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My Experience in a Political Prison Camp
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2016-01-20 17:50:35
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My Experience in a Political Prison Camp

Tae-Jin KIM

Currently lives in South Korea and attends Chongsin Theological Seminary.

The following is a testimony given at the 4th International Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees in Prague (March 2-4, 2003).

It’s a great honor to have an opportunity to share my tales with you. I am Kim Tae Jin and I came to Korea in June 2001 and now I enjoy my freedom that, once I thought “impossible”. I only dreamed freedom of education, occupation, to move freely, travel and legal protection, voting rights and especially freedom of religion, demonstration and association which exists in North Korea only in the Constitution. However, the practice of which would certainly result in persecution. The fact that I am the only one who is enjoying what was unthinkable in the North gave me a tremendous amount of anguish, which brought me here to shed light on the human rights violation in North Korea.

I had a distant relative living in China, which prevented me from joining the North Korean Labor Party and attending college, and therefore had long-standing grudges against the North Korean society and defected from the country on March 24, 1986 to China.

Unfortunately, the Chinese police caught me on July 25, 1987 after living one and half years in China. I was detained for about 20 days in a Chinese prison and then sent to the North Korean Security Agency. North Korea labeled me as a ‘political prisoner’ and I underwent serious hardships. I was severely beaten by security agents with sticks, deprived of food and prevented from excreting because I did not passively follow their orders. They forced me to sit in the same position for an entire day so that my legs still ache from the aftermath of the torture.

The conditions at the prison were horrible that a prisoner from Musan of North Hamkyung Province had to have one of his legs amputated due to serious frostbite and another prisoner who went by the nickname of ‘frog’ was forced to strip naked and spend a night near the prison guards. The temperature in the prison cell was cold even in the summer, so it must have been –20 degrees Celsius that winter night. His groaning from severe cold made the whole cell a living hell. The ‘frog’ was not able to bear the atrocious prison conditions and killed himself by banging his head against the wall.

The prisoners were prohibited from washing their faces and brushing their teeth so that we all had lice all over and could see them crawling on our bodies and faces during the day. I had to hold out through the night against fleas, lice and severe cold that a tattered blanket didn’t make any difference.

After 8 months of detention and investigation, I was sent to political prisoners concentration camp No. 15 which is located in Daeduk-ri, Yoduk-gun, South Hamkyung Province on March 31, 1988. There are large numbers of secret concentration camps in North Korea and prisoners are sent to different camps at different times. Not only anti-government, anti-system activities but also small mischief such as tearing up of or scribbling on a portrait of Kim Il Sung by a small child, or accidental omission of ‘Dear’ when referring to the North Korean leaders is enough for the person and their family to be sent to a political prisoner camp.

The Yoduk camp is separated from others and is a tightly controlled area where no one can come out once committed and restricted from any kind of publication or broadcasting. While I was detained in Yoduk camp, I suffered from serious malnutrition and dehydration due to constant diarrhea whenever I ate.  All I had was steamed corn and was not able to have enough vegetables. Some prisoners were eating rats, snakes, frogs, even frog eggs, leaves of wild grapes, flowers, mountain herbs, anything that they could feel in their stomachs. During the 4 years and 6 months of my confinement at the camp, I witnessed death every week from malnutrition related diseases. I could not use my legs from constant beatings and forced torture positions. If I walked or sat down, I could feel severe pain in my back and legs. Anyone serving time in the prison was treated the same way as enemies and serious beatings were commonplace.

Once I was moved to work on the bulletproof wall construction for the defense unit, a fellow prisoner-worker was severely beaten, stripped naked, handcuffed and left unattended until the next morning because he ate some tomatoes from the unit garden. I crawled in to where he was left abandoned and carried him on my back because he could not move. For the whole month while they harvested tomatoes and cucumbers, he had withheld brutal tortures but he had no one to appeal to and felt lucky that he survived the month.

Another prisoner named Park Sang Gil was detained at the camp for 15 years along with his family members. He and his family were arrested because his grandfather was formally a medical officer with an anti-Japanese guerilla unit, allegedly apostatized. Once, a security agent almost had beaten him to death because he planted corn a different way than what Kim Il Song had ordered. His back was hurt so badly that he wasn’t able to move for a while. Another prisoner, Park Ik Hyun, who was the chief of prisoners’ council, suffered from ruthless torture 15 years ago when he served time in the camp for not acknowledging that he had torn a newspaper containing Kim Il Sung’s picture.

A fellow prisoner named Choi couldn’t do his duty due to a lack of nutrition and was feeling extremely ill. However, his section leader ignored his condition and continued to beat him to do his work. He was so ill from hunger that the beatings could not make him work, so Mr Choi pretended to go mad and stole dog food and unthinkably cut off his own fingers with an ax.

In the summer of 1989, Kim Hong Am, Kim Hong Chul and others had discussions on various subjects including the Bible and Shakespeare. The discussion was informed to the security unit by Kim Hong Chul, which resulted in putting Kim Hong Am and another into the tightly controlled area. The informer was released after serving time for 6 months. They were punished on the ground that the Bible was an idol and foreign work of art revisionism. Fellow prisoners maintained order within the camp by spying and reporting on each other, which was truly stifling for everyone. 

Anyone who tried to flee from the camp was shot to death. Once when I was confined in the camp, there was an unsuccessful escape attempt by 5~6 prisoners. They all were arrested and executed in front of the other prisoners surrounded by heavily armed guards. Snipers fired three shots at the gagged and masked prisoners, who were forced on their knees. Another shot was fired either to their heart or in the head to confirm their death. Years before, prisoners were forced to throw rocks at the dead bodies. I lived an unthinkable life at a place where no human can live like a man and finally ended by term and was released on April 10, 1992.

I returned to my beloved family but they refused to live with a former political prisoner. My wife wanted a divorce and even my mother confessed that I was an adopted son and didn’t want to live with me anymore. I lost all hope of living in the North and decided to defect once again on April 7, 1997. I fled to China and wandered around and finally succeeded in making my way into South Korea in June 2001. I truly expect North Korea to comprehend that they are under God’s fury. North Korea alleged that Kim Il Sung is the son of Heaven after his death in a book published by the labor party publishing house. That is a totally absurd claim.

The North Korean regime sent those who dedicated their lives for the betterment of the country out to remote areas only because Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il didn’t like them and discriminated skilled technicians and scholars due to their non-revolutionary backgrounds. They are one of the important reasons why North Korea cannot advance. The regime fooled the people that they are the owner of factories and farms but in reality the people were forced to follow the party’s order away from the opportunity to understand what is going on around the world. Iconization of the Kims emptied the national treasury with no extra budget to improve outdated industrial facilities. The ‘self-reliance agricultural methodology’ established decades ago resulted in starvation of 3 million and imploration to the world for their generosity.

The Regime always claimed to be on the side of the have-nots but most North Korean refugees in China fled to find a way to survive leaving behind everything that they cherished and not to make money. The Chinese authorities arrest the refugees using dirty tricks and send them back to the North. Considering all this, people in a communist regime are no more than a means to prolong their stay in power.

I would like to appeal to the audience gathered here today and to the conscience of the world. I hate communism because it is about lying and shameless. I sincerely hope you can assist the people in North Korea who are left powerless before the atrocities and North Korean refugees in China and other countries.

And I want North Korea to come to its senses and understand that a fanatic who threatens the world with nuclear power would get them nowhere and that they can only find a real future when they become part of the global community cherishing human rights.

I will devote myself for the peace in North Korea, the world and against any human rights violation on the face of the earth.