As A Peace-Loving Global Citizen: Episode 20

As A Peace-Loving Global Citizen: An Autobiography by Rev. Sun Myung Moon
Chapter 2: My Heart Flows With a River of Tears
Heungnam Prison in the Snow, pg 75-78

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Heungnam Prison in the Snow 

The most valued possession in prison after food was a needle and thread. Our clothes would wear out and be torn during the hard labor, but it was difficult to get a needle and thread to mend them. After a while prisoners began to look like beggars in rags. It was very important to mend the holes in our clothes in order to block, even a little, the cold winter winds. A small piece of cloth found lying on the road was extremely valuable. Even if the cloth were covered with cow dung, the prisoners would fight each other to try to pick it up.

Once as I was carrying the bags of fertilizer I discovered a needle stuck in one of the bags. It must have been left there accidentally when the bag was made. From that time on, I became the tailor of Heungnam prison. It was such a joy to find that needle. Every day I mended pants and knee breeches for other prisoners.

Even in the middle of winter it was so hot inside the fertilizer factory that we would sweat. So you can imagine how unbearable it was during the summer. Not even once, however, did I roll up my pants and let my shins show. Even during the hottest part of the summer I kept my pant legs tied in the traditional Korean fashion. Others would take off their pants and work in their underwear, but I kept myself properly dressed.

When we finished work our bodies would be covered with sweat and fertilizer dust, and most prisoners would take off their clothes and wash themselves in the filthy water that flowed from the factory. I, however, never washed myself where others could see my body. Instead, I would save half of the single cup of water we were rationed each day, then get up early in the morning while the others still slept to wipe myself off with a small piece of cloth dipped in that half-cup of water. I considered my body to be precious, and I didn’t want to casually expose it to others. I also used this time early in the morning to focus my spirit and pray.

The prison cell held thirty-six people, and I took a small corner next to the toilet. In this space no one would step over me, but nobody wanted this space. We called it a toilet, but actually it was only a small earthenware jar without even a lid. Fluid would overflow from the toilet in the summer, and it would freeze in the winter. There is no describing the putrid smell that came from it. The prisoners often experienced diarrhea because of the salty soup and hard rice balls that we ate every day.

I would be sitting by the toilet and hear someone say, “Oh, my stomach.” The person would make his way to the toilet in quick short steps. As soon as he exposed his bottom, the diarrhea would come shooting out. Because I was next to the toilet I was often splashed. Even during the night, when everyone was asleep, sometimes someone would have abdominal pain. When I heard people yelping in pain as they were being stepped on, I would know that someone was making his way to the toilet and I would get up and press myself against the corner. If I was asleep and did not hear him coming, I would suffer the consequences. Still I kept the spot by the toilet as my own for the entire time. In order to endure this impossible situation, I even tried to think of these sights and sounds as some form of art.

“Why do you choose to stay there?” other prisoners would ask. I would answer, “This is where I feel most comfortable.” I wasn’t just saying this. This was, indeed, the place where my heart felt most at ease.

My prisoner number was 596. People called me “Number five nine six.” On nights when I couldn’t sleep, I would stare at the ceiling and repeat this number to myself over and over. (5 is oh, 9 is guh, and 6 is ryuk.) If I said it quickly, it sounded very much like eogul, a Korean word used to describe the feeling of injustice. I truly had been imprisoned unjustly.

The Communist Party initiated dokbohoi, or meetings where newspapers, books, or other policy materials were read aloud, as a way of studying and learning communist propaganda. Also, we had to write letters of gratitude to North Korean President Kim Il Sung. The Security Detachment kept a close watch on our every move. Every day we were told to write letters of gratitude saying what we had learned, but I never wrote even a single page of these.

We were supposed to write something like this: “Our Father Kim Il Sung, out of his love for us, gives us food to eat each day, gives us meals with meat, and lets us lead such a wonderful life. I am so grateful.” I could not write anything of the sort. Even if I were looking death in the face, I could not submit such letters to the atheistic Communist Party. Instead of writing them I worked ten times harder than the others in order to survive in the prison. The only way I could get away with not writing these letters was if I were the number one prisoner. Because of this effort I became the best prisoner and even received an award from the Communist Party official.

My mother visited me many times while I was in prison. There was no direct transportation from Jeongju to Heungnam. She had to take a train to Seoul, where she would change to a train on the Seoul to Wonsan line. The trip would take her more than twenty grueling hours.

Before starting out she would go to great trouble to prepare misutkaru (cooked rice powder) for me so her son, who had been imprisoned in the prime of his life, would have something to eat. To make this powder she would gather rice from our relatives and even the distant relatives of my older sisters’ husbands. When she came to the prison visiting room and saw me standing on the other side of the glass, she would immediately begin to shed tears. She was a strong woman, but the sight of her son undergoing such suffering made her weak.

My mother handed me the pair of silk trousers I had worn on my wedding day. The prison uniform I was wearing had become threadbare, and my skin showed through the material. However, instead of wearing the silk trousers, I gave them to another prisoner. As for the misutkaru that she had gone into debt to prepare, I gave it all away right there as she watched. My mother had invested her full heart and dedication into preparing clothing and food for her son, and she was heartbroken to see me giving away these things, without keeping anything for myself.

“Mother,” I said to her, “I am not just the son of some man named Moon. Before I am a son of the Moon clan, I am a son of the Republic of Korea. And even before that I am a son of the world, and a son of heaven and earth. I think it is right for me to love those things first, and only after that follow your words and love you. I am not the son of some small-minded person. Please conduct yourself in a manner befitting your son.”

My words were as cold as ice to her, and it hurt so much for me to watch her weep that I felt as though my heart would be torn apart. I missed her so much that sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking of her, but this was all the more reason for me not to succumb to my emotions. I was a person doing the work of God. It was more important for me to clothe just one more person a little more warmly and to fill his stomach with a little more food than it was for me to be concerned about my personal relationship with my mother.

Even while in prison I enjoyed taking whatever time I could find to talk with people. There were always people around me who wanted to listen to what I had to say. Even in the hunger and cold of prison life there was warmth in sharing with people with whom I had an affinity of heart. The relationships formed in Heungnam left me with twelve people who were both compatriots and as close as family to me, with whom I could spend the rest of my life. Among them was a famous minister who had served as president of the Association of Christian Churches in Korea’s five northern provinces. These were people with whom I shared intense emotions in situations where our lives were on the line, and this made them closer to me than my own flesh and blood. Their being there gave my prison experience meaning.

I would pray three times each day for the people who had helped me and for the members of my congregation in Pyongyang, calling out each one by name. When I did I always felt that I needed to repay a thousand-fold the people who would slip me a handful of food they had hidden in their clothing.

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