On Political Prison Camps in North Korea (2)
In October 1993, which was my first year as a prisoner, I came to witness a horrible incident. At the time, I was assigned to work near a small valley filled with chestnut trees, where autumn would bring ripe chestnuts that would fall and pile up on the ground. The sight of chestnuts is more than tempting to the hungry prisoners, but no one dares succumb to the temptation. Everyone knows that venturing even a small step away from the workplace will be considered an escape attempt, and would certainly mean an immediate death. The story I am about to tell is of a man whose fears were numbed by hunger.
Fifty-three-year-old Chul-min KIMs job was to drive trolleys for transferring coal. One day, he saw some chestnut burrs roll down the mountain slope and stop in front of his trolley. Chul-min, without realizing what he was doing, stopped on the tracks to pick up the chestnuts. Unfortunately, a security agent, who we called Opbashi 3) for his cruelty, had spotted what Chul-min was doing and yelled:
"What are you doing, you son of a bitch?"
The shout made me raise my head toward the direction it came from, and I could see Opbashi already quite close behind Chul-min, who was oblivious to all but the mouth-watering chestnuts. Opbashi, on reaching Chul-min's bent-over back started kicking and became increasingly violent as his anger mounted. In no time, the hard soles of his boots were laying heavy blows to poor Chul-min's head until finally a pistol was taken out. Opbashi then held down Chul-min's head with one of his feet and blew a hole in the forehead of the horrified victim. Blood spurted from Chul-min, who was no longer alive.
Ordered to drag away the corpse of such a poisonous element, the supervisor rushed to the body and picked it up in his arms. His action provoked Opbashi, who shouted:
"What? Feeling pity for the rascal? Drag the damn thing, I'm telling ya!"
The supervisor quickly dropped Chul-min's body on the trolley tracks and pulled it along by the leg. It looked like the carcass of a beast. I noticed the two chestnuts Chul-min so firmly held in his hand. The witnesses on the scene stood motionless in fear and rage.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the reality of the political prison camps. I want to tell you another one of my personal experiences.
My job in the camp was to dig in a mine 720m below the surface. The parts of the hard earth I cut away were to be loaded onto a trolley, which I had to push as far as 200m where there was a machine to carry rocks above the ground. For a novice like me, it was difficult work.
One day, there were simply too many rocks to keep up the pace. Several trolleys were lined in front of me pressuring me to move faster. It was then the shout came:
"Who the fuck did this?"
In situations like this, I had been taught to face the wall, put my hands on the back of my head, keep my forehead glued to the ground, and remain motionless until the security agent had passed by. And I was doing just that when suddenly I was knocked unconscious. When I finally regained consciousness, blood was flowing from my head and down my neck. A security agent had hit me with the back of his pistol and was making me an example of an unproductive worker who deserved no better than death. To this day, I bear the scar of hatred on my head. I recall the anger and desire for revenge that exploded inside me.
Similar stories abound. Mr. Lee-young GAHL (57) used to be a famous basketball player in North Korea. He ended up in a political prison camp because his father was a landowner. One day, Mr. GAHL found the ox-tail whip Opbashi used to carry, soaked it in water to soften it, and ate it in secret. When Mr. GAHLs transaction was discovered the following day, Opbashi brutally beat him in front of all the prisoners. He then ordered the supervisor to bring squirming roundworms from the toilets, which had been put on a stick, and the heartless security officer forced it into the mouth of the helpless Mr. GAHL, who was on the ground. That night, Mr. GAHL ran a high fever and his body swelled up from the severe assault he had suffered. With his head on my legs as a pillow, Mr. GAHL let out sighs saying: "Yong, all I did was inherit what my father had left me. Is it such a horrendous crime? Do I really deserve this kind of punishment?" After three days he died.
As a firsthand witness to the horrors of the political prison camps in North Korea, I want to disclose to the world the unbelievable human rights abuse going on in these camps.
The human rights of women are weighed as less than nothing in these establishments. In Camp No. 14, there is an executive suite for visiting department heads or cadres at a similar level.
When these high level officials come to the camp, attractive female prisoners between the ages of 21 to 25 are picked out to serve them as sex slaves. To conceal such practices, documents are forged convicting the ravished women of escape attempts, who are clandestinely murdered afterwards. This practice is repeated whenever a cadre comes visiting from Pyongyang. I am sure you find this hard to even imagine.
You will be even more surprised to hear that the prisoners in Camp No. 14 are used as guinea pigs for developing chemical warfare technology. It is no exaggeration when I say that death lurks in every corner of the camp establishment at every moment. And it was from this hellhole that I was transferred to Camp No. 18 near Daedong River in October 1995.
