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My Life in the Labor Camp
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2016-01-20 14:09:52
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My Life in the Labor Camp


BANG Seong-un 

North Korean Defector


Arrested North Korean defectors who escaped from NK to China are brought to a Labor camp at Nong-po dong, Song-pyoung gu, Cheong-jin, in Ham-kyoung province. The life in the labor camp, which I’ve heard in horror since childhood, carved a big scar on my mind. 

Time schedule of the labor camp was as follows. 

5:30 ~7:00 preliminary working 
7:00 ~7:30 breakfast 
7:30 ~8:00 preparation 
8:00~ 12:00 work in the morning 
12:00~12:30 lunch 
12:30~13:00 preparation(mending deteriorated facilities) 
13:00~19:00 work in the afternoon 
19:00~19:30 dinner 
20:00~22:00 self-communion (We fall on our knee in a cell) 
22:00~0000. sleep or examination 

Inquiry lasted until we found at least one default, and we couldn’t go to bed before then. Because of that, every one would like to lie, saying that he made a mistake what he actually didn’t. Some even made such an egregious remark that the stole train. It was common for us to spend our precious time to sleep in going through examination. 

I was locked in the labor camp because of the fact that I had gone to China under secrecy. 

I went to Gil-ji Chon, Deok-hwa-jin Hwa-ryong Gil-lym-seong in China, crossing Duman River on July 3 1996, but I was finally arrested at Chil-seong ri Mu-san kun Ham-kyong province by border police in Nam-pyong police office. 

They deported me to a prison in Hwa-ryong Battalian the following day. There were 7 other defectors captured in the prison, horrified in the worry that they might be driven to North Korea with their nose pierced. 8 defectors including me lived day by day in restlessness. Sounds foolish though, we dreamed of being released by the Chinese Police, hoping that they would become benevolent to us. What came to us clear, however, was that we were doomed to be punished harshly in the near future. Whenever we thought about that we could nothing but sigh. 

I always kept a safety pin with me in the hope that it might be helpful for me to have a chance to escape, if I were to be hospitalized and get surgical operation. It seemed likely that it might cause stomachache if I swallowed the pin, wrapped with paper. 
One evening I tried to swallow a safety pin and waited the following outcome in vain. 

There were cameras through which the police could guard every act of us. If we talk or lie on the floor, they immediately rushed to us and began to indiscriminately clobber us with electronic clubs. 

One week later, the Chinese Police shackled us, making group of two, and transported us by bus. About two hours later we could see Duman River and NK territory. At the very sight of NK, we barely thought anything but that we were doomed to die. 

The car, we got on, stopped by a custom office in Nam-pyong, Duck-hwa-jin Hwa-ryong Gil-lym-seong, and then arrived to a custom office in Chil-seong ri, Mu-san kun after made a phone call to North Korea. After we were handed to NK guard, we were again shackled and treated like goods not worth the candle. 8 defectors walked around Mu-san kun after going through inquiry all day long. Such parade was designed to warn villagers in Mu-san kun that betrayers were to suffer hardship and could not avoid being captured again. 

Next day we were locked in a detention house of Security Department, Musan-Kun. We were deported to Cheong-jin Police. 
On the first day in Cheong-jin, I went through inquiries for at least twenty days with my hands and legs shackled. They would not unshackle me even when I ate, slept and went to a restroom. I had to sleep in a prison under a fluorescent lamp. 

I was unceasingly asked how many times I had listened a broadcast from South Korea as I was in charge of radio communication in the army. They threatened me that I might be behind bar till I die unless I would confess that I tried to enter South Korea. 

As I insisted that I haven’t heard South Korean radio, I was sent to the detention house of Song-pyong in Cheong-jin 20 days later. I was examined with my leg twisted and my hands put on my knee for 17 hours, looking forward straight, which was found to be even far convenient for me. 

After one month of detention in Song-pyong, I entered the labor camp in the preliminary organ under municipal security department where my troublesome life began. 

We have been enforced to work more than 13 to 14 hours until we accomplished our duty. About 10 people were ordered to make 20,000 bricks a day by kneading clay and ashes. To make that amount of bricks, we couldn’t find any time to go to a restroom. 
Worst of all, sleeping itself bothered me most. 

We, living in a place where we were deprived of sanitation, could not expect to wash our clothes or to bathe at all. We could only wash our face immediately after we got up and became infested with lice. I burnt the night oil struggling with fleas and bedbugs around me. 
The life in the labor camp, where people are working at day, going through inquiry at night and struggling with fleas, crouching low on the cold cement floor, is not far from that of Oshubenjjin camp.

Six people died of uncertain ailment in two months. It was not surprising for me to find the one who slept next to me at night dead in the morning. 

