President George W. Bush has turned to the memoirs of a North Korean prison camp survivor at times to better understand issues confronting the hermit kingdom. Kang Chol-Hwan, the author of these memoirs, spoke at a Master’s Tea at Silliman College yesterday, recounting tales of survival presented in his “part horror story, part memoir.”
After surviving 10 years in a North Korean gulag, Chol-Hwan is spreading his story and message to students through a tour of America’s universities to promote awareness of the human rights abuses in North Korea. When Chol-Hwan was 9 years old, he and his family were imprisoned in the gulag. During his years of imprisonment, Chol-Hwan suffered from starvation, witnessed 15 executions, and endured a life of constant physical and emotional pain.
Chol-Hwan’s visit to Yale was coordinated through the Liberation in North Korea chapter of Yale. Aided by a translator, Myun Hwa Kang GRD ’09, he told his tale of survival to about 125 students who crowded into the Silliman master’s house.
“If you commit a serious sin in North Korea, your entire family up to the 10th generation goes to jail,” Chol-Hwan said. “If I do something wrong and die, it’s okay, but knowing that all of my family will die too makes demonstration impossible.”
Chol-Hwan compared the gulag to Hitler’s concentration camps. During the Tea, he recounted stories of starvation — as a child, Chol-Hwan survived by eating rats, frogs, and snakes, the only other sources of food offered by the camp grounds besides his corn rations. He joked that the best way to lose weight is to be in a gulag for three months.
“My first meat at the gulag was from a rat,” he said. “To this day, I can’t find anything that has tasted as good.”
Some of Chol-Hwan’s stories evoked gasps from the audience.
“In winter, children die, but the ground is too hard to bury them in deep graves,” he said. “So when spring comes, the corpses rise. Many times I wondered, ‘Is this not hell on earth?'”
Chol-Hwan was released by the North Korean government after 10 years in the gulag. Today, he said he hopes to increase awareness of the situation in North Korea and provoke thought about international influence in Korea’s affairs. Chol-Hwan said the military is not the answer to Korea’s problems. Instead, Chol-Hwan said nations like America should help by first winning the hearts and minds of North Koreans.
“In the past eight years nothing has been done to change North Korea,” he said. “I feel there should be a reformation in how the international communities should help, focusing on human rights policies and economic reform. The only way to buy the hearts of the North Koreans is to help with the gulags.”
Chol-Hwan also suggested ways to alleviate the troubles of North Korea, encouraging the installment of a democratic government and downgrading the attention other nations focus on the country’s nuclear capabilities.
Students and professors said they were awed by Chol-Hwan’s stories.
“Yes, this is a lesson in history, but more of a lesson of resilience,” Silliman Master Judith Krauss said. “His bravery as a child is only overshadowed, in my view, by his bravery of escape.”
LiNK member Jee Hye Kim ’07 praised Choi-Hwan’s message.
“This was a rare opportunity to meet a defect North Korean, even for me, coming from South Korea,” Kim said. “He is very courageous for speaking about the gulags. I really respect his courage and desire to divert attention from nuclear weapons and towards human rights.”