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Children in North Korean Concentration Camps (2)
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2016-01-21 13:45:21
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Children in North Korean Concentration Camps (2)


Hyok AHN


Hunger, Atrocity and Death

In the North Korean concentration camps, a boy or girl is treated as an adult in terms of work quota at the age of 16. Everybody over the age of 16 must assemble in front of the security officers' building by 5:30 every morning for roll- call by work team, work instructions for the day, and the commencement of the day's work. The prisoners must continue to work like machines except for a thirty minute lunch break and another thirty minute break at 5 o'clock in the afternoon.

The day's work is only finished at 8 o'clock if the work quota for the whole team is met. If a team member failed to finish his quota by that time, he will be hated by the rest of the team members, whose work hours will be extended until the whole quota is met. 

Each team comprises 5 prisoners and a team leader. There is a supervisor above of the team leaders. The supervisors give instructions and inspect for the completion of work. A prisoner will be shouted at, verbally abused and badly beaten if caught taking rest during work hours. The other team members will also be punished by extending their work hours. All the prisoners are so hungry and exhausted that, when they are collectively punished because of a prisoner's failure to accomplish quota, they do not sympathize or understand the prisoner and always blame him, "Hey! Don't you see we are getting punished because of your fault?" If the prisoner repeats the failure to meet the work quota by 8 o'clock, he will be very harshly criticized by the supervisor and hated by the rest of the team members.

In retrospect, the absence of sympathy or understanding of the fellow prisoners in these situations was harder and more painful than hard labor, beatings or hunger itself. The purpose of collective punishment was to make prisoners hate and watch each other and work harder. Prisoners are so exhausted and tired at the end of the days' work that they find even walking home difficult. What is more painful is the regular politics class after the day's work every day and then attending two additional lectures every week. The regular class and the lectures were to reform the mentality and promote the revolutionary spirit of the prisoners. A prisoner will be charged with an offense of "continuing a corrupt life" and sternly punished for failure to attend any of the daily classes or weekly lectures: even the patients who can hardly move must still attend them. The summary sessions, discussions and "questions and answers" often continue until morning. The prisoners often read textbooks while they work because they don't get any food at all for the day if they lose memorization contests during the night classes. Unless you study hard, you will be severely punished as a reactionary. So, you must carry a textbook with you while you work even though you may not have time to read it. The Ten-Principles of the Establishment of the One and Only Ideology of the Party, Article 8 Paragraph 6, reads: " You must accelerate revolutionalization by dedicating yourself to the revolutionary tasks, earnestly participating in labor and realizing the revolution." This is one of the popular topics for summary discussions.

The prisoners are instructed to memorize 15 officially designated songs praising Kim Jung Il and sing the songs on the way to work, and while working. They are beaten if they do not sing loud enough and a brief pause in singing is as an indication of political discontent. The prisoners must sing the songs as loudly as possible even though they are usually very tired.

Additionally, as you walk you must also loudly shout slogans such as "Revolutionalization Is the Melting Furnace of Ideological Unity!" or "Let's Eliminate the Deep Roots of the Old and Corrupt Bourgeois's Life Style from the Brain!" In particular, emphasis is put on the instruction to praise the revolutionary ideology of the Kims, father and son. When you pronounce the names of the Kims or write down their names, you must be particularly careful to make it special. A spelling error in writing their names constitutes an offense of lack of loyalty and in the case of single prisoners, their prison terms are often extended for that reason. School children from family sector of the camp are no exception to this continuing harassment. 

Children spend most of the day on work, assigned by teachers, from 6 o'clock in the morning. The work quota for children is enormous in terms of the amount of work and the intensity. The failure to accomplish the work quota may result in reduced ration, as for adults, or in being forced to stay late without food until the day's quota is accomplished. The children are mobilized from the first day in camp school for all kinds of work to earn foreign exchange. Additionally, they must cut trees for firewood or carry out farm work. Children work at a very large vegetable farm to produce all kinds of vegetables and fruits for security officers. They have endless work such as planting and transplanting saplings and taking weeds off and so on beginning in the early spring.

