Life Detention at Detention Settlements in North Korea
(formerly translated as "concentration camp" )
Short Biography of Chul-Hwan Kang
1968: Born in North Korea.
1977: Detained, at the age of 9, in Yodok Concentration Camp in North Korea with his grandmother, father, uncle and a sister when his grandfather mysteriously disappeared. His mother was forced to divorce his father. She remained in Pyongyang since then.
1987: Released from the camp with his surviving relatives at the age 19.
1992: Defected to South Korea with Mr. Hyok Ahn who was also a prisoner at the Yodok Concentration Camp.
1997: Graduated from the Foreign Trade Department, Hanyang University in Seoul, Korea.
Yongpyong, the Most Dreaded Settlement
Editor's note: Kang and his family had been detained in the Reform Sector of the Yodok Detention Settlement for quite some time at the time of the following accounts:
We forgot what laughter was for a long time. We were all always exhausted and lived a life of despair in abject poverty. If anybody was laughing or giggling in the settlement, he or she was thought to be surely crazy. My family was no exception. When we first arrived here, I was only nine years old and my sister seven years old and we spent a little time at a nearby stream laughing together, not knowing the bleak days awaiting us. Since then, we never laughed for the ten years we were in the reform sector of the Yodok detention settlement.
"Do you know about Yongpyong, brother?" my sister, Miho, asked me one day. I felt fear at her mention of Yongpyong.
"What about it?" I asked her.
"Somebody in my class was sent to Yongpyong with her family. They say we may never see them again."
"Who?" my grandmother interrupted my sister with a frightened face.
"A child in my class, grandmother," my sister replied.
"That's very bad news. I feel sorry for them. They say it's much worse there," my grandmother said knowingly.
"Oh, my poor friend…," my sister looked very worried.
We were fortunate because our grandmother was able to keep home and manage to look after our clothing and food since she was too old for labor work in the settlement. Grandmother felt deep sympathy for me and my sister because we were separated from our mother at such a young age. As a result, we were considerably better off when compared with other children who did not have a grandmother. When my grandmother used to tell my sister, "Look, my child, remember you are a girl. A girl must always look clean," she gave her clean clothes even though they were old and patched-up. She would wash Miho's hair as often as possible and combed her hair everyday.
Old persons over the age of 65 are not given work in the detention settlement. This is why my grandmother was able to spend whole day up in the mountains to collect all kinds of edible herbs and plants for the family. We were very lucky because grandmother was always ready for us when we returned home, completely exhausted from the day's hard work.
"What a pity that she was sent to Yongpyong!" grandmother sighed to herself. Late at night, my father returned home and, when my grandmother asked him about the missing family, he asked, "Mom, how did you find out about them?"
Grandmother asked, "Do you know them?" "Yes, mother, they are the Choi's from residence unit No. 1…," my father replied. I shouted, "Yes, that's right, it must be Myong-ho Choi in my class!" I suddenly remembered that my friend had been absent from school for days already. I heard rumors that Myong-ho's family was taken to the Yongpyong sector for life imprisonment.
Myong-ho was a quiet and obedient child. He was always good at memorizing all the lines from the speeches of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il. He was very kind-hearted and never quarreled with anybody.
Grandmother said, "There must have been something." My father nodded his head and said, "Choi was working at the quarry." "How old was he?" asked my grandmother.
"He is about my age."
"What a pity that he was still so young."
"He was a quiet man and very obedient. Hardworking too. He was made a platoon leader there."
"Then, how could he have offended the security officers?"
The work of quarry was to dig limestone and transport the stones to other locations. The work was much more difficult than logging in the mountains. There is no safety control for the dangerous work.
"But, Mom, the security officer in charge was a very bad guy. He always beat prisoners for nothing and treated them like slaves. On one occasion, Choi could no longer take his beatings and, in a sudden anger, threw a stone at him. The other prisoners followed his lead until the security officer was killed."
"What a surprise! What happened, then?," asked my grandmother. "I was told that Choi was arrested immediately, tried at the people's court of the security officers and publicly executed."
