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  • Tooth
  • Tsung-yan Kwong (bio)

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Illustration by Liz Priddy with photograph by Harry Fodor

According to subject number 6, in the winter of 1984 inside Nongpo provincial detention center a man known only as i, or Tooth, saved her life and those of countless others solely through clever use of ventriloquism, a skill he used to spook the gulag warders into thinking every life they stole would return as an invisible phantom. Eight years later the same man emerged in Yodok re-education center, this time as a contortionist who, according to subject number 32, was so flexible he could calligraph with his toes, pirouette on one palm and squeeze himself through a car tire—altogether confounding [End Page 131] the injurious teachers and making them forget to administer the daily self-criticism exercises. By the time subject number 97 and Tooth crossed paths, the Great Leader's heart had failed, the great famine had come and gone and the millennium had been celebrated, but Tooth, apparently ageless and vital, was still rescuing North Koreans, now as Yongdam's resident shaman, a political prisoner who convinced the warders he was capable of killing a man with an angry wink or whistle.

"And you witnessed such persuasions for yourself?" Song-ri had asked number 97 in as genial and compassionate a tone as a skeptic could summon. She wasn't an actress but often felt as if she were as she listened and responded to her human subjects' accounts of violent North Korean gulag life.

This morning she'd already failed to secure the one intimate, warmly lit seminar room in the Graduate School of International Studies. Sook-hee, a fellow doctoral candidate, had booked it a week in advance and sat there now, alone, awaiting the imminent arrival of her own human subject, so Song-ri was forced to hear the testimony of number 114 inside the newly minted Han Myung Sook Lecture Hall, a sterile, white, tiered auditorium which everyone referred to as Naengjanggo—the Refrigerator. Inside, exposed overhead bulbs crackled and blinked, making her think of an interrogation room. Number 114 hesitantly took one of the front-row seats, looking not at Song-ri but at the other four hundred ninety-eight empty chairs surrounding her, as if they were the silhouettes of headless spectators sent by the Kimland regime. But Song-ri refused to lose control—not when her dissertation adviser expected a completed case study in her mailbox by next Monday—so she covered number 114's jittery hand with hers, a gesture that reminded her subjects that they weren't speaking to a gulag warden or border guard or secret policeman.

Before number 114 said a word, she repeatedly readjusted her position in the auditorium chair, uncrossing and crossing her legs, pulling the ridged trim of her sweater below the copper buckle of her pants, as if trying on defenses—typical behavior of the sexually abused, the scared, the tyrannized. "At Nongpo, most of the prisoners were women—women who had been sold as caretakers to old Cambodian men," number 114 began, speaking through the corner of her mouth. "Women who'd been snagged by the Border Patrol Unit or reported on by suspicious locals or turned in by unsatisfied lovers—the men they took care of, I mean." [End Page 132]

It was as if number 114's impenetrable shell cracked, her whole demeanor suddenly loose, like some kind of ancient Chinese elixir was moving through her body, first un locking her elbows, then unfastening her lips. "There was one old man with a peculiar talent," she laughed….

No matter how much she had studied advanced qualitative methods in her four years at Ewha Women's University, Song-ri still felt uncomfortable playing the part of expert interviewer. To maintain such status, she had spent the last twenty-four hours rereading almost everything ever written about Nongpo gulag, acquainting herself with the world, the conditions, the probable life of subject number 114. It was an ambitious endeavor—to cull from her subjects' words an accurate, comprehensive representation of North Korean political prisons—but because there was relatively...


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pp. 130-153
Launched on MUSE
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