They spend many more hours for work than for study in class. Human excreta are used in the farm of the concentration camp. The children of the Dung Collection Team carry dung in buckets and distribute it in the fields all day long. At the end of this work, they usually complain about headaches from the rotten smell of dung all day long and often have swollen faces and hands.

On the other hand, there are many prohibitions for the children, such as "do not touch the vegetables and fruits of the security officers' farm" or "do not steal from the farm." From the early spring, the small and tender fingers of children produce all kinds of fruits such as water melon, sweat melon and tomato which are not for the children. If a child is caught stealing fruit, he or she is badly beaten and repeatedly punished.

They call it a school but, in reality, it is hardly a school. Children come to school not for learning but for hard work. The short hours for study in the class are mostly devoted to copying or memorizing the Leader's instructions.

"The Great Father Leader risked his life to struggle for Korean independence and liberation. We owe him our enjoyment of happiness today in our country. You will be reactionaries if you ever forget his gifts." These are the lines children have to hear repeatedly everyday. The textbook children study in class is mostly priase for Kim Il Sung's anti-Japanese struggle and denunciation of South Korean and American imperialists.

The class always comes to an end with a closing speech by the teacher. "You children must thank the Greatest General of All Generals, Kim Il Sung, who is the hero and the Sun of the Korean people, a legendary hero and an ever- victorious general, a general as strong as steel. You owe him for your study in school today just like in the schools in the society outside the camp, even though you are the children of criminals."

The whole nation begins to prepare gifts for Kim Il Sung from about two months before his birthday. The task for the children in the camp was "the sand-gold collection campaign of loyalty." We were told that there was an abandoned gold mine somewhere upstream on the Yodok river. We find gold bearing sand in the river bed. The campaign was to collect gold from the river bed to offer Kim Il Sung as a token of loyalty to him. The children make a wood frame from the trees they cut in the mountains. Then, they make sieves with fine twigs and a piece of white cloth. The sieves were placed at a place in the stream having adequate water velocity to make them work. Children are very careful not to let the sieves get carried away or damaged by the stream. They carefully select trees and twigs of the right size. They collect fine sand from underneath rocks and gravel and screen them with the sieves. Children dump what is left in the sieves onto wooden pans for careful sifting every two hours. The exercise is repeated many times until, at the end of the day, nothing but gold, shining in the sun light, remains. This was how the children worked to collect gold. The quota is 0.5 grams for a team of 6 children. On unlucky days, they don't get any gold. On some lucky days, however, they get 0.5 or 0.7 grams of gold every time they sift. The children were beaten at school with a stick for failure to meet the day's quota. Children had to continue to dig tremendous amount of sand to meet the quota. Often, bolders in the stream get undermined by childrens digging and roll over onto the children. The normal growth of children in the camp, ages 12~13, had been stressed and, as a result, they were extremely weak. They were all skin and bone from undernourishment and, when crushed by a bolder, their arms and legs are crushed like dry corn stems. 

The work to be done increases in the spring when farming begins. When top-soil collection work is over, the "battle for finding nutritional sites of the corn" and "the rice planting battle" begin immediately, followed by "the weed control battle" on the work schedule. In North Korea, farming work is always called a "battle." The nature of farm work, dependant upon the seasons make it necessary to rush work to meet a seasonal deadline. If a child falls, no other children have time to look after the child. The children are naive and envy a child who falls, rather than feeling sorry for the child, because they are all about to fall anyway. In mid-October, children stop farm work and begin to prepare for winter. It is like a large-scale military operation involving the whole camp. The winter preparation begins with "the collection of grass for rabbits operation," an operation of collecting grass to feed rabbits through the winter. Children have to walk a long distance in the farms and mountains to collect enough dry plants. The grass had to be cut to the right size for bundling. The daily quota is 20 kilograms per child, failure to make it means they must work until late night. Raising rabbits is part of "the Children's 7-Year Plan for Earning Foreign Exchange." The meat is for the security officers and the skins for export. C. H. Kang, who was brought to the camp when he was 9 years old, was once in charge of the management of rabbit pens when he was a middle school child in the camp. He and other children in the same team had to kill rabbits for the teachers every ten days and missed classes to kill the rabbits. Children had to take the skin off first and clean the meat for the teachers. Some teachers want the rabbits without heads. So, the children chopped off the heads, cooked and eat them, hidden in a fireplace in the rabbits pen. It was such a delicacy! He recollects that he could see better and think better after he had eaten them. 

