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North Korea in the 1980s and 90s (1)
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2016-01-21 13:17:35
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North Korea in the 1980s and 90s (1)

​Hyok AHN 



Mr. Hyok Ahn, a former prisoner in a North Korean concentration camp, was born in North Korea in 1968 and was a student when he was arrested in 1986 for illegal travel to China at the age of 18. Was detained in the National Security secret cell in Maram for almost 2 years and then in Yodok Con-centration Camp for about 16 months. He defected to South Korea in 1992. Presently, he is a university student in Seoul. The following is part of his account, "Yodok List," 1995, pp. 13~17, 22~23, 30~31, 34~39, 43~47 and 60~63, published by Chonji Media, Seoul, 1995.

Bust the Baby Reactionary!

The moment I set my foot into the old, dark and damp building of the National Security Ministry in Manpo City one day in 1986, the first half of my life came to an abrupt end. This was not an end for a new beginning. This was an end which distorted and closed my earlier life in a state of darkness. Manpo is a city in North Korea on the Yalu river, bordering with China.

There was only one staff member in the entrance office of the National Security Ministry. It was a drowsy afternoon and there were no visitors. The man was enjoying a leisurely nap and, apparently, did not welcome the surprise visitor. He was annoyed and shouted at me.

"What do you want?"


"Well, Sir, I sneaked into China and ....I am back now and here to surrender......" 

I came here in light mood because I thought my offense was rather minor but my heart began to beat when I spoke these words.

"What?" He jumped up from his chair in surprise when he heard my word.

"You mean you have been to what? China?"

"Yes. .... So, I am here to surrender."

"What? Are you kidding? Oh, my god! What kind of son of bitch are you any way?"

His angry look, that I thought would devour me, has now changed to that of disbelief. Of course, it must have been very difficult for him to believe that a young boy was saying that he wanted to surrender. He picked up a telephone on the desk. 

"A very strange guy is here. He must be crazy. He keeps saying he has been to China." His face, which was causally looking at me, suddenly changed to that of grimness.

"Yes. Yes, I got it."

I had no idea what the party on the other end said. Anyway, the officer suddenly looked serious, reached for a pen and a piece of paper and hurried towards me.

"Hey, you. What is your name?"

When he was asking me about my identity, a man in his early forties, rushed into the room.

"Is this the guy?" He asked the man pushing me with his finger. I was somewhat frightened by his sharp gaze at me but I tried to maintain my peaceful mind.

"You mean you have been to China?"

He took the paper from the first man and started to ask me again about my name, address and etc.

"Call his home."

When I heard him say "his home," I felt relief and thought I would be all right. I believed that if my case was sent to my home province, well, then, my father could surely take care of the rest. The telephone conversation I overheard revealed that the party on the other end of line knew me and my family well and was asking for my return to my province. The officer in my home town confirmed my statement that I went to Hyesan City near the Chinese border with my friends. I felt that things were going well but my relief was very short lived. The security officers in this city wouldn't let me go. They became even more serious and started to telephone here and there.

At first, they thought they had a crazy boy bothering them. But the repeated requests from my home town officer for my return alerted them that this may be an important case.

"When did you cross the border to China?"

A new officer pulled his chair up to me and began a formal interrogation. He was the Chief Intelligence Officer. He looked firm and grim. I shivered with fear and I became very nervous. Instinctively, I felt that something was going wrong. The Chief Officer sat here whole afternoon asking me questions, one after another, about my whereabouts.

"What did you go to China for?"

"I was with my friends near the border and I simply crossed the border out of curiosity."

"Out of curiosity? For fun. Eh? Whom do you think you are fooling? They say it's good in China. You went to China on your own and you came back to Korea on your own again? That's an utter nonsense. Who do you expect to believe your story?"

I wanted to tell them the truth, the whole truth, but they wouldn't even bother to listen to me.

"Well, I just crossed the border for fun and there I saw streets and monuments. So, I am here now, back from China."


You must be an extraordinary liar. Don't you know it's useless to try to deceive us? You better tell us the truth, the whole truth. Don't you realize that even a baby wouldn't believe your story that you are back in North Korea without special spy mission?"

"What? Spy? It's nonsense. How could I live alone in China when my parents and relatives all live here?"

