In the 1990s, writer and Korean reunification activist Hwang Sok-yong spent five years in prison for visiting North Korea in violation of South Korea’s National Security Act. In his memoir The Prisoner, out this week from Verso Books in Anton Hur and Sora Kim-Russell‘s translation, Hwang interweaves the story of his imprisonment with memories of his childhood in North Korea and his coming of age during South Korea’s military dictatorship. In the excerpt below, Hwang describes his attempts to prepare for his inevitable arrest by the South Korean police.
Around the time I decided to visit North Korea, I’d set myself a steadfast rule: I was going to make my thoughts and actions as transparent as possible. I believed that the only way for my deeds to be interpreted objectively and escape distortion was for my every word and gesture to be made completely public. Since I knew I would be arrested as soon as I returned to South Korea, I tried to document every event and meeting I attended, in either interviews or my own writings beforehand. Thanks to this, they already had a wealth of information on me, and the first thing they did was to verify all of it. Or, to be more precise, they began by making me repeatedly write and rewrite my “statement,” an unending repetition of testimony designed to lead me into making mistakes or revealing new facts or contradicting myself. But I was confident that I had all my facts straight from beginning to end. No matter how many times I rewrote my statement, my memory never wavered.
The investigators would break down my statement into smaller units of time by chronology and grill me on them. Each broken-down statement became another plethora of episodes that were recreated in detail through repeated questioning. When it seemed like nothing more could be gleaned from my memory or statement, that was when the real wringing out began. Interrogators entered in shifts and asked over and over again about the section of the statement they had been assigned. This part was the toughest. I’d reassured myself that I had nothing to hide since I’d already made everything public, but I wasn’t prepared for the distortion and the sheer manufacturing of facts. And yet, how could I have prepared for that? They were the ones writing the script designed to drive us toward one foregone conclusion, while I was the clown at the center of their comedy, helpless to stop any of it from happening no matter how clever I thought I was.
My mistake was to assume that people would understand the truth from facts alone. But it turns out that facts are treacherous things that can be twisted and used to distort the truth. I see now how naive I was, how clueless about what was coming my way. The investigations were like a foundry, and the National Security Act was the mold. While I was out bouncing from place to place and dodging them, they had been sharpening their knives for four years, discussing how they would cook me up upon my return, and at that point, “flaying the skin off my ass” wouldn’t have been enough for them. As it was, I fooled myself into thinking that I emerged from the investigation with my writerly dignity intact; later, I came to realize that all I’d really succeeded in doing was learning to roll over and play dead on command, like a well-trained dog.
“All I wish for is the peaceful reunification of the divided North and South.”
To get this out of the way, I do not support the ideology of the North Korean communist regime, and all I wish for is the peaceful reunification of the divided North and South. The same was true for the journalist Chung Kyung-mo and the pastor Moon Ik-hwan, who accompanied me, not to mention the activists that supported our visit to North Korea. More specifically, we believed that when South Korea became a truly democratic society, we could change North Korea for the better. I still believe this, although I have since become more of a pacifist than a reunificationist, as the concept of reunification has become vague and misused for political marketing over the years.
Created from the division of North and South, the National Security Act is a Procrustean bed, a torture rack on which those who don’t conform are stretched or chopped down and made to fit. This law, modeled after the internal security laws during the Japanese occupation, was unilaterally legislated by the ruling party after the formation of separate North and South governments in 1948. It is built on the premise that North Korea is not a sovereign nation but an “anti-governmental” or terrorist organization, a premise long discarded in practice since North and South Korea simultaneously joined the UN in 1991. The act itself, however, was never struck down and remains the law of the land to this day. Even the most vaguely positive-sounding mention of the North Korean regime can be construed as a crime of “praising” terrorists; the only way to stay legally safe is to criticize North Korea unconditionally. To meet with a North Korean is to “consort” with the enemy, and if the meeting place happens to be overseas or in North Korea, it is seen as an additional attempt to “infiltrate and escape.” Even if that North Korean is a parent or a sibling, it is absolutely illegal to meet with them. Receiving any kind of money or goods from a North Korean constitutes “bribery,” and telling them any news about South Korea is a “breach of confidentiality.” The Supreme Court even ruled that sharing news that has already been broadcast on the airwaves or in the press with North Koreans is considered a breach, as “any information deemed to be advantageous to North Korea falls into the category of confidentiality.” Moreover, any gathering of North and South Koreans is deemed a terrorist organization and a conspiracy to foment unrest, a conclusion that is easy enough to reach when it comes on top of the other, previously mentioned crimes.
When I was blindfolded and walked down the steps to this room where I opened my eyes to the dark, I was sure that I would be laid on the bed of the National Security Act and my limbs would be hacked off. Every single statute of the act would be brought down upon my head.
From The Prisoner by Hwang Sok-yong, translated from the Korean by Anton Hur and Sora Kim-Russell. Used with the permission of the publisher, Verso Books. Copyright © 2021 by Hwang Sok-yong.
“Camel’s Eye” by Hwang Sok-yong, translated by Yu Young-nan
“The Arduous March” by Ji Hyun-ah, translated by Sora Kim-Russell
“Translating the World Undone: An Interview with Translator Nicholas Glastonbury” by Anton Hur