As A Peace-Loving Global Citizen: Episode 19

As A Peace-Loving Global Citizen: An Autobiography by Rev. Sun Myung Moon
Chapter 2: My Heart Flows With a River of Tears
A Grain of Rice Is Greater Than the Earth, pg 71-74

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A Grain of Rice Is Greater Than the Earth

On May 20, three months after being placed in Pyongyang prison, I was moved to Heungnam prison. I felt indignation and also shamed before Heaven. I was tied to a thief so I could not escape. We were taken by vehicle on a route that took seventeen hours. As I looked out the window a powerful feeling of grief welled up inside me. It seemed incredible to me that I would have to travel this winding road along rivers and through valleys as a prisoner.

Heungnam prison was a concentration camp for special laborers working in the Heungnam Nitrogen Fertilizer Factory. During the next two years and five months I underwent hard compulsory labor. Compulsory labor was a practice that North Korea learned from the Soviet Union. The Soviet government could not simply kill members of the bourgeoisie and other people who were not communists, because the world was watching and they needed to be mindful of world opinion. So it came up with the punishment of compulsory labor. People who were exploited in this way were forced to continue working until they died of exhaustion.

North Korean communists copied the Soviet system and sentenced all prisoners to three years of compulsory labor. In reality, the prisoners would usually die from the labor before their terms were up.

Our days began at 4:30 in the morning. We were made to line up in formation on the field, and our bodies and clothing were inspected for contraband items. We took off all our clothing, and each item was thoroughly inspected. Each piece of clothing would be beaten for so long that even the last speck of dust would not remain. The entire process took at least two hours. Heungnam was on the seacoast, and in the winter the wind was as painful as a knife as it cut into our naked bodies.

When the inspection was over we would be fed an awful meal. Then we would walk four kilometers to the fertilizer factory. We were marched four abreast, were made to hold the hand of the person next to us, and could not even hold our heads up. Guards armed with rifles and pistols surrounded us. Anyone who caused his row to start falling behind, or failed to hold on to the hand of the person next to him, was beaten severely for trying to escape.

In winter the snow would be deeper than a person’s height. On cold winter mornings when we were marched through snow as deep as we were tall, my head would start feeling as though it were spinning. The frozen road was extremely slippery, and the cold wind blew so ferociously it made the hair on our heads stand up straight. We had no energy, even after eating breakfast, and our knees kept collapsing beneath us. Still we had to make our way to the job site, even if it meant dragging our exhausted legs along the way. As I made my way along this road that took us to the edge of consciousness, I kept reminding myself that I belonged to Heaven.

At the factory there was a mound of a substance that we referred to as “ammonia.” In reality, it probably was ammonium sulfate, a common form of fertilizer. It would come in by conveyor belt and looked like a white waterfall as it fell off the belt onto the mound below. It was quite hot when it first came off the belt, and fumes rose from it even in the middle of winter. Quickly it would cool and become as solid as ice.

Our job was to dig the fertilizer out of the mound with shovels and put it into straw bags. We referred to this mound that was over twenty meters high as “the fertilizer mountain.” Eight to nine hundred people were digging away at the fertilizer in a large space, making it appear as though we were trying to cut the mountain in half.

We were organized in teams of ten, and each team was responsible to fill and load thirteen hundred bags a day. So each person had to fill one hundred and thirty bags. If a team failed to meet its quota, its meal rations were cut in half. Everyone worked as if his life depended on making the quota.

To help us carry the bags of fertilizer as efficiently as possible, we made needles out of steel wire and used these to tie the bags after they had been filled. We would put a piece of wire on a rail track that ran along the floor of the factory. The wire was flattened by having one of the small rail cars used for hauling materials run over it, and then it could be used as a needle.

To open holes in the bags, we used shards of glass that we got by breaking the factory windows. The guards must have felt sorry to see their prisoners working under harsh conditions because they never stopped us from breaking the windows. Once I broke a tooth while trying to cut a piece of wire. Even now you can see that one of my front teeth is broken. This remains with me as an unforgettable memento from Heungnam prison.

Everyone grew thin under the pressure of hard labor. I was the exception. I was able to maintain my weight at around seventy-two kilos, making me an object of envy for the other prisoners. I always excelled in physical strength. On one occasion, though, I became extremely ill with symptoms similar to tuberculosis. I had these symptoms for nearly a month. However, I did not miss even a day of work at the factory. I knew that if I were absent other prisoners would be held responsible for my share of the work.

People called me “the man like a steel rod” because of my strength. I could endure even the most difficult work. Prison and compulsory labor were not such a big problem for me. No matter how fierce the beating or terrible the environment, a person can endure if he carries a definite purpose in his heart.

Prisoners were also exposed to sulfuric acid, which was used in the manufacture of ammonium sulfate. When I worked at the Kawasaki steel mill in Japan I witnessed several instances in which a person cleaning vats used to store sulfuric acid had died from the effects of acid poisoning. The situation in Heungnam was far worse. Exposure to sulfuric acid was so harmful that it would cause hair loss and sores on our skin that oozed liquid. Most people who worked in the factory would begin vomiting blood and die after about six months. We would wear rubber pieces on our fingers for protection, but the acid would quickly wear through these. The acid fumes would also eat through our clothes, making them useless, and our skin would break and bleed. In some cases, the bone would become visible. We had to continue working without so much as a day’s rest, even when our sores were bleeding and oozing pus.

Our meal rations consisted of less rice than it took to fill two small bowls. There were no side dishes, but we were given a soup that was radish greens in saltwater. The soup was so salty it made our throats burn, but the rice was so hard we couldn’t eat it without washing it down with the soup. No one ever left even a single drop of the soup. When we received our bowl of rice, prisoners would put all the rice into their mouths at once. Having eaten their own rice, they would look around, stretching their necks sometimes, to watch how the others ate. Sometimes someone would put his spoon in someone else’s soup bowl, and there would be a fight.

One minister who was with me in Heungnam once said to me, “Let me have just one bean, and I will give you two cows after we get out of here.” People were so desperate that if a prisoner died at mealtime, the others would dig out any rice still in his mouth and eat it themselves.

The pain of hunger can only be known by those who have experienced it. When a person is hungry, a mere grain of rice becomes very precious. Even now, it makes me tense just to think of Heungnam. It’s hard to believe that a single grain of rice can give such stimulation to the body, but when you're hungry you have such a longing for food that it makes you cry. When a person has a full stomach the world seems big, but to a hungry person a grain of rice is bigger than the earth. A grain of rice takes on enormous value to someone who is hungry.

Beginning with my first day in prison I made it a habit to take half of my ration of rice and give it to my fellow prisoners, keeping only half for myself. I trained myself this way for three weeks and then ate the whole ration. This made me think that I was eating enough rice for two people, which made it easier to endure the hunger.

Life in that prison was so terrible that it cannot even be imagined by someone who did not experience it. Half the prisoners would die within a year, so almost every day we had to watch as dead bodies were carried out the back gate in a wooden box. We would work so hard, and our only hope for leaving was as a dead body in that wooden casket. Even for a merciless and cruel regime, what they did to us clearly went beyond all boundaries of inhumanity. All those bags of fertilizer filled with the tears and grief of the prisoners were loaded onto ships and taken to the Soviet Union.

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