Grandmother kept nodding her head until she suddenly stopped asking more questions.
My sister began to look nervous, covered her face with both hands and began to sob.
"OK, they killed him. But why the family…?" Grandmother had deep sighs for them because they had to spend the rest of their lives in such a horrible place as Yongpyong."
We feared that it could be us next time.
Yongpyong is located on the other side of the mountain. It is called Yongpyong, a permanent detention sector. We have never been there but all North Koreans knew what a dreaded place Yongpyong is. North Koreans tremble with fear at the mere mention of Yongpyong. The prisoners in our sector were also terrified by the mere mention of the permanent detention sector. All prisoners struggle very hard to avoid it. It is like cows going to the butchery. Some prisoners commit suicide the moment they know that they are being sent there. Many prisoners feel that they would rather kill themselves here than having such a hard life for the rest of life there." Yongpyong is considered to be the most dreaded place for all prisoners in our sector.
My uncle returned home very late from his work and, naturally, we talked about what happened to the Choi's. He turned pale at the mention of Yongpyong even though he himself did not have any problem with security officers.
He said, "in the beginning, they say they were sending the most serious offenders there, only such offenders as revisionists, reactionaries and etc." "What difference does it make? We are all reactionaries, spies, and anti-revolutionists, greedy landlords, and collaborators with South Korea any way, are we not? They can frame us in any way they want and any time they want, can't they?" my father argued.
"Well, I was told by the security officers that we don't go there unless we commit a real serious crime against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea," my uncle continued.
"It is an abandoned place. There, they don't have pictures of the leaders and they do not teach prisoners the revolutionary history of Kim Il Sung. In other words, the prisoners there are not considered to be human beings. Once inside, it is as if you are dead and it is end of everything, they say," my father responded.
"They can punish the offender. But why do they have to send innocent families of the offenders to such a dreaded place?" my grandmother said again in deep grievance.
"That's exactly what they mean when they say 'elimination of all bad seeds.' In other words, children and all offspring of serious offenders must be wiped out completely, generation by generation."
Grandmother shivered with fear, "How awful!"
Security officers commonly beat prisoners to death in the settlement and this is accepted as normal. If, however, a prisoner kills a security officer, this is a most serious crime. As usual, grandmother told us at the end, "You must be patient and be prepared to take all the insults. Never resist them and always be patient and patient. I cannot emphasize this enough. We must survive this ordeal and get out of here alive, OK?" Then, she looked worried about her missing husband and other sons.
"Well, your grandfather and my other sons may be there…," she sighed. "I don't think so. If they were sent there, we must have been already sent there also," replied my father. "What about my other sons? I don't think they are safe. Where did they take them to? Only if I could know of their whereabouts..," my grandmother sighed with tears.
In fact, grandmother always worried about her other missing sons.
"Well, Hwasong is rather timid. So, he must be all right. But I am more worried about his brother who is sometimes quick-tempered and prone to run into trouble. I am really worried about him."
The prisoners in the Yodok detention settlement are relatively less serious offenders. Like us, they are not offenders themselves but are the families of offenders. Rarely, some prisoners are indeed released and prisoners can at least hope for release some day, even though chances are slim.
Yongpyong, however, is a sector of the Yodok settlement that is entirely different by nature. The prisoners there are those who have been hated and branded by security officers as "serious, disobedient and dangerous" prisoners. Therefore, no one has ever been released from there. No prisoners have been known to leave there, dead or alive. The place is literally a hell and a place of death. In fact, prisoners are taken there to be killed. This is why the security officers often shout at us, "Hey! Don't you know that this is a heaven here?"
Whispering continued among school children for sometime. Now, everybody believed that Myong-ho Choi had been taken to Yongpyong. There was a rumor that other family of prisoners involved with the same incident was also been taken to Yongpyong family by family. They say that the security officers are trying to find out who the other prisoners were who threw stones at the slain security officer. Their families were loaded onto a truck during the middle of the night for Yongpyong in secrecy, but words spread fast among prisoners.
