Related Content

My Life in Bowibu and Gyohwaso
Name :
Date :
2016-01-26 10:33:48
Hit :

My Life in Bowibu and Gyohwaso


Mi-ran KIM

Female, Entered South Korea in March 2008



I entered the army after graduating from high school at 17. Only three students from my grade including myself could enter the army because of our good family backgrounds and allegiances to the Korean Worker’s Party. I worked as a military escort transporting munitions. I had risen to the rank of sergeant when I was finally discharged from military service. After that, I became a party member. From business school, I learned how to trim hair and became a hairdresser, then a barber. Aged 24, I married my husband and he had a decent job because he was also a party member. Shortly after our marriage, I became pregnant. One doesn't get checked for pregnancy in North Korea. To give birth, either we would go to hospital or take care of it at home. I had my first child in the hospital and second in the house. We moved to Bukchang where I lived a good life with my two sons and one daughter. Before leaving for China, I had never heard anything about South Korea.  


First Escape


There were a lot of difficulties after Kim Il-Sung's death in 1994. Although there was almost no supply distribution, my husband and I received our allocation of food, but after 1997 we didn't receive any food supply at all. Things deteriorated between 1996 and 1997 to the stage that the government introduced a scheme for the disposal of the bodies of famine victims. In December 1998, life was getting too difficult so I fled from Onsong via Nanyang to the Chinese border to seek help from my sister who lives in China. I quickly realized that it was difficult for her to help me. I then went to a deacon's house in Yanji. When the deacon said to believe in God, I wondered where God was. The next day when I went there again, there were four pastors from Canada, USA, Korea and Italy. They started praying in tongues with their hands on my head and I thought they were going to make me crazy.  


My house was located in the mountains at Shenyang. Due to it being rather rural, I would sometimes get a ride in a car to Xita to sell bean-sprouts. Whenever I missed the car ride I would have to walk. One day I went to a near-by town to sell the remaining three packs of bean-sprouts that I had. There I met a kind-hearted grandma and grandpa who set up a barber shop for me after they had heard that I worked as a hairdresser in the North. I worked in the barbershop until October 2001. It was at that point that I was captured by the Chinese officials and was repatriated. Back then, Kim Jong-Il had a policy to release those who crossed the border to China without severe punishment, so I was released after a month of interrogation at Bowibu (National Security Agency, NSA). Although I was beaten in the Bowibu, it wasn't severe. Many pregnant women were also repatriated from China and they faced forced abortion. 

After release from interrogation, I escaped to Shenyang once again via Onsong Province in November 2001. In July 2003, I went back to North Korea and escaped with my children to China using the same path. I sent my three children to study at a seminary, but within a month they were all arrested and were repatriated to North Korea. When I went back to North Korea, I met my children. My eldest child was beaten so severely that his front teeth were gone and his ribs were broken. Thinking about it now makes me shudder. My sons were afraid to go back to China because of the severe beating, so I came back with my daughter. 


Arrest by the Chinese Police and Repatriation


Since I lived in China for a long time, there were many people that I knew and the church people were especially helpful. I rang people who assisted me previously, and one of the women had asked me to visit her house since she was alone. After staying there for a while, I decided to return back home during the evening. On the 1st of January, 2004, when returning home, I saw a black car. Had it been a police car, I would have run away, but I assumed it was somebody else. When I opened the door and turned the light on, three Chinese officials appeared and asked for my identification. When I told them that I had no identification, a Chinese-Korean appeared and put handcuffs on me and said, "You are North Korean, right?" I was taken right away in my underclothing.  