I was full of despair and repeated protests in a crying voice. They appeared intent on framing me as a spy and they kept asking me questions about the spy missions. The Chief Intelligence Officer ordered me into a cell the next day when they realized that I wouldn't admit to the espionage charge, in spite of their threats and persuasion.

"Now you are up for a preliminary interrogation. You better be ready for it." The first man I met in the building whispered to me as he led me to the next building. I was mixed with despair, anger and helplessness as I walked along a dark and long corridor. I asked myself, "What's my fault, anyway?

Even though outside it was broad daylight, the building, which contained the cells, was so dark inside that at first I couldn't see anything . When my sight became accustomed to the darkness a little later, I looked around and found many small and grotesque rooms. They were painted blue and were jammed together on both sides of the corridor, like match-boxes. I was pushed into a waiting room before a cell was assigned to me. Suddenly, I was surrounded by four men. They were security guards and looked ferocious.

"Hey you, undress!"

"You mean here?"

As I hesitated, trying to figure out why they want me to take my clothes off, I felt a sharp pain under my chin. I lost my balance and fell as they started to kick me all over with their army boots. They continued kicking as they forced me to take my clothes off. 

"Completely undress!"

I was suddenly completely naked and stood shivering with shame and fear. They produced a knife and quickly cut off all the zippers and buttons from my clothes in a very skillful manner. They took apart sleeves and all the patches of clothing before they returned the pieces of clothes back to me. I could not figure out what's going on and, somehow, managed to cover my body with pieces of my former clothing. I wrote down my name, date of birth and address on paper, as instructed. One of them hand-cuffed me and the moment I heard the metal sound of "click," I was overwhelmed with repentance that I surrendered.

I was taken to the last cell in the row. The cell was 2.1 meters long and 1.5 meters wide. It was a narrow space rather than a room. In front of me, there was a window blocked with iron bars, with a thickness of about 10 cm and the entrance iron door was so small that one had to bend one's back in order to get through it. I could look up to the sky through a small window, which was about the size of my palm, and no sun light was coming in. There was a small hole at the bottom of the door for supplying food and a peeping hole in the top for guards to watch prisoners inside. Armed guards patrolled the corridors continuously.

During the 3 months I was detained in the Security Ministry cell, I was waiting for the day, with my fingers crossed, to be transferred to my home province. My hope, however, grew slim as the days passed.

As the days passed in the cell, I was deeply depressed with the horrible feeling of abandonment by my family. I learned afterwards that my father had approached his former boss of the Security Ministry for help. My father was told that I was tainted with capitalism and undergoing re-education because of it. My father really tried hard to get me out of the detention.

"What did you go to China for?"
"Tell us the names of those who went there with you."
"How did you cross the river?"
"Whom did you meet in China?"

They kept asking me the same questions, time and time again. They had full information about me from my college, including my school conduct records, the evaluation of my table tennis skill and the commendations I received.

"Yes, the records show that you were a very extravagant student, soaked with capitalism. You say you are not a spy . How can I believe you when your school records show how rotten you are."

They tried very hard to make me confess that I was a spy. Sometimes, they threatened and snarled at me and, at other times, were conciliatory. How naive I was to have believed that I would be released if my spy charges were cleared!

"Where did you stay in China?" 

I was so badly beaten by that time that I did not want to cooperate and tell them what happened in China.

"You better tell us the truth. Your lies are useless. OK, now tell me who went there with you?"

I don't remember now how and why I managed to reject their accusations. Perhaps, I did not want my friends to suffer or it was my sense of friendship.

"Yes, it's true that I was alone and nobody was with me."

"You swine! I'll show you it's useless to be stubborn. I wanted to help you because of your family but you don't care and now you are just taking advantage of my soft nature. You really want me to kill you before you confess?" 

They repeatedly punched me with fist during the interrogations.

"You evil guy! Why would you cross to China and come back voluntarily to surrender if you were not a spy?"

Gate to Death (Maram Interrogation Center)

"Please don't get me wrong! I am not a spy, never. You can check with China!" 

I pleaded my innocence and begged them to check with China every time I was interrogated. They were deaf to my pleas. 

In the meantime, my case was transferred to the Provincial Department at a higher level but their efforts to frame me as a spy continued. When they took me out of the Security Ministry detention cell in Manpo, they forced me to sign an affidavit saying that I will keep quiet about what happened to me during my detention and that I would be subject to punishment, under the constitution, if any information leaked out. I used to sign similar affidavits every time I was moved from one office to another.