A truck quietly approaches a prisoner's shed when all the other people are sound sleep. Security officers kick open the door and aim their guns at the family inside. "Don't shout or we will kill you." They terrorize the family first and then make them quiet before they are moved onto the truck. The truck disappears into darkness. Most likely, people say, the truck ends up at Yongpyong.
Sometimes, the security officers use other means. With a smile, they inform the family "Comrades, congratulations! We are here to take you to a better place. You displayed an exemplary spirit of revolution. We just received a special order to send you to a better place. So, pack up quickly." However, soon enough, the family realizes on the truck that they are being sent to Yongpyong. Then, they begin to panic and, sometimes, they try to jump off the running truck. We have heard of accounts where people have attempted to commit suicide by biting off his or her own tongue.
The feeling of terror among the prisoners did not die down quickly and continued long after the incident at the quarry causing them to be further depressed.
The following is another incident.
There was a young woman who was a daughter of a Christian family. She was from the city of Sariwon in Hwanghae province and was accused and consequently brought to the Yodok settlement as reactionary for explaining to a neighbor about a book she was reading. She was forced to divorce her husband and lived in the settlement with their two daughters. She always had a smile for the other prisoners, which was very rare in the settlement, but in addition, she often hummed a strange song.
Once, there was a big quarrel between one of her daughters and my sister over the food ration. This is very common among the prisoners because the ration was not enough and usually the stronger you were, the better chance you had. The mother took the corn back from her daughter's hand and quietly handed it to my sister. Her daughter protested, "Mom, then what do I eat?" The woman started to tell her tearful daughter a very strange story. "Once upon a time, God's son was born in a remote country. He taught us "Don't worry about having food and clothing because God will take care of everything." She comforted her crying daughter as they both walked away.
Later, I was told that she believed in a superstitious religion called Christianity. I was also told that she does a strange thing called praying. None of us knew what prayer was about. She said to herself, "O, Lord, my Lord," when the work was very difficult. These words, of course, were strange to the other prisoners. Except for this, she was like everyone else in the settlement.
The security officers were very tough on her and watched her very closely and paid attention to every word she said. Naturally, she was given the most difficult work. One day during an ideology session, security officers ordered her to criticize herself. They say that they caught her committing a crime red-handed the previous night.
"You bitch, listen carefully to what I say. If you are caught praying again, or whatever it is, it's the end for you, got it?" Then, the security officer turned his face to other prisoners and said, "This bitch is crazy!" I thought at that time that praying must be some kind of jail-breaking or some kind of a very serious offence. When we returned home from the ideology session, my father and uncle continued to talk about the woman.
"I am afraid something is going to happen to her," said my father.
"I have the same feeling also. That security officer sure had his suspicious eyes on her," my uncle concurred.
"Well, she is pretty but she probably isn't going to make it easy for the security officer, I guess."
"The s.o.b.s! They forced her to divorce her husband and brought them here. Isn't that enough? Why do they want to punish her more?" my father resented.
"Don't you know that security officers are beasts, not human beings. They do everything according to their wills, don't they?" my uncle responded.
At dawn a few days later, we heard a woman's and small girls' panic screams and the angry voices of security officers. I stopped my breakfast and ran outside. The Christian woman and her two little daughters were being beaten brutally. In front of her house, there was a Russian truck and inside there was an iron box and a door, the same type of truck that brought us here. While I watched them, there were other prisoners in front of me who were also grieving for them.
While they continued to scream, they were dumped onto the truck like cargo. The truck quickly disappeared in the dust. This is how I saw them last. None of us said anything but we all realized that they were headed for Yongpyong.
If any child is not seen in school for two consecutive days, it almost always means that they were "being deported to Yongpyong." There were a few more cases like this after that incident.