My picture was taken and I was interrogated for three days in the Department of Foreign Affairs by the police. Chinese-Koreans provided interpretation and asked me questions such as “Where did you live in China and North Korea?”, “Who assisted in the escape?”, “Who provided the money?”, and “Did you participate in prostitution?”, but I answered no to everything. The interrogation was very simple. When I got on the train to be transferred to Dandong, there were two other female refugees with me. Our legs were strapped with chains to prevent escape and two officers from the Department of Foreign Affairs escorted us. Since I was the weakest, we decided to run in different directions as soon as our hands were removed from the chains in front of the Shenyang train station. But the other two just stood still when I ran away, so I was recaptured and was beaten severely with shoe heels. They didn't even let us go to the bathroom on the trip. I gave up trying to escape since the windows on the train were double glazed. When we arrived at the Dandong border area, the Department of Foreign Affairs kept us there for less than a week before sending us to Sinuiju in North Korea.  


There were 11 refugees when we were repatriated to North Korea, along with a van driver and two escorts. One of the escorts took care of the documents. In the middle of the bridge, North Koreans came to check the people and the documents. We were then sent to the North Korean Bowibu and the chains were replaced with ropes. From there we walked to the Sinuiju office of the Bowibu.  


At Sinuiju Bowibu


As soon as we arrived, we had a body check-up and they took our blood to test to check for diseases. Females and males were separated, and a female officer came to the female section with a plastic glove and stuck her hands in our uteruses. It didn't matter whether the person was pregnant or not. She even stuck her hand in our anuses. They told us to start "pumping" (sit and stand up repeatedly while naked) 100 times, so that any money that was hidden could be taken away. After all our clothes and pockets were checked for any hidden money, we were sent to the prison cell. Although there weren't any pregnant woman among the people that I went with, there was a pregnant person in the other group. She was taken outside the Bowibu to abort the child.  


Eleven people were assigned to each prison cell. Inside of each cell, there was a bathroom and a space where food came in, but there were no steel bars on the door. However, there was a barred window on the outside wall. With my hands tied up, I was sent to a solitary room in the first floor. The room had a single window; the room was just large enough for one person to lie down in. During the afternoon, I had to sit still and put my hands on my legs and was not even allowed to open my fist.  


I was curious as to why I was sent to a solitary room, but the next day, the Bowibu told me that I was sent there because I believed in God. I told them that I did not believe in God. When I was arrested, I was held with a woman from Chongjin who sold alcohol in Shenyang in China. The woman had told the officers that I went to church in China and she was released because her Chinese husband helped her, but I was sent to the solitary room.  


I was interrogated for three days in the Sinuiju Bowibu. After eating breakfast, I was interrogated from 8am till 12pm. They asked me “When did you go to China and how did you get there?”, “What did you do in China?”, “Did you meet any South Korean people?”, “Did you meet any foreigners?” and “Did you meet any South Korean National Intelligence Service officers?” If I told them I didn't meet any South Koreans, they might assume I was lying so I told them instead that I met Canadian and American pastors, but couldn't talk to them. I told them that they just bought me some food. After interrogation, I was ordered to sit still. In the Sinuiju Bowibu, they didn't hit me. For meals they gave us either grinded corn with rice bran powders or whole corn. I didn't feel like eating, so I just gave it away. Water was given on a regular basis into a hole that they dug in the floor. They also gave us time to catch lice, but in the Bowibu, there were no lice.  


Continuous torture in Bowibu


Within a week of being at the Sinuiju NSA, two men came from Pyongsong Bowibu (my hometown is Bukchang County, South Hamgyong Province) to pick me up. In case I tried to escape, they chained me to them. It took two days to reach Pyongsong. On the way, we had to spend a night in a motel. I was appalled to find that I had to share a room with one of the male workers.  


We reached the Pyongsong Bowibu at around one in the afternoon. When we arrived, I didn't eat the food they gave me. As soon as we arrived at the train station, a combat vehicle came to pick us up since there was quite a distance from the Pyongsong station to the Bowibu. I was confined in a solitary room for a year until February 2005. The size of the room was very tiny, but there was a bathroom and a place to wash my face. I was ordered to sit up straight, as I had been in Sinuiju Bowibu. I had been made completely naked for uterus and clothes check-up. Every possession, including toothbrush and clothes, were checked and if a person has a long hair, they took the hair band away. On the day of arrival, they gave us food which included corn-rice and thin soup which was boiled with the ends of cucumber and eggplant for dinner. Although the food in Pyongsong was better than Sinuiju, I couldn't eat anything for two days. At five in the morning, we woke up and washed our face and sat up straight. We had breakfast at 7am, lunch at 12pm, and dinner at 6pm. The meals were always the same. They gave us two military blankets; I used the thicker one as a mattress and the thinner one for a blanket, but regardless the cement floor was too cold. At 10pm in the evening, we had to sleep, but in case we tried to commit suicide, we had to lay our hands on top of our blankets. Cells were located on the first floor, whereas the interrogation room was on the third floor.  