I was interrogated again, with the same questions being asked all the time, at the provincial department. I was questioned all day long, from dawn to midnight except during the 4 hours of sleep they allowed me. They apparently wanted to close the case at the provincial level. They repeated threatening, beating and persuasion to get my confession that I was a spy. It was better to be interrogated than having to sit upright, without any movement in the city cell.

I was on board train for Pyongyang, escorted by 3 guards, after one month of interrogations at the provincial level. My case was finally forwarded to the Ministry. I seriously thought of committing suicide by jumping out of the running train. But soon, I realized that this will put my parents and brothers in serious trouble. The thought has made me so confused that I could not think about anything any more.

When we arrived at the Western Rail Station of Pyongyang, a prisoners' car, a passenger car and four guards were waiting for us. It was clear that they had no intention of releasing me. I was taken into the car, which drove a mountainous road for a while. Close to mid-night, the car came to a halt in a dark valley. I later learned that this was the secret interrogation center, called Maram Hotel, under the direct operation of the Department 1 of the Ministry of Security.

Maram Interrogation Center, located in Maram Dong in Hongsong district, is surrounded by valleys in an off-limit area, and completely closed off from residents in the vicinity. The Center is used for both detention and interrogations.

When I got out of the car, they searched me all over. Then, I was led into a building where I wrote down my name. The Center, enclosed by a tall wall, has six one-story buildings, No. 1 to 6. The lower half of the building was underground and the upper half above the ground level. Each building has four rooms which are locked with double iron gates and allow no sun light. In the room, there was a bed, desk and stool and flush toilet. The small window was reinforced with iron bars but was so high that you could not see outside through the window. The rules in the Maram Interrogation Center were exactly the same as those in the city cell in Manpo. You needs specific permission from the guards to eat and use the toilet. When you went to bed, you could pull the blanket only up to your chest and had to keep your arms outside the blanket. There was electric light for 24 hours. You could not see the outside world except when you arrived and left the Center.

Guards had 3 shifts a day, each shift 8 hours long, watching prisoners very closely and writing down the prisoners' every movement. The guards were mostly young men, under thirty, who were sons of the party leaders. Mostly, they volunteered to work here to be promoted to a party membership sooner than others. It normally takes 10 years to be a party member but only 3 years if you volunteer to be on guard service at the interrogation center.

The following day, in the morning, I met the Bureau Chief, Deputy Chief and a preliminary interrogator in charge of my case. They talked intellectually but never forgot to threaten me as they talk.

"You must tell us the truth here, nothing else. It will be difficult to stay alive if you ever attempt to lie."

The intensity of the preliminary interrogation was such that you didn't remember dates or how long you have been detained any more. I later learned that nobody was released once they were sent here. Now, the only possibilities were either going to a prison or a concentration camp. Of those who interrogated me, the interrogator by the name of Jong Shik Hyon was the worst.

"Hey, I know you are no longer afraid of death, having gone through such sufferings. But, remember, it's not that simple. Yes, you can die and that's the end of you as far as you are concerned. But what about your parents and brothers? All of your family will perish if you die here, you understand?" 

He held up and waved a few pages of papers and made conciliatory remarks saying that admitting to only a few lines would settle all the problems and then he could help me. I kept my head down and remained silent through the interrogation. I later learned that in a lecture text for students in the country, there was an accusation against me saying that I was contaminated by the bourgeoisie, had already bad conduct records in school and returned to Korea for a spy mission.

"Yes, I have all kinds of experience with tough guys, but never anybody so evil and stubborn like you."

He threw the papers and shouted at me. When Jong Shik Hyon raised his voice, this was a signal for the guards outside to rush into the room and to start kicking me all over my body. The guards tried to please Jong Shik Hyon by saying, 

"Why don't we just kill him off? Why do we keep him alive when he is so useless." 

When the preliminary interrogator left the office, the guards would start to ask me all kinds of stupid questions. They showed great interest in the girls of capitalist or foreign countries. They often questioned prisoners from South Korea about South Korean women.

"You! You better tell him the truth. If you are so stubborn, you will have to stay here for 10 years, 20 years or until your death," they added while asking me all kinds of silly questions about China.

"I spoke nothing but the truth." 
"You son of a bitch, you are lying again. You must be a spy. You want us to believe that you came back on your own choice? Nonsense!" 