One day, one guy who came from Kyoung-seong kun, North Ham-kyoung province didn’t appear on the morning roll call. We were ordered to bring him and we searched everywhere. After the emergency call, we found him lying in a restroom with his pants unzipped and we moved him to the playground. No one was allowed to even look askance at or to pass beside him. When we came back after work we found him to be passed out. We heard that he had tried to put his pants on till the last moment. 

Every meal we were provided was unimaginable. We were given steamed wheat whose size was smaller than an egg if squashed. The soup we ate was nothing but salty water. The food, I doubt we can call it as such, was not given to us when we were disciplined. 
Whenever I think of North Korean politicians, who command its people to hail their principle by holding the authority to provide food, I become furious. I want to see the end food distribution system that plans to feed its people with foods insufficient to survive at first and drives us to die of hunger later on. 

Most of those in the camp were farmers and laborers who had gone through hardship, pursuing every ends and means to survive. 
We would rather die than suffer from hunger. One from North Ham-kyoung Province, who was caught while he attempted to steal a dog raised in the camp, ended up to be beaten and to starve without food. We would eat anything unless it seemed to cause us to die. 

One day all the people in the camp went to work on the farm owned by the officers. 

All the guards were on alert to supervise us in the fear of that we might try to escape. They unceasingly called our name and demanded us to answer one by one to make sure we, hanging our nametag, were on our work. We would devour corns, though not ripped yet, while weeding a cornfield. 

We didn’t hesitate to rush to grab frogs jumping around. Those who would save their face and attempt to meet half way couldn’t avoid starving. 

People would do anything to feed themselves to their heart’s content even though their behavior is against the regulation. It is natural for them to ignore any sense of consciousness or shyness. 

20 days in the camp has passed before I was designated as a carpenter, whose job was far easier than those of others. I could avert being forced to participate collective activities and I was exempted from control. I barely endure hunger, however, and I always worried what punishment should I get in the future. 

For thousands of times I was tempted by an idea to have my hands cut in the electronic planes, which might allow me to get out of the camp. 

Meanwhile I escaped from the camp in mid-September. 

After I got out of the camp with ease I visited my friend’s house. At first, I believed that I could successfully escape from the camp under the cloak of darkness at dawn, which I found later was reported by an accuser who detected me. My house became under an inspection less than 10 minutes later. 

Not knowing what was happening around me, I got my friend to bring my parents from my house after I ate liquid soup he made for me. Whenever there’s a runner from the camp, all the picture of him was posted and 24-hour watchdog was sent to everywhere. My parents, frightened with fear, were at a loss what to do because security guards from labor camp came in and out of my house and took my picture, warning my parents to send me back if they found me. 

I told them to forget me, saying that I determined to enter China at all costs. My parents cried and dissuaded me that there might be guards at all stations. They asked me what they should do and talked me into going back to the camp. Running away during the preliminary would bring us severe punishment. I should take into account that I might be caught at the Chinese border. 
Worries that my parents might go through hardship after I leave halted me somehow. It was right for me to leave North with my parents after I complete my prison term. I went back to the camp with my parents. I tried to make an excuse as saying that it was nothing but hunger that prompted me to escape, which they would not listen at all. 

That evening I ran the gauntlet. With my hands and legs shackled and my knees knelt, my groin was trod by six guards. They said a runner should have his leg broken. I woke up on the cold floor in the cell. I ached all over and I couldn’t move an inch. I heard later that I passed out while I was beaten. I found my left leg benumbed. Forced to step down as carpenter, I should overwork twice as hard as before. 

One day I hid one piece of glass when coming back to the cell after work. I cut the blood vessel on my left foot and poured contaminated water on it, desiring to be infected not by tetanus but by other toxic substance. I hoped I could be exempted from my hard work even though I knew I might loss my all legs. Nothing happened on my foot but being swollen up and having big scar on it. Whenever I toppled because of the pain on my foot, guards would think that I was swinging the lead. As I mentioned above, It was not an easy task for ten workers to manufacture 20,000 blocks. All worker had a bruise on their palms after lifting 2,000 blocks, 25kg each. I got a gash on my skin particularly by handling blocks made of carbite. We were not given gloves. All the fingers, carved deep into the corium, were daubed with sanies and scab. We, having bruise all over our body, worked, blowing our warm breathe on the fingers to alleviate the pain. As I got malnutrition, I couldn’t walk up the stairs. I couldn’t even sit on a concrete floor or turn over while lying on the floor because I became dryboned. I was released from the camp, becoming a different person at all. 

It took me one year to recover from malnutrition and recuperate my strength. Long period of suffering from jaw osteomyelitis changed my visage. 

I escaped from North Korea on May 8, 1997 and came to South Korea three years later. A clear picture of the workers in the camp comes to my mind. I live here, feeling like I’m born again. I will humble myself but feel proud that I am enjoying my life here.