Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Long Road Home by Kim Yong

book cover

Long Road Home:
Testimony of a North Korean Camp Survivor
by Kim Yong
with Kim Suk-Young

ISBN-13: 978-0-231-14746-0
Hardback: 184 pages
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Released: May 2009

Source: Electronic review copy from publisher through Netgalley.

Book Description, my take:
Long Road Home shares the remarkable story of a former North Korean military official who served six years of a life sentence in a penal camp before managing to escape.

When Kim Yong was three years old, his father was executed as a spy for the United States. The stigma of the father's guilt would forever limit his son's future, so Kim Yong's mother placed him in an orphanage for war orphans by giving him a false background. He was adopted by a high-ranking political official, entered the military, and eventually became a lieutenant colonel in the national security police. His job gave him unusual freedom of movement throughout the country, and he encountered corruption at all levels.

He married, had children, and enjoyed access to luxuries others were denied. But when he was recommended for a promotion which required a meticulous background clearance check, his true identity was uncovered. He was imprisoned in two different penal camps over a six year period and forced to do hard labor on a starvation diet until his amazing, narrow escape in 1999.

My Review:
Long Road Home is a biography written by Kim Suk-Young using transcripts of interviews with Kim Yong, but the book is written in first person like a memoir. It was a well-written, amazing story that kept my interest throughout. Kim Yong's story gave insight into many aspects of life in North Korea as well as describing what the penal camps were like and why people were sent there.

The introduction explained how Korea ended up as North and South Korea and other necessarily background information. The first part of the book (up until he got married at age 28) gave a broad overview of that period of his life with only a few, life-changing events told in detail. Afterward, much more detail was given, including graphic descriptions of how bad the suffering was.

There were black and white maps showing his escape route and the location of the two penal labor camps, including satellite maps of the camps. Overall, I'd highly recommend this memoir to those wanting to know more about life in North Korea.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter Four
In North Korea, everyone knows that a labor camp is a place where life is suspended. One does not live there, one slowly dies there. I was simply another dead soul in Camp No. 14.

At 5:00 a.m. everyone was awakened. By 6:00 a.m. the prisoners had finished their meager breakfast and marched toward the workplace. Since the mine shafts were hidden in deep valleys, nobody could see the sun light. At 7:00 we were already busy at work. Between 12:30 and 1:00 p.m., we had a quick lunch underground in the mine shaft. In order to go to the toilet, the prisoners had to wait to form groups because there was little light and they had to share one bulb to move around. One person had to carry the lamp and lead the way. Then we came out of the shaft around 11:30 p.m. and ate supper outside in darkness. According to the rules, the work was supposed to end by 8:00 p.m., or by 9:00 p.m. at the latest. However, no guard bothered to enforce this. The only real rules in Camp No. 14 were the guards’ decisions. After work, we marched back to our barracks and stayed up another hour for political struggle consisting of mutual and self criticism. At 1:00 a.m., three hours later than the camp regulations, everyone went to sleep. Before my arrest, I used to sleep eight hours a night, on the average. At the camp, that was cut in half.

Even by notoriously subhuman North Korean camp standards, No. 14 was the worst of them all. To my knowledge, no human being had escaped it alive. Prisoners were beyond the point of feeling hungry, so they felt constantly delirious. But what was really killing us was psychological and emotional torture. No family members were allowed to stay together. Upon arrival at the camp, husbands and wives were separated. Children were allowed to stay with their mother until they turned twelve; then they were segregated according to sex and kept in separate barracks. Once families were separated, there was no way of knowing whether other members were dead or alive. The only chance they might have to see each other was during the public executions when all prisoners were gathered in the courtyard.

Read more of the excerpt.

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

I recently read this book for a paper in one of my M.A. English classes. While I agree that the story is amazing, no one is paying attention to how poorly it is written. Kim Suk-Young's command of English is certainly less than perfect. In the introduction she claims to have added "literary trimming," but it's hard to see the literary value of the work. I think if the book had been well-written then Kim Yong's story would have received more attention. As it is, few reviewers outside of Asian publications have written about the book and it has received almost no scholarly attention as a work of literature. In the hands of a talented writer this could have been a bestseller.