They grabbed and twisted my lips and started to beat me again. Whenever I was tortured, I was deeply tormented by the regret of my stupidity to have surrendered to the Manpo City Security Office. But, alas, it was too late and it's like crying over spilt milk. I could not understand why they want to frame me as a spy.

But I was not the only victim who was detained there under false accusation. Soon I realized that most prisoners there were undergoing terrible ordeals for many silly reasons. 

Myung Jun Kim, 33 years old, was a guide of Koryo Hotel. He was arrested for a brief conversation with a foreigner in a hotel room, who was visiting Pyongyang for the April Festival. Sang Il Han and Sung Ho Chang, both 32 years old, were arrested for disco dancing at the Ansang Bar.

Some people were there for remarks they made while drinking with friends. A man by the name of Il Nam Kim, who was detained in the cell next to mine, was a marine and overland logistics worker. He was disadvantaged in terms of business activity and handling US dollars with his North Korean nationality. He removed the Kimilsung badge from his breast and behaved as though he was a Korean-Chinese. 

Kwang Il Lee was detained in the cell next to Il Nam Kim under a charge similar to mine. He was a graduate of Physics Department of Kimilsung University, wanted to see Russia out of simple curiosity and sneaked into Russia in a locomotive power train. He was arrested in Hassan and forced to return to North Korea. There were several students who were studying abroad, including Sung Il Jon from China and Myong Hun Pak from Rumania. 

One meets most of the prisoners again in the Yodok Detention Camp. The question that was most frequently asked of was "What is the reason of your return to North Korea on your own will?"I always truthfully answered the question but they never believed me. I lost all my strengths, I couldn't sustain the interrogation any more and gradually lost the desire to live. A severe constipation caused bleeding in my anus and I was no longer feeling anything in my thighs and buttocks, perhaps, they were rotting. My weight was reduced from 70 kg to less than 50 kg as a result of the daily interrogation and torture. I was reduced to a terrible shape.

"Well, if I have to be alive and suffer such pains, it's better to die," I concluded. Once I decided to die, the only thought I had was how to die soon. I felt happy when I started to think of death. The thought of all the pains that would be eliminated by death made it easier to stand the beatings.

From this moment on, I sustained myself with the hope of death. Now the question was how to die. I realized that committing suicide was not an easy thing. Jong Pil Kim, from South Korea, unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide and ended up under stricter supervision. Bo Guk Kim cut a vein with a piece of glass but was taken to a hospital. On his return from hospital, he was ordered to keep both of his arms always on the desk and not to move without permission. Now, I was thinking hard to find a way of killing myself without detection. I could injure or hang myself but that would be detected right away. In the Maram Interrogation Center, it was possible for the prisoners to pick up a nail or a broken piece of glass from the ground during a regular brief exposure to the sun outside the cell. I was a cleaner and, for me, it was easier than many others to pick up nails and glasses. I hid them under my tongue and kept them in my cell.

I managed to get a piece of paper. On the paper I wrote down, "Honestly, I am not a spy, " and other details to explain why I crossed the border to China and returned to North Korea. I carried the paper in my pocket. I also wrote a will to my parents and brothers asking for their forgiveness. When I finished writing my will, suddenly I was overwhelmed with the grim realization that "yes, everything was done except killing myself." My hard study of the many ways of killing myself finally made me believe that I could use an empty aluminum tooth-paste tubes. I thought I could cut all the veins inside my mouth with the aluminum pieces that were sharpened. I would not be detected as I would swallow all the bleedings from the mouth into my throat. It would be quite sometime before I would faint.

January 3 was my 19th birthday. I was badly beaten for nothing the day before. I thought the day that I should die has finally come. I sharpened the tooth paste tube at the sanitation room and, without any hesitation, I started to cut inside of my mouth into bits and pieces. I cut the veins of my hands with pieces of glass and swallowed the other pieces of the tooth paste tube and nails I had collected. I could not understand how I did it because I was obviously out of my mind. I could smell fresh blood in my mouth and feel the blood gushing into my throat but felt no pain. The only thought I had at that time was that I should not be detected before my death. I sat down swallowing blood and whenever I felt bleeding stop, I went to the toilet and cut and tore my mouth to pieces again until my mouth was full of pieces of flesh. If you didn't eat the meal, it would be seen as resistance so I threw the rice away at the sanitation room, without any detection.

