memoir describes in unflinching detail the brutality of the camp's guards, the cruelty and ignorance of the teachers, the filthy, subhuman conditions, the contradictions of socialist philosophy under the the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, and the depths of depravity to which humans can sink when the physical pain of hunger is all you can feel.
Children spent their mornings in "school", mostly regurgitating the Great Leader's speeches or being physically abused by sadists masquarading as teachers, and their afternoons doing physical labor--dangerous physical labor. He describes being forced to work the balance of the day after a cave-in buried alive half of his preadolecent work crew, while the guards laughed at the foolishness of the dead children; being required to attend executions of failed escapees from Yodok--including once being forced to participate in stoning the dead bodies until they were mostly bones and scraps of bloody clothes and flesh; becoming adept at trapping rats for the meat they provided; learning the false smile and empty words of the slave.
I once believed that man was different from other animals, but Yodok showed me that reality doesn't support this opinion. In the camp, there was no difference between man and beast, except maybe that a very hungry human was capable of stealing food from its little ones while an animal, perhaps, was not. I also saw many people die in the camp, and their deaths looked like that of other animals. (p. 160)
The family was released from the camp after his grandfather died, in February, 1987. He was nineteen. While there were the ordinary difficulties of acclimating to life outside, the economy of North Korea grew worse during this time, and he could see the impact of gross mismanagement firsthand--rice rotting in the villages as there was no way to transport it to the cities, machinery sitting idle in cities that was needed in the farming communities--the famine of the early nineties (and surely the current one) wholly preventable but for the intransigence of Dear Leader's regime.
Eventually, Chol-hwan escapes to China and makes his way to the South (not a spoiler, since the book could never have been published otherwise), and finally escapes also the cumulative mental effect of the propaganda he heard day-in and day-out his whole life long. I found this passage very moving:
He showed me the famous sites of Seoul: City Hall, Namdaemun, the banks of the Han River, the parks, Itaewon. One evening, we went up the Namsam Television Tower and saw all of Seoul lit up below us. The view filled me with wonder.
What most struck me, however, was the way people led their lives. Everyone seemed free to do as they wished. No system organized their movements and activities. I have to admit that it rather worried me at first. This sort of society just couldn't last; it could never face a crisis. I later realized this only seemed like disorder. A pervading logic governed peoples' interactions. Though the principle of everybody for himself reigned supreme, people here appeared honest; they thought about others and shared common values. Seoul was teeming with cars. I'd never seen so many. I was amazed to learn that most of them were actually manufactured in Korea itself. This was never mentioned in the North. I remember the pride I felt at this discovery--my first feeling of pride for South Korea. (pp. 222-3)
Originally published in 2000, this is the first memoir to come out of North Korea's prison camps: haunting, shocking, grotesque but somehow life-affirming, it is a call to action for those in the West--and in South Korea--who wish to end the needless human suffering caused by this evil regime.