The assembly center I was held at was in Nongpo-dong, Ranamgu, Cheongjin-si City, Hamgyeongbuk-do Province. North Koreans call it Nongpo Assembly Center. The length of one’s stay is often not predetermined; people from Hamgyeongbuk-do Province need to stay there until officers from the State Security Department in their district come to pick them up. In my case, I was there for three months. Due to the lack of trains in other provinces, some people even had to wait as long as eight months. As Nongpo Assembly Center was in Cheongjin, security officers from Hamgyeongbuk-do Province came the earliest to pick their people up. Officers from Yanggang-do Province came by the latest as it is located in mountainous areas, where not many cars pass by.
When were you arrested by the Chinese police, and how were you treated there?
In summer of 1999, I thought I couldn’t stay in China anymore, so I went to a South Korean consulate in Shanghai to seek asylum in the South. However, the consulate told me they wouldn’t accept me, so I went straight to a Korean church to ask for help, but someone reported me so I got arrested. On that day, I was transported from Shanghai to Dandong by plane, and was sent to the Border Patrols in the region. The Chinese were very cruel; they put handcuffs and shackles on North Koreans, and didn’t let us take them off even when we had to eat our meals. It seemed like they totally despised all North Koreans. I shared a room with some Chinese Koreans, but the treatment they got was completely different from the ways we were ill-treated. After a week at the patrols, I was sent to North Korea.
What was the procedure of entering an assembly center?
It seemed like the Chinese patrols had informed the North Korean authorities in advance. When a date was settled, North Korean detainees were handcuffed and sent to their home county by van, at the customs by a bridge of the border. After arriving at the customs on a Chinese car, we were passed on to an office at the State Security Department nearby. The Chinese people took their handcuffs off of us, and we were made to sit crouching and face a wall. The first inspection I got at the center was on personal information – home address, age, dates of entering China and arrest.
Thankfully, it seemed like the Chinese didn’t send any of our documents to the North Korean authorities. If they had known I had been caught at a church, I would have been sent to a prison for political offenders. Fortunately, the State Security Department didn’t seem to know, so I lied everything during the inspection. The next was getting a brief checkup of our body by a woman. She took some blood samples and told us that it was to check I contracted any diseases such as AIDS, but it seemed perfunctory.
Later, I was moved to an office in the State Security Department in Sinuiju via a car prepared by them. At the center, we were assigned cells. In my cell, there were six people caught in China. At first, I thought it was strange how everyone was sitting facing the same direction without a word, but soon realized the reason why. They ordered us to wake up at 5 A.M. and sit all day reflecting on what we had done, and whoever got caught talking was beaten. As the room had a bathroom inside so the stench nearly killed us. About two days later getting rechecked my home address and age, I was unable to come out of the cell even once until my transfer to an assembly center. A week later with the people, who had been caught while trying to cross over to another country, I was sent to an assembly center in Sinuiju. Handcuffed by two, we walked for about thirty minutes to there. Repeatedly, there were various verifications, such as home address and age, made us confirm our information. In addition, all objects made of leather belts or metals were taken away.
We were assigned to rooms after that, and due to the large number of prisoners, forth to fifty people were cramped into a room, which was about 28 square inches. In this poor condition, people there were suffering from a room full of fleas and lice. Fortunately, security officers from Hamgyeongbuk-do Province came on the same day I had arrived there, so I was sent straight to Nongpo Assembly Center without even getting assigned to one of those horrible rooms. Even as I think of it again now, we had been so lucky. At Nongpo Assembly Center, we were questioned on specific information about us - home address, school, age, and parents. After getting assigned a room, I waited there until people from Musan State Security Department came for me for three months. It is my hope to raise a relief fund to help North Korean defectors. Your contribution and interest can make a huge difference for them.
Can you tell offenses that people have committed by age and gender at the assembly center?
