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The Reality of Long-Term Prison
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2016-01-26 12:56:35
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The Reality of Long-Term Prison 

Labor Camp No. 9 (Gyohwaso) in Hwe-Sang Area of Ham-Heung City


Dae-Gook PARK

Escaped North Korea in 2009

Entered South Korea in 2009



I entered the Korean People’s Army of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1986. After serving in the army for ten years in Pyongyang, I graduated from the Kim Il-sung University of Political and Military Science, which is a part of the school to train political officers and became a captain. After serving in the army for 16 years in total, I was discharged in April 2002 and then sent to the Long-Term Prison Labor Camp (hereinafter, Gyohwaso) just six months later.


During those 16 years in the army, I was unable to even see my family. I carried my gun, proclaiming “Hail to Kim Il-sung, Hail to Kim Jong-il” with all the loyalty I had, but nobody seemed to acknowledge me after I was discharged. My primary concern after being discharged from the army was supporting my family. I was forced to start selling things just a month after my discharge. My work consisted of selling about four tons of copper, electricity cables, and machine parts to China. However, being more accustomed to army life than civilian life, I was immediately caught in the act.


I am not sure about the circumstances and conditions involved in selling miscellaneous items in South Korea, but in North Korea selling such things is not considered as a mere misdemeanor; it’s considered a serious felony. North Korea’s reason for this is that they claim such materials sold to China are later used to make missiles and bullets intended to fire at North Korea. The first place I was sent to after being arrested by the police was the Kimjungsuk County detention center in Ryanggang Province.


Kimjungsuk County Detention Center in Ryanggang Province

Jailers had control over the Kimjungsuk county detention center and officers were ordered to guard the jails. During those six months of interrogation and imprisonment, I don’t remember a single time when I was given a proper meal. We can’t even complain to the guards who order us to eat leftover food. The food they give us is barely edible. They would throw all the leftover food together in a watery soup, and hand us a bowl each.


Though we were under interrogation, we still had our rights as citizens of North Korea; the way we were treated, was even worse than how they would have treated animals. They didn’t even let us sleep; only when the interrogators felt like they had gotten the answers they wanted did they shout out to the guards, “Okay, let this one sleep!” But if they thought that we were lying even slightly, they forbade us from sleeping. The guards made us kneel down with our hands behind our backs for 24 hours. If we fell over from dozing off, the guards would order us to place our hands outside the prison bars so that they could smash them with keys or the butts of their guns. Because it was so painful, many times I just lied and confessed to everything in order to get a few hours of sleep. This cycle of interrogation, punishment and lack of sleep continued for a while.


What people around the world call torture takes place almost every day in North Korea, but North Koreans do not understand that term because such a word doesn’t even exist within the North Korean vocabulary. North Koreans believe that the term torture only applies when Americans or South Koreans do such things; when such harsh punishment is carried out upon fellow North Koreans, though, they only see it as a form of legal punishment. If such a term were to exist in North Korea, I am positive that the perspective of the people would change in no time. 


In the detention center, we didn’t even have the right to freely go to the toilet. Permission from the guard was necessary and even that depended on the mood of the guard. Even if you were given permission, if you made a sound while in the toilet the guards would beat you. Kneeling as close as possible to the toilet to avoid making noises was the best we could do.


Many people can’t withstand such treatment. Believing that anywhere else is better than the detention center, a lot of people confess to a crime that they didn’t even commit. People like me who sold metal spare parts to China are usually given either life imprisonment or sentenced to be publicly executed. However, since I luckily knew someone of authority, I only received six months of imprisonment.


Gyohwaso No. 9 in the Hwe-Sang Area of Ham-Heung City

I was moved to the Gyohwaso No. 9 in October 2002. People who are moved between jails are treated like animals or things; the guards tell us that we are beasts who have acted against North Korea. We weren’t allowed to even look at the guards, and when they passed by the prisoners we were forced to stand still and stare at the ground or be hit on the head with the butt of a rifle.I received a three-year sentence but it was reduced to two years because of my obedience and exemplary actions; I was released in October 2004.


About 1500 men were divided into ten rooms. After waking up at 5 a.m., we had to work outside from 8 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. and then eat dinner. Then, until 10 p.m. we were required to sit on our knees with our heads bowed down. Even if it went past that time, we weren’t allowed to sleep until the guards allowed us to do it. Only on rare holidays would drunken guards tell us to sit comfortably and sleep. However, with the exception of those rare occasions, we were forced to sit still on our knees with our heads bowed.


Each person was given a small cup containing a mixture of beans for every meal. We received the food through a small opening at the bottom of each cell door. When we received soup, it was very watery and there was nothing in it, not even salt; apparently, the guards thought that salt could give prisoners strength to try to escape. If they caught a prisoner secretly eating salt, they sent the prisoner to an isolated room as punishment. They would force the prisoner to suddenly consume a large amount of salt, causing the body to swell and sometimes even lead to death.