When we entered the Bowibu, our names were replaced with numbers. I was No.42. Even though I could not see peoples' faces, I knew there were a lot of us because I could hear their voices. Every morning at 8, they called us and started interrogation. I do not remember how many people there were. If I ever left the prison, then the next person replacing me would be 42. If the prison guard opened the door and say, "42, come out," we were to avoid the guard’s eye, look at the floor, and walk outside with our hands behind our back and then sit. If we tried to look, they slapped our faces. In the interrogation room, which was located on the third floor, they asked simple questions. The interrogation room was big and there were a table, chair, and separate portraits of Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung. I sat in the chair in the corner with my hands handcuffed behind my back. There was a long stick right next to where I was sitting. A person sat in front of the table and read the documents that came from the Sinuiju Bowibu and asked "Why did you go to China?" and "Do you believe in God?" When I answered "No, I don't believe in God," they would reply, "You are in trouble" and continue interrogation for three to four hours and finish at 12pm. On the first day, they only asked questions without any beating and sent me to my prison cell. The following day, for a week, they interrogated during the afternoon. On the following week, they interrogated me in the evening half past 9 till 10 - 11.30pm, and from midnight till 3am. It was very tiresome since the interrogation went on without sleep. One year in Pyongsong Bowibu felt like 10 years. After the first day, I was beaten during each interrogation. I was overwhelmed with indescribable anxiety each time I was called for interrogation. Although I sat on the chair while talking, they would order me to kneel. While my hands were tied behind my back, they kicked my sides and breasts. I couldn't even feel the pain because I was losing my mind. They didn't hit all the time, but only when I denied something; they kicked wherever they wanted to. When they slapped my ears, all I could hear were siren sounds. My ears would start to swell during the evening. I am deaf in one ear now. When they hit my head, I could see stars from my eyes. What made things more difficult was the dark prison cell that I had to stay in after the beating. I did not agree to the reasons that they were accusing me of. Had I agreed, they would have sent me to a political prison camp.  


The person who interrogated and beat me was Kim Chang-nam. He was over 50 year-old back then, so he must be over 60 now. As five months passed since the interrogation started, I tried to kill myself by starving to death because I thought I was never going to get out of there alive. At first, I even refused to drink, but it was difficult to pass three days without water. After one week, I had no energy to think about food or even to eat it. Half a month passed and when it reached about the 20th day, I went in to shock. When I opened my eyes, I found myself chained to the hospital bed with insulin attached. Although I wanted to, there was no way to escape. Two guards were positioned outside the room. I thought about jumping off the window, but the chains prevented me from doing anything.  

As soon as I opened my eyes in the hospital, I was sent to the Bowibu right away. My body was swollen and they did not treat my ears or head injuries. Back then I couldn't feel any pain because of mental distress, but I gradually felt the ear pains. Since then, they started giving me soup. It was corn soup, thin rice gruel, and I started to eat.  


Every day I received a beating and they would only release me from the chains when I wrote my confessions. I had to write the confessions exactly identical to the previous one I had written. If there was any slightest change, I received a beating and had to write it again. (In Sinuiju we had to write the confessions) In the Bowibu, confessions were already written and we were told to stamp our fingerprints. It was very difficult as I continuously received beating and interrogation. During those times, I always prayed to God and sang the song that I later wrote into words when I had been sent to Gyohwaso (Long-term prison with reform through labor).  