Ki-un Kim, my teacher, told us about missing children in the class and told us quietly, "Don't think about these things seriously. They all committed grave crimes against the party and state. They deserve to be punished. Therefore, none of you should talk about it any more. You must learn from this to strengthen your own revolutionary spirit." Then, he said, "Now, lets recite in loud voices the lines to praise Kim Il Sung, the great leader!" Children repeated the lines of propaganda to overcome the depressed mood:
"Comrade Kim Il Sung, the sun of the Korean people, the most excellent leader of the world revolution, a benevolent father of Korean people and the great leader… Our great leader, ever victorious and as strong as steel, developed a brilliant strategy to defeat imperialism. He has liberalized Korea by fighting against Japan under the banner of revolution, became the strongest leader in this century and eventually defeated American imperialism…Indeed, he is our fatherly leader, a strategic genius and excellent leader with a supreme spirit of humanity. He has achieved gigantic and shining merits, is the symbol of the rising fatherland and prosperity of the Korean people today and is the greatest leader of the century…We must fight and sacrifice our young lives to follow the great path of revolution engineered by the great leader. We must all join the people in adoration of the great leader as long as the sun and moon …"
I tried to memorize the lines with my eyes closed and, suddenly, at one moment opened my eyes. The teacher forced us to memorize the lines but he was looking outside the window himself. He looked as though he was thinking about something seriously. I remembered him for this scene for a long after he left us.
The incident at the quarry began in the summer and swept through the detention settlement until autumn when we all became very busy with harvest work. We were so busy with harvesting corn, collecting wood for fuel and food for the winter that we did not have time to talk each other. We needed to collect dry plants as much as possible before it began to snow. For other families, they had to finish their work quota first before they could look after their own needs for winter. However, we were considerably better off because grandmother spent all day long collecting all kinds of herbs, dry plants and wood for the family.
Even though we were terribly busy with the work plan of the settlement, I could not remove the impression of the word "Yongpyong" from my memory. In fact, my curiosity about Yongpyong was so strong that it became persistent and deepened. Naturally, I never missed any information about it in any of the conversations and was able to find out more about it.
"Yongpyong detention settlement began in 1960 for the purpose of detaining the collaborators with South Korea, landlords, anti-revolutionary elements, reactionaries and their families during the Korean War. It was said that a former defense minister, Yong-geon Choi, selected the land for the purpose of constructing a detention settlement. Yongpyong is located in the Yodok district and was called Yodok Settlement from the beginning. As the settlement began to expand to include other areas such as Ku-up, Taesuk, Pyongjon and Lipsok, Yongpyong was separated from Yodok settlement to make it a permanent detention settlement. The original villagers were all driven out of the areas and a settlement was constructed there. This began sometime after the Korean War which ended in 1953. The entire area was separated from the outside by tall and electrified barbed wire. An extremely tight security control system was introduced so that not a single drop of water could leak from the settlement. At strategic locations along the settlement walls, there are hidden traps, 4 meters wide and five meters deep, lined with sharp spikes of wood and bamboo at the bottom. These traps were not intended for animals but to catch defectors."
"We were told that there was a big riot started by prisoners in Yongpyong in 1974, three years before we arrived at Yodok detention settlement. The prisoners protested against starvation, hard labor and cruelty. They attacked the offices of settlement guards and security officers with sticks and stones. They killed some of the guards and security officers. They rioted because they knew they were going to be killed anyway and thought there would be no difference whether they died now or later. The riot was brought under control by armed forces. Many prisoners fled to the mountains but they were all hunted down. All the prisoners were killed in various ways. Since then, the system of control of prisoners became tighter in Yongpyong."
"Yongpyong is a settlement of death. Once a prisoner is inside, he can never get out. Life inside is a life of waiting to die and the sole purpose of the settlement is to kill prisoners. It is a killing field. Prisoners are disposable."
"The leaders of the riot were young men and women. In Yongpyong, therefore, any prisoner over the age of 16 is separated from the rest of the family and sent further into the valleys for harsher work. Little is known about the kind of work they are doing. The only thing the prisoners know is that nobody survives more than several years there."
"In sum, Yongpyong is, in fact, a place of burial by exhausting prisoners to death. Prisoners are made to pay for their crime of anti- revolution. Yongpyong is a killing field."