Usually, prisoners were given uniforms to wear inside prisons. However, once supplies started to run thin, Kim Jong-il commanded all prisoners to work and earn money their own way. Due to that order, we had to make 1000 bricks a day from the dirt if we wanted to get food. The bricks were supposedly sold outside and the money was used to buy rice, but there’s no way of knowing if that’s what really happened. After working for endless hours for a small amount of food, I got so hungry that I would sometimes boil cabbage and radishes until they softened and eat them; I was so hungry that it tasted delicious.


The boiled cabbage was not enough to make hunger go away. So, I would pick up the leftover cabbage from the ground and eat them as well. The guards would usually command us to bury the leftover cabbage for fear of disease spreading. In the Gyohwaso where I was detained, family members of the prisoners would send in some food, usually corn powder. If a prisoner has no one to take care of him, he would eat the leftover cabbage. I, myself, have experience eating cabbage leftovers, as well as rats. No one knows how good grilled rats taste unless you feel that sort of hunger.


In each cell, there is one small toilet located in the corner. Since there were always prisoners and not enough space, sleeping next to the toilet while inhaling the sickening stench was unavoidable. Because of hunger, people ate whatever they found inside the toilets, including rats. All people could think about was survival, so they just put anything into their mouths.


The guards told us that we didn’t deserve to smoke cigarettes, drink, or have relations with women. However, some prisoners wanted to smoke so badly that they picked up the guards’ cigarette butts and smoked them. If they got caught, the guards would stomp on their hands. Sometimes,they would pull the prisoners to their offices and force them to drink a mixture of water and their cigarette ashes, causing some prisoners to vomit or suffer from diarrhea.


Since the prisoners at Gyohawso face hunger and hard physical labor, they often suffer from malnutrition. If malnutrition prolongs, a severe fever occurs and body temperature rises 2-3 degrees. If prisoners do not recover from the fever, they end up dead. Many prisoners die after suffering from such malnutrition.


One of the places I wanted to visit if I came to South Korea was a South Korean prison. I heard rumors that prisoners in South Korea were given education, the opportunity to earn money, and access to the media via newspapers, magazines and television broadcasts. I wanted to confirm the unbelievable difference between South Korean and North Korean prisons in terms of prison treatment with my own eyes.


Continuing Deaths, Burning Corpses

After Kim Il-sung died in 1994, North Korea was hit by both natural disasters and an economic crisis. During the Arduous March until 1999, many people died while others barely managed to survive. However, there are still places in North Korea where people constantly die, and they include the Gyohawso.


The Gyohawso burn the corpses so that the families can’t even take them. Because of my military experience, I was given the responsibility of being the leader of my work unit in prison, so I came to know how the corpses were disposed of. Inside the Gyohawso, there is a high chimney made of bricks. After the guards stack up about 20-30 corpses, they tell the prisoners to bring wood and diesel and set the corpses on fire. They don’t even bother to bury the corpses; they just burn the bodies up.


The families of those who died before finishing their punishment are referred to as traitors. All of the descendants of that family carry that title forever. Because the government knows that these families will bear a grudge against it for imprisoning their accused family members, the families are labeled as traitors as well.


From the Gyohawso to South Korea

During those two years in the prison, I threw away the thought of being human and survived like a beast. We did not have names, only prisoner numbers. When I finally got out, my family called my name out and that was the first time in two years that someone had called me by my name. I firmly promised myself that I would not commit any more crimes, but the reason behind such determination wasn’t because I was finally living in a world where crimes weren’t needed in order to live; it was more because I didn’t want to be treated like an animal anymore.


However, North Korea was already a place where it was impossible to support a family through legal economic activities. Many people were selling copper and drugs illegally because there was no other way to survive other than doing what the government considered illegal. Reluctantly, even though I knew it was very dangerous, I had to resume my illegal trade for the sake of survival. However, because of my past as someone who had been sent to jail, nobody wanted to do business with me; no one wanted anything to do with me. No matter how devoted I was to the military and even though I had graduated from the Kim Il-Sung University of Political and Military Science, I was only treated as a person who was once a prisoner. As the hopeless days continued, I finally decided to go to South Korea.


Something I’ve Never Heard of in North Korea: “By the law”

Since I came to South Korea in 2009, there are still many things that are strange to me. One time, I was able to see the clear difference between South Korean and North Korean societies when I was watching a drunk driver being pulled over by the police. If that had been me in North Korea, I would have immediately apologized and begged for forgiveness out of fear of the police. However, the words I heard were “I’m really busy so please hurry and just deal with me according to the law.” In North Korea, that driver would have been beaten to the ground, but the South Korean policeman said “Okay” and actually listened to what the man had to say. There was no way I couldn’t be surprised when I had never even heard of the words “human rights” and “by the law” in North Korea.


In democratic countries like South Korea, people can be acquitted with the help of lawyers, but in North Korea the lawyers actually agree with the prosecutor and try their best to prove the suspect guilty. When I asked a North Korean lawyer once why they do such things, all he said was, “Don’t we have to protect our nation from dissidents?”