Before moving me to Camp No. 18, the authorities threatened me that a single slip of the tongue about my experience in Camp No. 14 would mean the end of me, and made me sign a document of avowal with my fingerprints. They told me I should consider myself lucky for being transferred to Camp No. 18 where prisoners were better treated.
They were right because Camp No. 18 seemed like a paradise compared to Camp No. 14. Prisoners were allowed to watch some TV and read newspapers. In the previous camp, prisoners were prohibited from exposure to media of any kind. Only on rare occasions when the officers judged our work satisfactory did they reward us with minimum entertainment. A car would drive by and play one or two popular songs such as the Willows on Peony Peak. Compared to that, Camp No. 18 was heaven and I was indeed thankful for my luck.
Life in Camp No. 18 started out much the same as I was again assigned to mine digging in the Yongdung Mine. However, I later discovered something, or rather, someone, who made living in Camp No. 18 very special. It was my mother.
For the first time in forty years, I was reunited with my mother who was also a prisoner. I was allowed to live with her because things were a little different at Camp No. 18. First, the family was allowed to live together. Second, the prisoners were paid a monthly wage of 30 won for their labor. Third, within a designated area in the mountains, the prisoners were allowed to pick plants to eat.
On the fifteenth day after my arrival at Camp No. 18, the security department office at the camp summoned me. From Pyongyang, Mr. Gilnam JANG had come. He was chief of the Eighth Bureau in the State Security Department. He wanted to let me know that an official of some ranking in the State Security Department had exercised his influence to have me moved to Camp No. 18. Mr. JANG told me to be grateful and to work hard. He also explained to the head of security at the camp that I was formerly employed in the State Security Department. As I walked out the gate, tears of gratitude ran down my face for the person who had saved me from Camp No. 14. After Mr. JANG's visit, my workload was considerably lightened as I was moved out of the mines to repair trolleys.
Now I will briefly explain the way Camp No. 18 is organized. Among the prison camps operated by the Social Security Department, the area where Camp No. 14 is now located was divided into half along the Daedong River. One of the halves is now Camp No. 18. The first generation of prisoners is almost extinct and the second and third generations are in detention. About 30,000 prisoners are assigned to hard labor while some 20,000 children, the elderly, and the sick, comprise the rest of the camp population totaling 50,000. One section of the camp is especially set aside for about thirty prisoners, who were demoted from their previous positions in the upper ranks and ostracized for whatever mistakes they had made. This part of the camp is off limits to the average prisoner, who is strictly forbidden from talking to the inmates of the special section. This prohibition is meant to prevent the average prisoner from being tainted by their reactionary influence.
Camp No. 18 is guarded by two armed battalions and surrounded by a high voltage wire fence that stands 3m tall. Triangular booby-traps 3m deep and 1.5m wide are planted under the electrified wires. At the bottom of these traps are 60cm-long iron bars with sharp ends made to pierce the body that falls on them. There are 5m-high watchtowers every 200m along the circumference of the camp. These towers are equipped with light machine guns and occupied by guards rotating every two hours. In between the cordon of watchtowers are soldiers in hidden posts, as well as soldiers who make rounds on the outer edges of the camp.
My first impression of Camp No. 18 as heavenly in comparison to Camp No. 14 was shattered within three months. Each workday began with roll call and a body search before prisoners went into the mine to work. One morning, a piece of newspaper with KIM Il-sung's name printed in big letters was found on Chul-ho BYON (45), a mine-digger. Apparently, he had been using it to roll up cigarette weeds for smoking. The mine's supervisor acted as if he had discovered a grievous crime and stood him in front of all the prisoners. As he smashed Chul-ho with his fists, he assaulted him also with words, denouncing him as an enemy of the people born of a reactionary father.
After the assault Chul-ho was tied to a tree on the street most frequented by prisoners, and guards took turns watching him for an entire day. It was January, and in the mountain where the camp was the temperature dropped to as low as fifteen degrees below zero. Chul-ho, wearing nothing else besides his thin work uniform, suffered severe frostbite that caused pus to leak out from his hands and feet. In the end, he lost consciousness. No one, however, dared express sympathy for fear they would be considered an accomplice to his crime.
Ladies and gentlemen, I now want to tell you about my mother. In May 1996, food was so scarce that my mother used to climb into the woods and bring back herbs and plant roots to make weed gruel. Since the food situation was bad outside the camps, you can easily guess it would be far worse inside the political prison camps! At Camp No. 18 food, enough to last only ten days, was used as a whole month's supply. Prisoners practically lived on weeds with one or two grains of corn. Such were the circumstances when an accident befell my mother that would have serious consequences.