When the hard work of collecting grass for the rabbits is over, firewood collection work begins immediately. Children are forced to collect firewood from the hills behind the school or Pyongpung mountain. The work may sound romantic but, in fact, it was extremely gruelling for children to climb up rugged mountains and pick up firewood. By comparison, collecting dry plants is much easier. Children are divided into different teams for chopping off trees, cutting up the fallen trees with saws, carrying the logs down to the foot of the mountain and carrying the logs on their shoulders to school, some 3 kilometers away. The children walk some 3 kilometers to the mountain or valley with axes and saws supplied by security officers. Children, then, had to hike halfway up the steep mountain. The most difficult work of cutting trees and transporting the cut logs down to the foot of the mountain is for the 5th-year graders of middle school. The other children are given the work of carrying the heavy load of logs on their shoulders for some 3 kilometers. Other children saw wood short for firewood. Many pieces of wood have hard knots or are simply too big for the children. It is so difficult for small children to saw wood with knots. Sometimes, they break saw blades or injure their hands. 


According to C.H. Kang,

According to C.H. Kang, who defected to South Korea with me, he and two other children of his age once worked every night for two months at a firewood work site high up in the mountain in winter.

The work aimed at earning foreign exchange includes "Sesin Collection." Sesin is a rare plant that grows only in the high mountains, above 1,500 meters altitude. It is said that the plant is very expensive, used for producing mouth freshener and exported to Japan and other countries. To collect the plant, children usually spend some 15 days in the mountains. So, when they move to the mountain, they carry 15 days' food rations and other necessary provisions for camping in the mountain. The work is some of the toughest and the most dangerous in the camp. 

C.H. Kang told me that the day after he graduated from middle school, he was mobilized for sesin collection work. High up in the mountain, they were fully exposed to rains, day and night, without any shade. Wet clothes do not dry quickly because of the limited sunshine through the trees. Prisoners had to dry clothes with their body heat and so shiver with cold. If the clothes are too wet, they take off the clothes and squeeze them while standing exposed to cold rain naked, with gooseflesh, shudders and the tips of all their fingers swollen with water. It is very tiring to move up and down on a steep slope of a rugged mountain many times every day in search of the plant. Furthermore, the plant is very light and collecting 5 kilograms a day, the quota, is almost impossible. Miserable conditions for sleep and poor food rations make the prisoners, high school student in any other country, look like walking corpse after two weeks. Often, their families do not recognize them when they return home. During camping, it is very difficult to make fires. So, insufficient boiling makes the corn almost raw. The teenage prisoners keep the half-boiled hard corn in their mouths until the corn is somewhat softened before chewing and swallowing it. When they find a snake, it is a lucky day. They catch it, and eat it raw because the security officers will see the smoke it if they cook. The feeling after eating meat usually gives the prisoners a tremendous feeling of satisfaction. While the prisoners are working so hard almost to death, the security officers, on the other hand, thoroughly enjoy their outdoor games in super-luxury. They choose a most scenic and cozy site, pitch strong military tents, and install floor-heating systems and big iron kettles for cooking rice. They often hunt wild animals with their guns and enjoy the meat. The child prisoners' faces, unwashed and sunburned for months, made them look like black Africans. Many of them have discolored spots around their eyes from pellagra disease. They look from a distance as though they are wearing glasses. The child prisoners go crazy at the sight of a frog near a stream. They catch it and eat it alive as quick as a lightening. They run after rats and push their hands into the rat holes to catch them. They get dirt all over their heads and legs when catching rats. If any child should catch a rat, the other children mouthwater. A child catching a salamander will put the whole thing instantly into his mouth, alive. Some children get worms and dry them on a rock and eat them when the worms are half dry.