In North Korea, there is no education about democratic governments and laws. This is to prevent people from understanding exactly why they are being convicted and from subsequently questioning authority. For example, if a suspect were to say to a policeman, “According to this law, I am not guilty. Why am I being accused?” the policeman would have nothing to say against that person. However, in North Korea since almost everybody doesn’t know what law they are being prosecuted under, they are allowing themselves to be dominated by the authority. This is all because society is not educated about the law and social rules.


Because There is No Media Freedom

The reason North Koreans fail to understand that their human rights are being violated is because the nation restricts everything but educationabout Kim Il- sung and Kim Jong-il to brainwash the people. They say that there are three broadcast channels including the Korean Central News Agency Television Station, Mansudae Television Station, and the Korean Educational and Cultural Television Station, but with the exception of Pyongyang the only channel broadcasted is the Korean Educational and Cultural Television Station. In case of radio, each region only has one channel each and all of them start with a tributary song about Kim Il- sung and contain news mostly about Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. Except for those channels, North Korea has blocked all other frequencies, which naturally cuts off North Koreans from the world media. I finally came to realize that this was the only way Kim Jong-il could maintain his power.


These days, North Koreans secretly watch South Korean videos. Although they watch the videos out of pure curiosity, they often think that these are propaganda videos made by the South Korean government. It is difficult for North Koreans to believe the glaring scenes from the videos with lights and cars on the streets of Seoul. They would say that “no matter how developed South Korea is, the video can’t be true.” Recalling from their education received from the party, they would say that “these videos depict exaggerated images of South Korea, and aim to deceive North Koreans.” Despite the international attention that North Korea is receiving with regards to its human rights issues, the North Korean TV networks and radio stations would never discuss this. The party concentrates on sustaining the hostile stance against the outside world, always saying that foreign powers are plotting to overthrow North Korea.


Torture is Just Considered Fate by the North Koreans

North Koreans do not know what “human rights” means. When we’re about three years old, some of the first words we learn are Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. North Korea’s brainwashing is based on how North Korea is superior to America and South Korea in terms of civil rights. However, in reality, prisoners can’t even see the sky or look at guards’ faces. What really is frustrating is that North Koreans do not understand that their rights are being stepped on and destroyed.


In North Korea, supporting yourself alone is very difficult. Once you get married and start a new family, it is impossible to care for your parents at the same time. In order to support my family of five, I needed to find a job. Here in South Korea, if I can’t find a stable job, I can always get a part-time job and still manage to support my family. However, in North Korea, there is no such things as a part-time job, and even though you work for Kim Jong-il every day of the year, you don’t receive any rations for it. With 2000 to 3000 won, all you can buy is about two kilograms of rice. Since that is the case, abandoning one’s own parents is quite common in North Korea.


If old people in North Korea want to survive they have to sell things on the streets. It was during July 2009 when I was hiding in Ryanggang Province en route to my escape to China when I saw an old lady around 65 years old selling things like candy, cookies, and cigarettes on the street. In order to sell their things, old people have to walk over 10-15 kilometers, but their bodies are too weak; however, they still have to survive and they have no other choice but to try. After Kim Jong-il looked around the country and saw these people, he banned such practices even when he saw how desperate the people were. A normal leader would try to help and understand such old people who are having a difficult time  surviving, but Kim Jong-il sends out his patrollers to stop old people who are desperately trying to make a living. One time I even saw an old lady being dragged down the street by her neck for about 100 meters by a patroller who could have been her son. Every time I stepped out my front door I would see such pitiful scenes.


In South Korea, no matter how highly-positioned or rich somebody is, if he or she does not respect his elders everybody around that person disapproves of him or her. Showing respect to all elders still seems to remain in South Korean culture. I believe that South Koreans have that kind of culture because they have a very stable economy. In North Korea, such culture is nonexistent. North Koreans think they are moral and protect human rights, but in actuality they are the type of people who cannot even say a word to a patroller who is dragging an old lady by he neck. I was able to understand what human rights and democracy truly meant only when I came to South Korea.


Before I escaped from North Korea, at the beginning of 2009 I visited one of my friends who was in Mount Tonghung Prison in the city of Hamheung in South Hamgyong Province. When I saw him, his face had become haggard and he could barely move his own body. When I asked him what had happened, he told me that he had been beaten up by 13 guards because he hadn’t given them the answer they wanted. Even though people like him are beaten up that severely, they never say that they are tortured; they only say that they are beaten up. That is how the nation educates them and that’s what the society is like. No matter how harshly they are tortured, they swallow it and consider it as their fate.


I crossed the Yalu River with my family during the summer of 2009. Going through China and Laos, we arrived in South Korea in December 2009. Through the Hanawon Center, we were able to enter South Korean society in May 2010. It has not been long since I began my life in South Korea, and so I am not fully familiar with the culture and society. I feel a lot of differences between the South and North, and there are lots of times when I feel sorrow and pity for those who are having a hard time in North Korea.