My heart longs for my Father in a prison


Although the road to truth is steep and narrow


A bright future will be revealed when I continue


Without faith, calamity will strike in this road


Allow me to go forth towards the fortress


Although there may be much grief and complications


How could I follow in the footsteps of my God?


With tears my heart longs for my Father in a prison


Father please accept this sinful daughter


Please protect me with mountain fortress and shield


Take me under your wings of peace


Father's voice that comes from the sky


Guide me to your blessings daily 



From Bowibu to Inmin-boanseong (People's Safety Agency, PSA)


Visiting was allowed in the Inmin-boanseong, but not in the Bowibu since the detainees are usually there for political reasons. My family did not even know I was captured. Because I kept insisting that I did not believe in God, they transferred me to the Inmin-boanseong on February 10, 2005. Since most of my information was handed over from the Bowibu, the interrogation in the Inmin-boanseong was simple. A man interrogated me and they didn't check my body. I wasn't sent to a solitary room, but a room full of 15 people. There was a single Chinese woman. Everyone else had been arrested for economic (stolen food) reasons. There was a barred window in the room, similar to the size of my room in my house.  


Among the 15 people, there was a child. It was forbidden for us to give food to the child as the child was being punished. There was a CCTV camera, but I didn't know this and I gave my food mixed with the soup to the child. The child wouldn’t eat it, but I insisted. The guards then started looking for me after the child had finished eating. I put my hands behind me and walked forward. There was a sill on the window. They told me to kneel on the sill. And they hit my hands with a small stick. Then they told me to stand on a smaller sill. It was difficult to stand so I held unto the barred window, but they again hit my hands because I wasn't supposed to touch anything. I stood on the sill for an hour with my hands behind my back. Everyone in the room cried.  


We slept piled up against each other. There were 19 and 20 year-olds who were arrested because they ate a dog and stole some vegetables. Sometimes the guards called out the younger ones and touched their body. When it was dark, the guards called them out to the back door. Although they didn't say anything, we knew through their eyes. Since visiting was allowed, sometimes when the guard told us to strip off, we took our clothes off and gathered it in one corner. If the blanket covered the pile, then the male guards came in the room and searched around the room and the clothes.  


When we wanted to go to bathroom, we asked, "Can No.42 ask a question?" If they said: "What?" I replied, "May I go to the bathroom?" If they said no, then we couldn't go. When they were giving out punishments, we were not allowed to go to the bathroom. When I came to the Inmin-boanseong, it smelled bad whenever I went to the bathroom. There was a separate time to use the bathroom. Young ones who had diarrhea needed to use frequently, and they were the busiest. We sat with the same posture in the Inmin-boanseong. My kids didn't know that I had been detained in the Inmin-boanseong so they didn't come. I didn't get interrogated so I just sat down. As soon as one arrives, they go through interrogation for three days. And they write confessions as same as before.  

There was a public execution in the Inmin-boanseong. A group was executed because they stole copper wire and sold it to China. They were 21, 20 and 22 year-olds and they were gunned down. They made us stand in the first row and told us that we had to watch them. During the trial they called out all the crimes they had committed, but the people who were being accused had gags in their mouths. The prison guards put up a post in the field, tied them up to the post, and shot them three times. The last time I saw the public execution was February 2005.  


Receiving a Trial


Within 20 days of being transferred to the Inmin-boanseong, I received my trial. During the trial, they allow family members to attend, and my husband came on the day. They chained my hands when I sat down, but during the trial they took them off. The trial lasted for about 20 minutes. The trial could be either public or non-public, but mine was non-public. There was a panel of 6 judges, 1 recorder, 1 lawyer, 1 prosecutor and 2 jury members. My husband sat behind with the auditors.  