As prisoners eat rats in the camp, rats were almost depleted and became harder to find. The surviving rats are wary. Rat tastes strange and somehow unpleasant at first. The revolting taste, however, soon disappears. The children never lost opportunities to catch rats, as they watch so many other prisoners dying of undernourishment and pellagra. Rat is the only source of meat for prisoners for ten or twenty years. 

It is indeed very difficult to catch a rat. Prisoners spend many sleepless nights to catch one. Rat meat, roasted without the skin, is the greatest delicacy in the camp. Some people in the camp have rat farms. C.H Yu, in the same class with C.H. Kang, was one of those who did. According Kang, the house of Yu was a real mess, dirty and not adequate for human habitation. There were small piles of dirt and holes by rats here and there in his hut. Strangely, the rats in his hut were not afraid of people. When people approached them, the rats arn't bothered the people and move around slowly. C.H. Kang and other friends were excited and tried to catch them. At that moment, C.H. Yu jumped up and said,

"No! I say stop it! I tell you the smell of blood drives them away!"

"How do you catch a rat without any blood?"

"Of course, there is an easy way to do it. You make a wire noose, leave it at a rat hole and catch the rats one by one."

"How can you fill your stomach with rats with such slow hunting? Let's make an exception today and catch them as we do normally. But Yu was adamant and firmly said,

"Do you know how careful I have been to raise them? I try hard not to make the smell of blood even though I am hungry. I often steal corn from the fields and spread it around. I never disturb them with noise and never chase them…"

Truly, Yu was making great efforts to keep his rat farm.

"We wondered how you could have such a fat face. Now, we see that it's rat meat which made it," his friends replied. C.H. Kang and his friends spent the night there and ate many rats that night, he recalled. They found a fat rat, as big as a puppy, which gave them a lot of meat and was such a tasty delicacy also. The strong belief of the children that they can survive in the camp only by eating anything they find made children to be like wild beasts.

The Koreans who were repatriated from Japan, called half-Japanese, have a particularly hard time in the camp because of their poor Korean. In particular, they have problems with their pronunciation when singing Korean songs. 

In school, the Korean children from Japan were beaten, verbally abused, and forced by teachers to repeat singing. In the end, teachers keep the child standing outside one by one and make them sing for a long time until he or she almost faints and feels tongue and face grow stiff. Among the songs taught in school, the "song of comradeship" from the revolutionary movies "the Korean Star" was the most famous. All North Koreans, small toddlers and old persons in their eighties, know it by heart. As the title already implies, the content of the song is belligerent and encourages soldiers to kill themselves rather than taken prisoner by enemies or wounded in enemy territory. Other important songs include "Marching with the Party Tens of Thousands of Miles" and " The Green Pine Trees of Nam Mountain." If a child cannot sing them precisely, the child is punished by having to write down the words of ten songs hundred times. Many teachers are not competent and do not intend to teach the children in the first place. 

The school principal, senior teacher and other teachers were all security officers at C.H. Kang's camp. They always carried pistols holstered. Children were forbidden to ask any questions during class. A newcomer, who did not know the rule, was severely beaten for asking a question. 

In summary, children are in the camps for work as a spare part of a machine, not as students. Students' rights are unheard of and were never respected. The children under the endless hard labor called themselves "tail-less oxen."

There was a teacher by the name of Song-Kun Choi when Kang was attending the primary school in the camp. He was a teacher at Yongpyong School in the life imprisonment sector of the camp. The Yongpyong school in the life imprisonment sector was, in fact, not a school, and children there were treated like slaves. For example, the term of the middle school in the Yodok camp was for five years while the same in ordinary North Korean society was for six years. But it was for only three years in Yongpyong. When the children reach the age of 16 and finish the 3-year middle school, they are separated from their family the rest of their lives, and taken for work in secret military or underground factories. Even in such a tough school as Yongpyong, S.K. Choi had a notorious reputation for brutally. He maintained discipline so harshly that children moved to the side of road and sat on their knees at the sight of him. Choi was very proud of his reputation and used to boast about it. As a standard practice, teachers plant informants among the children and the informants get a reduced work quota once or twice or get praised by the teachers for "high revolutionary spirit." The children never confide in each other unless they have a complete confidence in their friendship.

