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2016-01-21 14:08:07
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Young-kuk LEE

Former Yo-Dok Political Prison inmate & defector

I was born in Moosan, North Hamgyong province in North Korea.  My father was a laborer and my mother was a factory worker.  The only son of five children, I monopolized my parents love and attention and as a result, grew up to be a mischievous boy.  After I completed elementary and junior high school, I was drafted into the North Korean People's Army in 1978, and served as a member of Kim Jong-Il's guarding squad, which was under the direct control of the Korean Worker's Party (KWP) headquarters, until May 1989. 


During my fourth year of high school, students were required to take physical examinations, family background checks, and informal interviews with the top military officials.  Having passed all these requirements, I was the only one from Moosan who passed all these requirements and picked to be one of Kim Jong-Il’s bodyguards.  There were roughly 150 other bodyguards who started boot camp training with me in June 1978.  The training was physically so strenuous that we were always dozing off and it was quite common for recruits to wet their beds in the morning.  The most important part of training was the ideological side, where we were near brainwashed to believe that we should sacrifice our own lives to protect Kim Jong-Il.

At the time of training, all the recruits were 17 year-olds and we did not know better than to willingly accept all the ideological notions as the truth.  Furthermore, Kim Jong-Il seemed to us a great man for we no longer had to worry about food or clothes.  At the time, the only thing we were feeling was thankfulness.

The severe training ended January 1, 1979 and we officially became a bodyguard in Kim Jong-Il’s guarding squad.  Our uniforms were specially designed and made with fabric from Germany, and our weapons were incomparable in color, design and quality to that used by the regular army.  Although Kim Jong-Il seemed to show his bodyguards extreme devotion, it is not to say that he did not violate human rights.  He would fire someone on any given day for one bad expression.  It was a given that our spouses and our date of marriage would be chosen for us and we would be awarded a medal for killing someone.  Ironically, our guarding squad was not issued North Korean identity cards, we did not have voting rights, and we were banned from having a social life.  Living in North Korea without a North Korean identity is the life of a bodyguard.


While I served as Kim Jong-Il’s bodyguard, I was ready to sacrifice my life for him because I truly believed it when he said that he “would sacrifice his own life for his people.”  After finishing the 11-year military service I returned to my hometown.  However, I was shocked by what I saw.  I kept walking back and forth because the town was so different from what I had left behind.  Until then I had believed that the people were eating well and that North Korea was a “socialist paradise,” but that day, I finally realized the poor quality of life within my country. When I returned home to Moosan, my parents were living on gruel. Without enough food to feed my own family, I couldn't even dream of inviting my friends to my home.  My sister and I married on the same day and place to save the cost of two weddings.  Under these circumstances, it was rare to see a smiling face as many people were dying.

I collapsed with an overwhelming sense of betrayal.  When I compared the luxurious residence of Kim Jong-Il and buildings in Pyongyang to the buildings and quality of life in my hometown, I was infuriated.  When I realized the social contradiction that only the cruel and powerful could live well in North Korea, the very mention of Kim Jong-Il’s name began to make me sick to my stomach.


After I was discharged, I was employed by the KWP Moosan County Committee as an advisor, where I witnessed the corruption of leaders and truly began to feel the disillusionment of North Korean society.  Fortunately, the Public Security Service agents did not interfere in our family affairs due to my social background as Kim Jong-il's former bodyguard. Feeling disgusted with the self-contradictions in North Korea's social and political system, I began listening to South Korea's public radio programs at home in 1989. From the very first time I listened to the programs, I was surprised at their precise and detailed descriptions of the North Korean people and society. As I listened to the programs day by day, the "Socialist Paradise," which had been a long dreamed idea of the North Korean government, seemed to gradually disappear in the air. Then in 1989, I decided to defect to China after agonizing whether to cross the border or not. At that time, I was appointed to the second deputy director in the military department of the KWP Moosan County Committee and was receiving 6 months of training. 

For six years, I planned and prepared for my first escape attempt, and when I finally crossed the Tumen River, I had to live in a basement of a building in Guilin for a while.  In China, I was unable to lead a life without the help of the Korean-Chinese people. On November 26, I happened to meet a man named Kim Young-ho, who introduced himself as a staff member of the South Korean embassy in China. He asked me to write a brief statement, which would be read at a press conference in South Korea. Without hesitation, I severely criticized Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-Il, calling them tyrannical monarchs and revealed some top national secrets such as Kim Jong-Il's daily routine, location and layout of his office and summer homes, and the extravagant lives of his subordinates. I also stated my thoughts of a better standard of living in South Korea than the North. On December 3rd, around 6:30 PM, Kim Young-ho led me to a car, which I believed would take me to the South Korean embassy. On the contrary, I was taken to the North Korean embassy in Peking, where the pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il welcomed us.  I later found out that Kim Young-ho was a North Korean state security representative stationed in China. The very next day, I was sent to Sun-ahn airport near Pyongyang and imprisoned in the preliminary investigation bureau, which was under the power of the State Security Department.


Under the investigation bureau, I suffered and endured both mental and physical torture that is beyond anyone’s imagination and description. From the very first day, the guards with their rifles beat me. I was trampled on mercilessly until my legs became swollen, my eardrums were shattered, and my teeth were all broken. They wouldn’t allow us to sleep from 4 am till 10 pm and once while I was sleeping, they poured water over my head. Since the conditions within the prison were poor, my head became frostbitten from the bitter cold. As I was trying to recuperate from the previous mistreatment, they ordered me to stick out my shackled feet through a hole on my cell door, and then tortured them in almost every possible way. Not a single day passed without receiving some form of torture and agonizing experience. Each meal consisted of only 33 grams (0.07pounds) of processed corn ears with cabbage soup, which we had to eat with our bare hands. As a result, I lost almost 40 kilograms (88pounds) while under interrogation. 