How long did I repeat it? I began to feel faint. I couldn't see clearly and was loosing consciousness. I bit my tongue in an effort to stay awake and conscious until I finally fainted. When I awoke, it was in a hospital. There was a nurse, two guards and an interrogator by me, with an intravenous injection in one of my arms. The moment I found guards watching me, I shivered with the disappointment that I came back to life. The fact that you just can not die, when you want to, overwhelmed me with a new fear. I was in panic and I threw away the syringe and started to pick up and throw everything I could lay my fingers on and shouted, 

"No, no. I don't want to live, you must kill me." 

"Damn it! Do you think you can solve your problem by killing yourself? Remember, if you die here, your family will be condemned as a reactionary to the system."

"Hey, you reactionary. Trying to kill yourself in smart way? Eh?, Do you realize that we were punished for not having watched you closely enough?" 

The guards and the interrogator were furious with me. They appeared as though my attempted suicide served a blow to them. They couldn't beat me because I was hospitalized. Finding it very difficult to control their anger, they just looked ferociously at me.

This was National Security Ministry's hospital which was located some forty minutes drive from the interrogation center. The hospital also had tall walls, like the prison. In fact, it would be fair to describe it as another interrogation center with a small medical treatment facility. Doctors operated on me to remove the pieces of the tooth paste tube and the nails and put the veins together, I was told. I looked for my will in the pocket of my clothes but it was no longer there. Perhaps, they took it away. 

It took a long time for me to recover because I was already very weak and bled too much. When I returned to the Interrogation Center after about two months in the hospital, the wounds inside the mouth and throat, had still not recovered, and any food in the mouth caused fresh bleeding, making it impossible to eat. The guards thought I was fasting and harassed me without mercy. They forced me to eat, saying "What? Fasting? That's a corruption practice you can find in South Korea, not here. You are a criminal and you think you can fast here?"

In about a month's time, a man called the Bureau Director directly asked me a few questions. Perhaps, owing to my attempt to commit suicide, I was not interrogated during the past month. I, once again in all sincerity, tried to plead with him.

"I am not a spy. It's true. If you doubt me, you can check with the Chinese authorities. If I lied, I will willingly accept any punishment." A month passed when, one day, the same Bureau Director and a Section Chief called me into the office.

"We made a thorough review of your case. You betrayed your fatherland and its people. However, we have received specific instruction from the Dear Leader to re-educate you for revolution, without extending the punishment to your family, in view of the loyalty of your family to the Party. I met your father before coming here who asked me to make sure that you are corrected through re-education. Now, you must cleanse yourself of your rotten bourgeoisie thoughts." 

He spat his remarks and, turning to the Section Chief, continued talking "This guy was a good student and table tennis player in college. I can not understand how he became defiled by the capitalist bourgeoisie spirit.... Well, anyway, this guy is lucky. None of his family and relatives have been punished because of him and they continue to remain in Pyongyang." "Do you realize," he continued, "how difficult it was for your brother to be accepted by a college? He is a gymnasium student and a student with very good records. He was accepted only after the family changed the application saying that this guy was in the army. There is no other rotten guy like him in his family."

I began to cry and repeatedly thanked anybody there. I was convinced that if going to China was a betrayal to the people, it is indeed lucky to be sent for re-education. 

Those Who Are Sent to Concentration Camps

Right after my arrival at Yodok Concentration Camp, I picked up my clothes and was leaving the guards office. I noticed the prisoners were returning from work. I was shocked by the very strange and miserable look of them. They were wearing pieces of rags, patched up, and had their face wrapped up with a cloth, with only eyes showing.. Some of their faces, which showed through the cloth, looked so dirty and miserable. They were all skin and bone.

I was subject to the most atrocious interrogations in Maram Interrogation Center for as long as 1 year and 8 months, suffering from anaemia after the unsuccessful suicide attempt, I was all skin and bone myself. However, I was in a very good shape when compared with the other prisoners here. While I looked at them aghast, they looked at me with sympathy and were sorry for me. I proceeded to the bachelor's quarters in a hurry, to avoid embarrassment, when I heard them whispering,

"Look, he is a dead man now." "Yah, he is from Maram, went to China and was charged with spying activity. He came through a long interrogation." 

Obviously, somebody there knew me from the Interrogation Center. 

The prisoners in the concentration camps, in fact, represent people from all social strata and walks of life in North Korea with full of unbelievable episodes.