Once, as children, we were deep in the mountains in search of a special herb for export. "I am scared. Let's go back," said one of the children. Other children, who did not collect enough for the day's quota, said, "Let's stay on a little longer. Don't you see the sun is still in the sky?" We were not realizing that we were moving deeper into the mountain. Suddenly, a child fell and disappeared from our sight. We all followed him downwards to see what happened to him.
We heard him crying, "Help!" We hurried and found that he was hung halfway into a hidden trap. A sharp bamboo spike pierced through one of his legs. Luckily, the other leg was caught in a plant root, preventing him from falling to the bottom of the trap and we could help him up. We soon realized that we had come to the boundary of the settlement at the foot of the mountain. There, we saw tall barbed wire wall, a tall watchtower and a hidden trap. This was the first time I saw the settlement wall. We were so afraid of the barbed wire wall, threw away the herbs we had collected and ran away from the spot with the wounded boy on our backs. Attempting to escape is like committing suicide in the settlement. Nevertheless, we often heard about unsuccessful attempt for escape by desperate prisoners.
However, all the prisoners were like little flies caught in the spider's web, doomed to be killed by security officers one way or another. Often prisoners are found at the bottom of the trap, badly disfigured, spikes throughout the body, making it very difficult to pull up the dead bodies
Life Detention at Detention Settlements in North Korea
(formerly translated as "concentration camp")
A Witness Account by Sun-Ok LEE
1947: Born in Chongjin City, North Korea
1970: Government Supply Manager, Onsong District, North Korea
1987~92: Imprisoned in Kaechon Prison for Political Prisoners
1995: Surrender to South Korea, with her son, through China.
From Now On, You Are Not a Human Being!
November 23, 1987 was the day I arrived at the Kaechon Prison.
I was being escorted to the prison from the provincial police headquarters. We left Sunchon and arrived in Kaechon by train. My body was full of injures, bruises and scars from the torture. I was exhausted, physically and mentally. I could walk but with difficulty. Perhaps, the weather was reflecting my sadness and depressed spirit. It turned cloudy and whole scene looked grotesque with the flurries that just began. Briefly, I became lost in thought as I watched young students walking off in hurry as they shivered in the cold, and women with heavy loads on their backs, most likely bringing food home from countryside. After such a long period of detention at the police jail, I forgot about myself as I looked at them for a while.
In front of the restaurant next to the railway station, there stood an old beggar, who was skin and bones, with very dirty and miserable looking clothes. He was begging everybody leaving the train for help. "Please spare me a ration coupon or cash." I was very surprised that there was such a miserable beggar in my country, North Korea!" We saw such beggars only in movies or novels depicting miserable living conditions of Koreans under the Japanese government. Such beggars in my country?" When I stopped to watch the beggar, the policeman behind me said, "What's the matter? Keep walking." The passengers from the train gave us a rather cool look while others ignored us.
I did not realize that my pale and miserable figure, full of unhealed wounds and bruises as a result of continuing tortures of the past 14 months at the police station, must have given them an impression that I was an offender of some grave crime.
When I was departing from the Provincial Police Hqs., I cried out for myself, "I am not a criminal. I have done no harm, not a bit, to the state or the people. I am being sent to prison under a false charge. I will bring the case to full light and will rejoin the column of party members."I was shivering as I moved my heavy legs to follow the policemen. I did not know where I was going. Soon, we found ourselves in a simple restaurant at the Kaechon railway station. It was a very small restaurant with approximately 10 tables in the hall.
One food ration coupon and payment of 1.50 won brought me three pieces of corn bread and a small dish of kimchi soup. It was my first meal outside the police jail in 14 months.
One of the two escorting policemen told me, "Once you are in prison, you will never have this kind of food again. You better eat now. In fact, this is against the regulation. But we all know about your case and your friends gave us money and food ration coupons. So, please take the food now."
But the long hours of travel by train and the suspicious looks of other guests around me made me feel too weak to pick up the bread. The two policemen produced good food from their bags and started to eat deliciously. I was feeling vacant watching them eat, when, suddenly, a black dirty hand behind me quickly snatched away one of the breads. When I looked behind me in surprise, I saw a small beggar boy, about 10 years old, eating it in haste with big eyes. I suddenly blacked out and fell on the table. Alas, the world has changed for the worse! This was not the world I had known before.