With the help of my cousin, who was serving as Kim Jong-Il’s driver, I escaped a death sentence and was instead sent to Yodok political prison camp (No.15) in Dae-sook li.  I was imprisoned there from April 25, 1995 to January 5, 1999.  Every newcomer was given 15 days orientation and then stationed in different groups within various platoons.  There were about 1000 prisoners in our district alone.  Our districts were divided into 6 groups and each group was caged within a 4-meter high electrically charged wire fence.  There were about 170 people within a group, which consisted of 3 platoons with about 56 prisoners in each.  Newcomers were steadily added with an average of 5 to 10 a month.  Daily labor started at 5 am and finished at sunset and we had to undertake a different type of work almost everyday. 

One day we had to cut trees into logs to make a pile of 1.5㎥, and on another day we would work in the corn fields.  Everyday we were forced to carry 120 logs from the mountains to the fields, a distance of 1,000 meters to complete our daily quota.  When we returned, we were ordered to strip down naked, wearing only our underpants and kneel down on the floor regardless of our sex.  After that we were whipped with strong wooden sticks until at least ten of them broke.  Annually, there are only three holidays for us, which are January 1, February 16, and April 16.  All prisoners must kneel with their foreheads touching the ground when security officers, guards, or visitors from outside of the camp are present.  If they catch us looking at them, even from afar, they would immediately beat us with rifles, stones, or whatever was in their reach.  Many prisoners died as a result of brain damage from these beatings. 

If prisoners were caught carrying salt, a flint stone, or any food material in their pockets, they were considered trying to escape from the camp and would be executed by shooting, hanging. Han Seung-chul, who was from Hoeryung, North Hamgyong province was caught in an attempt to flee to South Korea. It was his fourth year in the camp when he was found carrying salt in his pocket. He was tied to a vehicle and dragged for 4 km at high speeds until the skin on his head and torso tore off.  He eventually died in the presence of the other prisoners. We were forced to touch his deformed body, which was tied to a stake to display as an example of the consequence of a failed escape. Through this event, if there was any slight suspicious movement, the guards would start to fire all at once towards a specific spot. At Mr. Han's execution, a sixty-four year old man named Ahn Sung-eun, was killed by the shooting while he was standing up against the guards, openly and loudly expressing that no human being should be killed in such a cruel way only because of salt.  An average of 6-8 people lost their lives this way merely for expressing their feelings. 

The political prisoners in Yodok camp are given a daily ration of 120g of corn gruel (40g a meal), while they are forced to work at least 15 hours a day.  Under these conditions, prisoners were still educated to appreciate Kim Jong-Il’s great love and care toward them.  Prisoners scavenged for any type of food, living or dead.  They would eat any type of plant and hunt all kinds of living creatures such as snakes, mice, frogs, and eat them alive, skin, intestines, hair and all.  Ironically enough, the chickens and ducks raised by camp authorities were fed well on corn, while some prisoners picked the undigested corn kernels from cow dung to survive.  Many newcomers visibly shrunk to deformity in the early stage of their camp life.  When their bodies are shrunken to the limit, they begin swelling up and discharging sickening fluid.  When a prisoner died like that, other prisoners had to carry the rotting corpse up the mountain and often times they would slip and tumble down to the ground with the corpse and never come back up. 


By some miracle, on January 5, 1999, I was released from prison and sent out to a country that was in utter ruin.  After six years, the situation of my hometown had become even more tragic, and worse yet, I found out that my father had passed away two years earlier.  My mom cried from happiness of being reunited with a son she thought was dead, and she also cried out of grief from missing my father.

After reuniting with my mother, I reunited with my wife, son, and daughter, who were all living in a tiny one-room apartment with my mother.  I was proud and happy that my children recognized me even though we were separated when they were five years old.  When my wife started crying and repeatedly saying she was sorry and welling up with emotion, I merely thought it was because she had not been able to feed our children well.  But I was wrong.  What my wife was about to tell me was something that I could not accept at that time.

One day in April, the department chief of the investigation bureau named Kim Seung Chul, who had collected evidence from my house, visited me at the investigation bureau.  He proceeded to tell me that he had met my parents and my wife and that the only way to avoid execution by shooting and save my family in the future was to keep it a secret that I owned a radio.  I fell for his lie that he was overlooking my crime and even signed a written declaration.  I later found out, however, that not only had he written the declaration so that he could keep the radio and receiver himself, but he had also raped my wife numerous times.  In a span of fifteen days, Kim Seung Chul raped my wife once or twice a day, stole money from my family, and threatened to throw them all in prison if anyone dared to report these incidents.  I know that my wife was not guilty of anything but after hearing her story, I was so infuriated that I began to hate her too.  Unfortunately, I was not able to dissolve my anger, and I ended up divorcing my wife. 

Also, my children were ostracized and not allowed to attend school because of my status as a political criminal.  In what kind of society do children inherit the punishment of crimes committed by their parents?  The mere existence of such a despotic society debases the human race.


Five years and seven months since my first escape attempt, I crossed the Tumen River for the second time on April 28, 1999.  Due to circumstances, I was unable to bring my son on this voyage.  I traveled alone to an old friend’s house in Guilin and with the help on Korean-Chinese folks, I lumbered wood to earn money.  With this money, along with the money earned from teaching taekwondo, raising of animals, and the help of other successful refugees, I was finally able to make it to South Korea.

To make the whole world know the painful truth about the North Korean prison camp, I defected for freedom and equality not once, but twice, and finally arrived to South Korea after a series of difficult and grave situations. After 10 years of suffering, it seems like a dream to be here in South Korea, but my eyes still well up with tears every time I think about the family I left behind and the prisoners suffering in the political detention center.