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Center of the Universe (7-8)

Center of the Universe (7-8)


Onwards Toward the Final Victory

You can learn a surprising amount about the world from the center of the universe.

In 2013 the news from Pyongyang was not good. A hopeful start — with the death of the Great Leader Kim Jung Il and ascension of his Swiss-schooled, Michael Jordan-worshipping 29-year-old son Kim Jung Un — turned out to be just more wishful thinking. Lil’ Kim — who was not so lil’, circumferentially — was also not a reformer, and he put an exclamation mark on it by threatening to nuke California and, even more evocatively, ordering his uncle executed by machine gun, before executing much of the uncle’s family — that is to say, his own. Worst of all, some bedraggled conservatory-trained apparatchik had to convert his inaugural address into a kind of Lil’ Kim hymn, “Onwards Toward the Final Victory,” and then hear it played incessantly on state-run TV.

Corrupt, merciless, murderous, bizarre, totalitarian and tone-deaf rule, it was clear, would continue to be the rule in the Hermit Kingdom. How that would directly affect our hippie haven in the California redwoods — other than the proposed thermonuclear annihilation — was not. It became clear when Reverend Kang quietly announced he was suspending publication of his memoir.

The book is less about North Korea than it is about Kang’s travails and travels — his Pilgrimage, per the title — through the rest of this ignorant, cruel and occasionally kind world. Beyond the first four chapters, it’s hardly about North Korea at all — there’s too much else to tell. Nonetheless, it is unequivocal.

“We imagined the end of the Communists and of reuniting with our families in a country not ruled by fear…” he writes. “The Communist dictatorship was arbitrary and merciless.” And when the armies began to march, he notes, “We were thrilled… believing that only war could uproot the Communist regime and reunify our country.”

The vast prison camp turned out to be much more prison than camp, a cramped, brutal Hades of hunger, disease, harsh weather, frequent suicide and systematic murder.

Measured as they might be, such critical comments, Kang argued to his daughters (who’d already paid, secretly, to print the books), were more than enough pretext, in a newly inflamed North Korean context, to put all but the most dilute family DNA under the machine gun. Was there even any Kang family left in the north? Maybe not. But, to the Reverend, not worth the risk.

Hard to argue, I said to Soy and Sonia.

Kang had already trained our attention to news of the North. Now Kim had seized the attention of the world, proclaiming that, as far as Pyongyang was concerned, Pyongyang wasn’t concerned at all: nothing was beyond the pale. If I was disappointed about the muzzling of Kang’s book, it wasn’t so much personal, as historical. This was a story history should hear.

It was a beautiful little volume, in its printed, perfect-bound form, with a handsome, serious cover and sophisticated typography, crafted with style and sensitivity by my friends, co-workers and preferred designers Amy and Moe, who afterwards came by the restaurant to meet the author and (before Moe gave up gluten) share thank-you spaghetti. But I’ll never forget when, prompted by Amy, I asked Reverend Kang if he had any pictures.

A little background.

Soon after staggering away from the shooting of his friend, Kang was captured by other South Korean soldiers and packed in a train to a POW camp in the South near Pusan, where he would spend five years. This was no Hogan’s Heroes romp. No matter that it was run by the “good guys” of the conflict, the vast prison camp turned out to be much more prison than camp, a cramped, brutal Hades of hunger, disease, harsh weather, frequent suicide and systematic murder — murder by anti-Communist prisoners, who reviled the True Believers who’d led them into this inferno, and by the Believers themselves, the young Korean Communists who killed to purify, to vanquish every last shred of capitalist running-dog doubt. When Kang chose not to be repatriated north, to accept the late-breaking compromise option of being sent to a neutral country, he knew he was marked for death, twice over.

“When one of my friends submitted his application,” he writes, “another POW yelled out, for all the camp to hear, ‘Switzerland! Switzerland!’ At which point, a large group started to throw stones… I knew that these fanatics could attack at any minute. In fact, lynchings, even among the anti-Communist group, were frequent. I could stay no longer. There was a special tent beyond the perimeters of our camp where they were taking applications and gathering those applying to go to a neutral country. I decided with two friends that we must sneak out of our camp and take sanctuary there…When we got past the gate, stones began falling like rain. But an Indian captain in a Jeep rushed to our rescue and drove us to the tent.”

Under the circumstances, having already come close to expiring from cold, illness and malnutrition, stalked by the rabid of both sides, marked-for-death wasn’t really a change in status.

When Kang, along with only 87 other prisoners — out of more than 100,000 — chose not to be repatriated, it meant a year-and-a-half more of confinement at a complex in the DMZ, guarded by 5,000 soldiers from India, which had itself remained neutral and out of the war.

“And though we were moving to another POW camp,” Kang writes, “near the North Korean border and tantalizingly close to our families, it was the beginning of a trip to freedom.”

That trip would take him — “temporarily” — to India, where he got to attend seminary in New Delhi, while awaiting offers from other UN-member countries of permanent citizenship. And when the offers came, a year or so later, they turned out to be a not-bad choice between Argentina and Brazil. Knowing little or nothing about either, he took Brazil. And there, after months confined to a government immigration island — a distinctly more benign version of the prison he’d escaped, but prison still — he was approved to enter the country, where he enrolled in seminary and continued his preparations for the missionary life he would pursue for 40 years. At a school social, he met a demure local lovely named Maria. And, after they’d married and served in the Brazilian interior for many years, Kang decided it was time to further his theological studies. A local Presbyterian aristo offered a scholarship to a seminary in San Anselmo, California, one town over from Fairfax, unimaginably far from Brazil, India and North Korea.

And that’s how they got to Marin County. And why, when eventually they retired, they returned here from Brazil. It’s where Sonia was born. And where Soy, born in Sao Paolo, joined her to attend high school. And where, many more years later, Kang and Maria could be seen sitting in a booth in a restaurant in downtown Fairfax, next to Gary and George and Joan and Roni and me, a clown.

But I’ll never forget that when I asked him for the photos for Amy, Kang, not for the first time, looked at me blankly. Before he could respond — that I didn’t understand, that those were different and desperate times (a self-righteous explanation he was never likely to venture) — it dawned on me, an over-documented, contemporary clown, that there were no smartphones in Pyongyang or Pusan, no selfie-sticks in the old wars. Kang’s horrors — no less the vivid for it, perhaps more so — were bound to remain invisible. And, without the memoir he had struggled to share, smoke.

Later, Soy said there were a few pictures from before and after the war — Kang and siblings as kids; Kang steaming to India; Kang’s first seminary in New Delhi. There was even one from the camp itself, an official photo, western propaganda, of the prison’s morally presentable Christian congregation — including the pastor who’d successfully lied and cheated to save a rapidly wasting Kang from certain death. While spare visuals, invisibility, are surely part of Kang’s story, I asked Soy if she might supply one more shot: of the whole family in the wholly improbable here and now.


Excerpts from Pilgrimage: A North Korean Journey to Peace, Love and Faith by Kang Hi Dong. Published privately, 2013.

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