The policemen caught him and slapped him hard at the face and attempted to take him to a nearby police box. They shouted at the body, "Who are your parents and where do you live?" The small boy, weak and miserable, was shivering with fear. I forgot about myself and held the policeman by wrist and pleaded, "Sir, It's OK with me. Please give him other pieces of bread. This is my last favor I am asking of you before imprisonment. Please allow him to take the bread!" I don't know why the policeman changed his mind. Maybe, he thought I could make it difficult for him to go to the prison or he did not want any fuss. Anyway, he sat down and told me to do as I wished. I looked at the skinny face of the little boy for a while and gave him the other two pieces of bread.
We got out of the restaurant and hurried our way. I simply could not let myself believe that I came to Kaechon to be imprisoned. I was in this town before for a volunteer training program, organized by central committee, when the Kaechon Department Store was designated as a model store. At that time, I was determined to be a faithful servant of the party and people. When the conference was over, I rushed back to my office first, before my home, and assembled the store supervisors and salesmen. I debriefed the training to my staff and earnestly discussed how we could improve our service and ensure fair distribution to everybody.
I was passing the 2-story department store, not as a party worker any more but as a prisoner. I was watching the sign of the department store approaching me as though it was saying, "Who is this? Aren't you the supply manager from the Onsong District? What did you do to get yourself fettered on your way to prison? How dare you stand before me?"
This was the first opportunity to see the outside world after 14 months of continuing torture and I thought I should enjoy the opportunity in a comfortable mood. But the moment I set my foot in the city, I felt a tremendous shock and totally empty.
By this time, the snow and wind became stronger and began to cover my legs as I walked. I could not open my eyes. The policeman in front of me who kept asking me to walk faster looked back and mocked, "Sun-ok, the weather is showing your bad feeling." I remained silent and walked as I kept thinking about myself.
The escorting policemen wanted to hand me over to the prison authorities as soon as possible so that they could catch a train on the same short winter day. They kept telling me to walk faster and faster. I started to see a tall prison wall appearing from the corner of the mountain. Perhaps, due to my dreaded picture of prison, the houses, buildings and everything else on the road all looked gloomy and shady as though they belonged to another world.
When we turned into a valley, I saw crows crying heavily and loudly on an electric pole, a bad omen. When I was near the prison, it was crows that received me. The crows were crying unusually loud this time and one of the policemen told me, "Sun-ok, do you know what are the crows saying? They are saying hello to you. They are asking, "Aunt, where are you heading? Are you on your way to prison? Well, good-bye. See you again."
I laughed a sad smile as I heard him. As I turned around the hill, I saw a big prison in full view, tall concrete walls, barbed wire, like a monster blocking our way and waiting for me. The prison wall was about 10 meters high and in two rows. Surrounded by high-voltage electric wires around it, you could feel the current at three meter distance from the wire. In the front side of the wall among other locations, there were six tall emplacements with guns and guards on top of them.
I suddenly felt my heart stop beating at the oppressive sight of the prison. I could not hold up and control myself any more. Sky and stars were going around in my mind together. I was completely vacant. I resisted walking and one of the policemen was pulling me forward from before and the other one pushing me from behind and I was being moved forward step by step.
We finally reached the registration office of the prison. A police captain was sitting in the registration office. She gave me a quick audacious look and received a paper from the escorting policeman. The simple hand- over process was over quickly.
The registration settlement officer gave me a hostile look and spat his words at me, "Hey, you, from now on, you are not a human being. You are an animal, got it? This is the only way you can save your life here." I went blank as though I was hit out of nowhere.
Without sparing a moment, she told me that my prisoner number was 832 and made me walk to an iron gate inside. A big steel gate, as big as a house, opened for me with a heavy mechanic noise. I was so overwhelmed by the situation that I could not clearly remember how I reached my cell.
This was how my term of 13-year imprisonment was to begin. The terrible ordeal of one and half year was only a prelude to my tragedy awaiting me there.