Solana Beach resident’s new book shares remarkable tale of survival in North Korean concentration camp
By Diane Y. Welch
Reverend Kim Yung- Chol, 83, at first meeting appears very quietly spoken and understated. Yet beneath his tranquil exterior hides a terrible history that was hidden for many decades. This past has recently been brought to light in his book, “I Trust You,” subtitled “Only person survivor from Aoji in North Korea” (Woowon Publishing).Kim’s book was originally published in Korea — his native country — in his native language. The book is a heartfelt autobiography of Kim’s recollections of his dark days when the Russian Secret Police arrested him in his hometown of Pyong Yang in North Korea when he was only a teenager.
What followed were unimaginable conditions that he survived, largely due, in part, to his indomitable faith. “With God’s help I was able to survive all kinds of hardship,” said Kim of the atrocities he endured as a political prisoner.
Chapters include his immediate family history, its Christian faith during communist oppression, and how Kim emigrated to America as the only surviving family member. Life took a turn when, as a young man in the 1960s, Kim was adopted into an American family, then entered into the Drew Theological Seminary in New Jersey where he received his master’s degree in theology. Just prior to that, Kim’s undergraduate education had been completed at Seoul Central Theological Seminary in 1958, when he undertook his first ministry as a preacher at the Seoul United Church.
The heart of the book, however, describes Kim’s past experiences from 1947-1949, when he was a political prisoner in North Korea, arrested by the Soviet Union’s KGB at the age of 17. “The horrible, terrible torture and the hardship that I had was because I was against communism,” said Kim, who is the third generation of the Christian ministry in his family.
In 1947, Kim was initially incarcerated in Pyong Yang prison. From there he was moved up to the north of the country to Hamheung Prison. The moves continued as the Soviet KGB arrested more political dissenters, many of them young students, and the prisons overflowed. As the number of arrests swelled, the prisoners were transported by train to a final destination, Aoji Prison.
Described by Kim as the “infamous human slaughterhouse,” the prison was located in the far north of Korea, close to the borders of China and Russia. The conditions there were unimaginable. “It became one of the most monstrous concentration camps in North Korea,” said Kim. It was 1949 when Kim was held captive in that prison, he was one among almost a 100,000 prisoners
Temperatures dipped to — 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Kim was strictly separated from his family and those he knew, and food was scant. “And after six months everyone was starving to death,” Kim recalled. There was strict control. There were no prayer meetings allowed and there was no communication with the outside.
But as each prison cell housed 30 people, they were able to share their individual stories. This helped keep their spirits up, said Kim, and survive the daily interrogation and torture. As no one else has shared their stories about Aoji Prison, and there are no living survivors, Kim’s first-hand recollections have a meaningful place in history, he said. “I was strong, I was a teenager, and the youngest one there. That’s why I received a two-year sentence, most of the political prisoners received 5-10 year sentences. They called me ‘our baby’ in the prison.”
When Kim was released, just prior to the start of the Korean War in 1950, he lost contact with his fellow inmates at Aoji and his memories were buried. “I could not explain it for a long time, I did not think about it. I closed it out of my mind,” he explained.
Kim went on to live a full life as a minister in the United Methodist Church in New Jersey. In 1984 he relocated to California when his wife, Sook, transferred her civilian job in computer programming with the Navy for a position in Long Beach. When that plant closed the couple moved to Solana Beach. Now 80, Sook recently received an award for her 40 years of continuous service with the Navy, and is now based in Point Loma. They have three adult children and seven grandchildren. Through the urging of family and close friends in Solana Beach, Kim hand-wrote his memoirs of Aoji in Korean, which were transferred into a computer database by three local students.
The autobiography is one of four books that Kim has written and had published. “I Trust You” is the first to be released in English. Kim’s colleague and friend, Francis Bud Holeck, wrote the translation. More than a memoir, the book serves as a historic document, said Kim. Signed copies are available from Reverend Kim by calling him at (858) 755-4845.
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