One day, a primary school boy murmured something to himself while carrying dung in a bucket. The child next to him informed a teacher about it. The teacher rushed to the malefactor, beat him, and kicked him hard all over when he fell.

"You s.o.b! Now, you go into this dung bucket and clean the bottom with your hands, you got it?"

The child was already so badly beaten that he could hardly get up. The teacher kicked the weak child into the dung bucket. The child struggled hard and got out of the bucket.

"You s.o.b! You want to see who is going to win?"

The teacher was furious and pushed him into the dung bucket again. The child was trying to get out of the dung bucket and the teacher kicked his head hard into the dung bucket. By this time, he was covered with dung and blood all over his body and was in terrible shape. He could hardly hold himself up but he was given punishment of carrying dung all day long that day. He was whipped hard each time he moved slowly or stopped moving. He was told to use his hands to get dung out of the bucket and spread it in the field. The child had worked hard in the morning and part of afternoon when he finally fell with foam in his mouth. Children shook with anger at the teacher for the teacher's barbaric behavior but could not help the sufferer for fear of punishment and the bad smell of dung from him. The children went home at sunset but the child remained motionless, lying on the ground..

When Kang went to school the next day, he heard a loud moaning. He saw the child's mother holding her dead son and crying. There were a few teachers and the school principal around; none of them showed the slightest regret or remorse on their faces. Rather, they were angry.

"You s.o.b! Watch this closely. Remember, this is what's going to happen to you if you resist your teachers. You got it?" The children, who watched and heard this, trembled with fear and anger. Teachers had various ways of punishing children and were extremely cruel. Beating is a standard practice. Other punishments include being forced to move around the exercise ground on knees and hands and clean the ground with their hands; standing in the sun all day long or repeatedly shouting "I am a dog!" Some children became physically or mentally handicapped as a result of the severe beatings and other punishments. 

C.H. Kang attended the primary school in the camp for six years. He said some teachers were kind. Mr. K.W. Kim, who was his teacher for two years, never beat children and particularly kind to the Korean children from Japan. He pretended to scold the children in a loud voice in the presence of other teachers, but joked with children when there is no other teacher around and, often, tried to reduce the work quota for the children.

On one occasion, the senior teacher was brutally beating a child from Kim's class for some minor offense. K.W Kim joined the senior teacher in scolding the child. Then, he stopped the senior teacher by saying, "This is my class' child. I will give him a real hard time. Let me take care of it."

Once, the class was to guard the school. The children from Japan were waiting for the next shift to arrive and the kind teacher was with them. He produced a bag of candy and tenderly told the children, "You never had candy before, did you? All of you, come and take some." Then, he added, "Don't tell anybody that I gave you candy. I didn't like this candy and I am only throwing them away. That's all." Teachers like him never stayed for more than two years and were replaced by more brutal teachers. The security officers also watch and inform about each other and therefore cannot be kind to children even should they want to be.

Work quota increases for the middle school children. Children had to cultivate from 1,400 up to 2,100 square feet of field a day. Advancement to middle school from the primary school did not mean advanced study but only more hard work. As all children suffer from hunger and hard labor for 365 days a year, a middle school child is not very much different from a primary school child in terms of weight and height. Perhaps the only difference is that middle school children are cleverer. They learn how to fool the teachers and so they may actually do less work while making the security officers believe that they are working hard. They can duck the eyes of security officers to catch frogs or eat wild berries. It is a great day if they catch a rat, roast it in an iron stick and eat it. After they finish with the middle school, there is no more school. Instead, they are "promoted" to worker. This means that they have to accomplish an adult's work quota and are subject to discipline as adults. C.H. Kang was less than 150 cm tall and weighed around 40 kilograms at the age of 17 when he finished middle school. In fact, this was true of all children in the camp, whose growth had been universally retarded by the continuous malnutrition and brutality. No girls were taller than 145 centimeters by that age. Girls were never cleaner than boys and their hairs were rarely combed. They did not look like girls. Furthermore, they had such hard muscles in their hands and feet that they were in no way charming or pretty. Girls had the same work quota as boys. Yet, they are so used to the harsh work in the camp that they work more efficiently than the newly arrived male prisoners.