As usual, my mother had gone to the woods to gather whatever was edible. Weak with age and extreme malnutrition, she collapsed in the middle of the forest, waking hours later in darkness.
Unfortunately, one of the guards making his night round found my mother walking in the woods. Suspecting that she was trying to run away from the camp, he handcuffed and confined her in a prison cell thinking that if she was not trying to escape why would she be roaming the woods in the middle of the night?
Because I used to leave for work at six in the morning to return as late as eleven or twelve at night, I was unaware of what had happened. When I heard of my mother's arrest I rushed to the security officer to beg for mercy. There I saw my mother's bony hands locked in cuffs, and her face covered with blood where the skin had been cut. I pleaded that being an old woman she did not know better. My supplication only earned kicks from the officer who lashed out: "You son of a bitch! Everyone knows the regulations! No one is allowed to go into the woods after five!"
Even though in her seventies, my mother was condemned to a special cell for serious offenders. She was then forced to work by the riverside of the Daedong carrying rocks to heap them into a pile. When she could no longer walk, two young men put a long bat in between her legs and carried her away as she desperately tried to keep herself from falling off. Can you, ladies and gentlemen, imagine what I felt at that moment, watching my own mother in anxiety and yet unable to do a single thing for the poor old woman? This is the brutal truth about North Korea, the land where they say that human rights are better respected than anywhere else and that the rules are based on humanitarianism.
That incident turned my mother into an invalid, unable even to go to the bathroom by herself. The sight of my mother in such a state would often make me resent or even curse my father who did nothing more than bring me into this world. The anger and curses would only throw me into despair, because after all, I could find no practical solution. One day when I was overwhelmed by hopelessness, my mother put my hand in hers and told me that she wished for me to run away. She didn't expect to live much longer and felt that at least I should be able to escape for a better chance in life. I knew then I would never forget the teary eyes that stared into mine as she said this. Although I well understood my mother's meaning and the sincerity of her wish, I could not bear to leave her behind so frail and aged. A few days later, however, I made up mind about escaping and asked her:
"Mother, how would you live without me?"
From my question she seemed to have read my determination and answered:
"If you think of the trivial things, you will never become a big man. Just think of how wonderful it would be if you could only go to South Korea. Your uncle went south during the war and some of your father's friends must still be there, too." With these words and a long sigh she tried to encourage me.
Even after this conversation I could not easily run away. I got involved in a case for which I was tortured and investigated. My body was weakened considerably and I could easily have died had I not strengthened my determination to fight for life. I wrote a will so that it would look like I had committed suicide, leaving only a will to let an unwitting mother know. This I hoped would protect my mother from being accused of conspiring in my escape. I explained to her that should I not return home, she should take the will to the officer in charge of us. Then I embarked on my journey.
On September 28, 1998, I made a miraculous escape from the camp of death on a coal train bound for Moonchon Refinery. I passed through Kowon and then Danchon in South Hamkyong Province. From there I went to Chongjin in North Hamkyong Province where I stayed at my friend's home to recuperate. I then went to Najin and to Namyangku in North Hamkyong Province, finally crossing the Tumen River in December 1998. Through Domun I entered China.
I wandered in Yanji not knowing where to go in the strange Chinese land. There I came to see and myself experience the tragedy of North Koreans in China. According to data gathered by the Social Security Department in late 1997, 300,000 North Koreans were missing, 100,000 among them were estimated to have died of hunger or were wandering through parts of North Korea, while about 200,000 had crossed the border to China.
The sad fate of North Koreans in China as a poor homeless race came home to me in Yanji. There is a pecuniary reward for every North Korean defector captured, and the Korean-Chinese go all out searching for North Koreans in hiding to hand them over to the Chinese police. The arrested North Koreans are strung together with a wire that is pierced through their noses. In groups of fifty, these people are deported through Domun. China gets one log in return for every captured North Korean.
The women are sold for rape and forced into prostitution by Chinese and Korean-Chinese. Some women try to go back to North Korea with the money they earned to feed their families, only to be caught and imprisoned in police detention centers. The slightest mistake could label one of these women as a traitor. Pregnant women often suffer the most, as officers would kill the fetuses while in the womb by kicking the women's belly. In the market in Yanji, you see North Korean children whose fingers have been cut off for stealing food.
In conclusion, I give you the promise that I will devote my small self to the peaceful reunification of Korea. When that day should come, I will go to Pyongyang to teach my friends and my children the truth about KIM Il-sung and KIM Jong-il. I will serve as a voice crying out for everyone to live in the spirit of democracy.