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The Horror of the North Korean Detention Center
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2016-01-21 11:58:38
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The Horror of the North Korean Detention Center

Won-Chul KANG
(Born in 1982; defected to South Korea in May 2001)

The following is the testimony of a defector who escaped to China and was later repatriated to North Korea, where he was imprisoned in a detention center.​

North Korean Detention Center

I was detained for three months in Nong-Po Detention Center located in Northern Hamgyung Province in Chungjin city.  The general rule was that one was detained in the center until the agents from the district unit of your original Safety Agency came to pick you up.  Depending on how far the distance from your agency to the detention center and on the availability and quality of transportation, one could be locked up in the detention center for up to eight months.  If you were originally from the Hamgyung area, your detainment was the shortest, whereas prisoners who were originally from Yanggang Province were usually detained the longest due to the difficulty of transportation through the mountainous terrain.

Chinese Police and their treatment of North Koreans

In 1999, I decided that I could no longer stay in China and decided to visit the Korean Consulate in Shanghai.  After the Consulate turned me away, I found my way to a Korean church prepared to ask for some help, but unfortunately, somebody reported me to the authorities and I was arrested by the Chinese police soon thereafter.  That same day, I was transported to Dandong from Shanghai by plane and taken to Dandong border unit prison.  The conditions of Chinese border prisons are atrocious, especially for North Koreans.  We were shackled and handcuffed at all times.  The Chinese guards treated us very differently from the Korean Chinese who were in the same cell as us.  After one week, I was deported back to North Korea.

Repatriation from China to North Korean Detention Camp

When the date of deportment had been agreed upon by both sides, we were handcuffed and placed in vans, and then driven past customs into North Korea and handed over to the North Korean Security Agency. After the Chinese authorities left, we were told to squat down facing the wall with our heads bowed down.  First, they demanded us to state our age and home address and then we were asked the exact date of our entry into China and the date of our arrest.  

Fortunately, the Chinese police did not hand over any documents on us to the North Korean police or relate the details of my arrest so I lied about everything.  If the North Korean police had found out that I had been arrested at a church, I would have been convicted as a political offender and been sent to a political prison camp. After this interrogation, a woman conducted a brief medical examination, which included drawing a sample of blood.  I heard that they were checking for any symptoms of AIDS or any other disease that could have been contracted while in China but I believe it was just a formality. 

Upon completion of the medical examination, we were transported to the Security Agency in the city of Sinuiju, There were six people total in the cell that I was allocated to, all of whom were also defectors who had been arrested in China. When I first entered the cell, all the prisoners were sitting and facing the same direction in complete silence. At first I thought it was truly bizarre, but I soon came to realize that it was a form of punishment inflicted upon the prisoners by the Security Agency.  

Starting at 5am, we were instructed to sit for the entire day and repent about our wrongdoings, and if anyone was caught breaking the code of silence, they were beaten.  In our cell, there was no separate toilet and we were not allowed outside our cell, so we had no choice but to urinate and defecate in the room in front of everyone.  Needless to say, the odor was absolutely unbearable. After two days, I was taken out and again asked about my age and address and upon reconfirmation, I was sent back to my cell.  I was not allowed out of the cell for another week when all the “river-crossers,” including myself, were transferred to the Sinuiju Detention Center.

We were handcuffed in pairs and ordered to walk 30 minutes to the detention center. Once we arrived at the center, we were re-interrogated by agents and then they proceeded to confiscate our belts and any items we had that were made of steel. At this center, about 40-50 prisoners were imprisoned in a cell that was about twenty “pyong” (roughly around 700 square feet) and it was inevitable that prisoners suffered from the infestation of lice and fleas.  Fortunately for us, the very day that we arrived at Sinuiju Detention Center, our district unit from Northern Hamgyong Province Safety Agency came to transport us to Nongpo Detention Center, so we did not have to suffer the conditions of the Sinuiju Detention Center. 

Upon arriving at Nongpo Detention Center, we were once again asked our age and address, as well our family background, and then we were allocated and placed in our cells.  We waited three months before the Musan Safety Agency came to pick us up.

Demographics of Detention Center Prisoners

There was no age limit at the detention centers and there were typically more women than men. Most prisoners were defectors who were arrested in China although there were a few people who had been incarcerated while waiting for their verdicts on their crimes. The crimes committed ranged from slaughtering and consumption of cows to illegal sale of electric wires to larceny. The majority of these people are convicted and sent to what is called an “enlightenment center.”  I believe what is referred to as a political prison camp is such called an “enlightenment center.”  It is merely a euphemism for prison.

Life in the Detention Center

Our day started at 5am when we had to go outside for roll call.  After performing some light exercises, we were ordered to wash our faces in less than one minute.  Anyone who exceeded the time limit was beaten.  For breakfast, we were only served a tiny portion of corn.  Salt was very scarce in the detention center and because I had no salt in my diet for 15 days straight, I almost lost my eyesight.  I still remember crying when I thought I wouldn’t be able to see anymore.  

After breakfast, there was another roll call and then we were sent back to our cells.  At this point, any one who was deemed capable of working was forced to work around the detention center.  For those of us who were young students like me, we were required to sit in our cells for the entire day. The guard on duty would not even let us carry a conversation.  

Everyday lunch was served at noon and although the food had absolutely no nutritional value, I still ate to keep myself from dying of starvation. We had roll call before and after dinner, which started at 6pm and then lights went out at 11pm. This was the time that I dreaded because in a room that was so crowded there was hardly any room to sit, it was impossible to lie down and sleep.  Also, since we were young, we were given last priority in terms of space.  There were many times when I actually had to sleep standing and leaning against the wall.  If I was lucky and scored a space to sit and sleep, I felt well rested in the morning.

Conditions at the Detention Center

Those who were forced to work would come back completely exhausted and since it was impossible to sleep comfortably, each day their condition would get worse.  Many people fainted and collapsed.  I believe the goal of the agents was to exhaust us from trying to escape to China again.  During my three-month detainment, 11 people died.  Aside from one person who was beaten to death, everyone died from malnutrition. 

One morning, I remember getting ready to go outside for roll call and trying to wake up the person next to me. Even though I shook him vigorously, he didn’t wake up and I finally realized that he was dead.  I’m not sure what time he died, but to think that I was sleeping next to a dead corpse sent shivers down my back.  

What was more gruesome was the way in which the dead bodies were buried.  Not only was there no proper burial for each individual, but a few bodies were combined and thrown in a dug up pit in a small hill, which was then covered up with no headstone. Perhaps they wanted to prevent anyone from performing ancestral rites but in any case, I thought it was extremely harsh and inappropriate.

Juvenile Crime and Punishment in North Korea

I personally have not witnessed any teenagers committing any major crimes but I think most teenage crimes consist of larceny and river-crossing.  North Korea is actually pretty lenient on teenagers.  For example, I was transported from Nongpo Detention Center to Musan, where I entered the district Safety Agency unit.  When the agents discovered that I was a teenager, they sent me to an institution solely for teenagers. Although now there are kkotjebis detained there. 


So it was very easy to escape this institution because the guards were teenagers as well. Also, if we contacted our schools, it was possible to be released into school custody, although we would be subjected to some form of punishment from the school. In my case, my mother bribed the staff with a few packs of Chinese cigarettes and they released me into her custody.  That’s how I survived and when I think back to all that I had to go through, I still feel a little faint.