There was a wide age range of people from newborns to elderly. There were particularly more females than males. Most people had been caught in China though there were a few domestic offenders in the country, waiting to be sentenced for their trials. The crimes committed by those were various, including slaughtering other people’s cows and selling wires they stole. Most of them were sentenced to reeducation camps. Political prisons called by the South are No. 22, mostly known to imprison for political offenders, and No. 11, a reeducation camp. Particularly, political offenders have been separately cared within a separation section within the premises.
What was the daily routine at the assembly center?
The prisoners there were to wake up at 5 A.M. and go outside to be counted for a roll call. Then, we washed our faces after a quick exercise. There was a well in the middle of the yard at Nongpo Assembly Center. We only used it to wash faces in a line, and were beaten unless we finished it within one minute. Hence, we could only briefly wet our faces with water. After that, we ate breakfast, which was usually one handful of corn, and there was no soup, either. During my time at Nongpo Assmebly Center, I was unable to eat any salt for two whole weeks, as it was too valuable. I remember losing sight for about five minutes and crying at the thought that I would never be able to see again. After our meals, there was another roll call and sent back into our rooms. Then, strong people, who could work, were selected to labor.
At the time, young students like me had to sit in the room all day. There were guards watching us, so we couldn’t talk properly and just had to sit still. Lunch was available at twelve, and I always ate it merely to survive, but was still starving as it lacked nutrition. At 6 P.M., we had a roll call before dinner, and another one afterwards. We were to sleep at 11 P.M., but this part of the day was the most tiring. Due to the large number of people, the room was already crowded when sitting, so it was almost impossible to sleep lying down. On top of that, students including me were often kicked from place to place because of our young age, which made us unable to sleep all night. Sometimes, I slept leaning against the wall, and sometimes, I was lucky enough to sleep sitting, which made me feel fresh in the following morning.
In what way was the radicalization done?
People, who were fit to work, were forced into labor. After coming back from intense labor, they seemed so exhausted, yet they couldn’t even sleep properly so their health became poorer day by day, and they eventually collapsed. This was their idea of radicalization -intense labor and physical hardships - making people think twice before going to China again. During my three-month stay, eleven people died. Apart from one person, who was beaten to death, all of them died from malnutrition. One morning, I was about to go out to be counted but the person next to me did not get up. As he didn’t even get up when I shook him, adults came and told me he was dead. Though I didn’t know exactly when he had died, it was unpleasant to think that I had spent the night sleeping next to a dead body. What was worse was how corpses were handled. Several people were called to take care of the bodies to be buried in a nearby mountain, but were just buried with the clothes they were wearing at the time of their death. Additionally, the ground was flattened without any sign or trail of being dug that the families of the dead would never be unable to even have a memorial ceremony, which seemed to be terribly cruel.
What types of crimes were committed by minors, and how were they punished?
I am not sure as the people around me didn’t commit any serious crimes, but I assume that the crimes are mostly thefts or crossing the river by the border. I personally think juveniles aren’t treated severely. The punishments for young people are much weaker than those of adults. Take for my case; I was transferred from Nongpo Assembly Center to a safety security camp in the military in Musan. After a quick inspection there, I was sent to a center for adolescents, mostly known as aid-station. The patrolling there was done by young adolescents, which made it easy enough to run away. Although labor was given, offenders were immediately sent out when they were called from school. Even at school, after some beating, they only needed to write a few pages of self-criticism and assigned to cleaning. That was it. As for me, when my mother came and gave a few packs of Chinese cigarettes to the staff at the aid-station, I was instantly released. Therefore, I was able to survive. When I even think about it now, it makes me feel dizzy with fear.
Was there any consideration for female prisoners?
There seemed no special considerations were given for females. In fact, they were more likely to be tortured and treated even worse than males. It is believed that when males go to China, it is considered as they are trying to earn money to support their families. However, there were many females used to live with Chinese men. With this one pregnant woman, the guards often commented, “Do you like Chinese men that much?” and made her lose her baby as they hit her stomach during the investigation. I heard that the woman had become very weak and unhealthy after that. Therefore, my conclusion is that women are indeed treated differently - worse than men.
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