Eyes of the Tailless Animals: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman by Soon Ok Lee is the second account I have read of life in a North Korean labour camp. Neither her memoir nor The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot should have been written since the North Korean government never would have expected these former prisoners to flee the country.
Lee was the supervisor of a material distribution centre, and spent six years in a labour camp on trumped-up charges for not satisfying the greed of one of her officials. She was following the party line and was a devoted Communist working for the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, and would not stoop to grease the palms of anyone, including her superiors. She had access to goods and luxuries and refused to use her position to provide an official with such items. The official took revenge on Lee and in October 1986, she was summoned outside for a supposed meeting. Without any warning whatsoever, Lee was shoved into a car, forced onto a train and transported to a labour camp where she would remain for six years. She had nothing with her but the clothes on her back.
The tailless animals in the title refer to herself and her fellow prisoners, who were subjected to the most unimaginable torture and who had to live and work in conditions that would be unfit for any animal. Kang Chol-Hwan, the boy prisoner in The Aquariums of Pyongyang did not have to suffer the years of torture as Lee, yet he wrote about it from the perspective of a witness. Lee writes about it as a genuine victim, and there were moments in her memoir where I felt as if I could not read on, as her words of pain and suffering were unbearable for my eyes to pass over. She was disfigured from various tortures and her photo on the back of the book reveals a smile now off-centre and partially paralyzed.
Lee writes about some women prisoners who were assigned the worst jobs, such as cleaning the immense feces tank. These women were sent to the labour camp since they were “superstition believers”, and Lee was surprised that even though they were subject to the worst torture and given the worst work assignments, these women never complained and always sustained themselves. Lee discovered that these “superstition believers” were in fact Christians who were being punished by the North, a state which has no religion other than the worship and praise of its Great and Dear Leaders. Lee learned that these women drew their strength from the Bible and from the love of Christ.
Eyes of the Tailless Animals ends with the sudden news Lee receives of her release. One day, the prison’s emergency bell rang. When the bell rings, all prisoners must gather outside and listen for names that are called out: names of prisoners who will be publicly executed. Soon Ok Lee hears her own name:
“My heart dropped. I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong to deserve a public execution.”
At that moment the guards lead her to a place in front of everyone, and instead of hearing her death sentence, she hears:
“Soon Ok Lee has faithfully worked for Kim Il Sung, so we decided to reward her work. She will be returned to society. I am telling all of you: If you work as hard as she did, you can also go back home.”
Lee notices the Christian women in the front row. The Christians always stood in the front because blood from prisoners shot by the firing squad would splash onto them. This time, though, once the news of Lee’s release was read out, the Christians raised their heads to praise God.
When Lee is released, she is reunited with her son but never sees her husband again. As Kang Chol-Hwan describes in The Aquariums of Pyongyang, spouses of prisoners were forced to divorce their imprisoned partners and never to see them again. Lee’s son, Dong Chel, however, informs his mother that government officials took his father away. After Lee and her son escape to China and two years later find themselves in South Korea, they discover that her husband was taken to “a certain prison in North Korea. I later learned that he was no longer at that prison. I am pretty sure that he is no longer living. He was a good teacher who was innocent. It was only because of me that he went to prison.”
Lee discovers the word of God and converts to Christianity, and draws strength from prayer. She was saved from her living Hell by the power of God:
“God brought me out of that hell to use me to proclaim the tragedy of those who live in that horror. I continually pray for the reunification of Korea and that God will protect the prisoners until that day.”
Lee travels to churches all over the world, sharing her story and her belief that:
“I have been healed with the love of God and His comfort. I no longer dream dreadful dreams. I am free.”