During the trial, they only asked a couple of questions such as when I went to China and made their judgment based on that. The defense lawyer is able to argue on behalf of the defendant, but it doesn't affect the decision of the court. The lawyer told me to accept the punishment of the crimes as written in the confessions. Since I was in the Bowibu for a year, they sentenced me to three years in long-term reform through labor (Gyohwahyeong). When the final judgment was made, the judge allowed the lawyer to speak and he said, 'for crimes of escaping' she is sentenced to long-term reform through labor. The judge told me that I was sentenced according to the Article of the related law, I cannot remember which law and Article they were.  


When the final judgment was being made, the judge asked my husband whether he wanted to divorce and he nodded his head saying yes. He wasn't left with much choice since if he disagreed to a divorce, the rest of the family members would face many difficulties. I couldn't talk to my husband even after the trial. My husband just looked at me with tears in his eyes. For three days I stayed in the Inmin-boanseong and I was then transferred to Jeungsan Gyohwaso. 


Inhumane life in Jeungsan Gyohwaso


Five people were in the prison van and three people, including the driver, escorted us to Jeungsan Gyohwaso. It only took a day to arrive. The people who were with me were children who had all received a 3 year sentence for visiting China. If the crimes are petty, then the person is sentenced to 1~2 years in a short-term labor re-education facility in Rodong-danryendae (Short-term labor re-education facility). Jeungsan Gyohwaso is located next to the ocean. 


As we got out the van, our handcuffs were released, and we were led to a room. Stripped off naked, we were told to perform 50 'pumping'. Afterwards, they stuck their hands in our uteruses, just in case the visitors gave us something. As a person who sat in the Bowibu prison for a long time, I fainted while pumping. I said, "You guys are not human" If a guard passed by, we had to stand still with our heads down. We got beaten if we walked instead of stopping.  


My head was shaved and I wore the same clothes I came in with. I had to get some clothes from the warehouse since I had nothing else to wear. The visitors could give clothes for us to change. The newbies received training for a month, which consisted of studying the Gyohwaso rules and group training sessions. 


The day would start off with major cleaning at 5am. Afterwards, we sat still and memorized the rules until we had meals. During the evening, each person had to stand up and recite the rules in order to pass a test. The young ones were good at memorizing, but older adults had difficulty and they often got beaten. From 9 to 10 in the evening, we get training sessions and went to bed. For a month this repeated and then we were placed in different classes.  


Gyohwaso was one-story building and there were rooms on either side of the hallway. There were 11 prison cells, 14 medical rooms, a guard room, sewing room and a separate lunchroom. Within the Gyohwaso there were 5 different groups including farming, livestock, sewing groups. 45 prisoners were placed in each group, except for livestock group, where there were sometimes 35 prisoners. People who committed petty crimes or those with power were placed in a livestock group.  


For meals we received one pound of corn-rice with broth. Small pieces of beans were also included. When we ate, we were separated into groups. Sometimes we ate altogether. There must have been about 200~300 people in total. Even though there were so many people, there was only one lamplight. I wouldn't even know if somebody snatched my food from me. We were separated by gender at meal times. Females and males were separated in the Gyohwaso.  


To change clothes, we had to exchange with 5 pounds of rice. It was impossible to work without a meal. I exchanged clothes by skipping dinner. There were almost no towels, and no toothbrushes. Towels were cut into small pieces in order to prevent suicide.  


There were many people who died in the Gyohwaso. I closed the eyes of a 26 year-old that died next to me. There was a mountain there called Flower Valley which was used to bury the dead. During winter, they couldn't dig the ground too deep so if the person was too big to bury, they broke their legs and arms and left the grave unmarked. If prisoners died in the Gyohwaso, the guards didn’t give any notification to their families as they were not regarded as citizens.  


If anyone tried to escape from the Gyohwaso, the entire prisoners in the cell received punishment. Initially they told us that they would shoot us if we are caught trying to escape, but instead they just extended the period we had to be there. I had seen two incidences in which people tried to escape. Escape was difficult: the walls were high and had electric wires on top. There were also guards on top of the tower.  


In the Gyohwaso, we woke up at 5 am and ate breakfast at 5.30 am. After breakfast, we lined up and started to work. At around 9 am, they gave us seaweed for brunch. They gave us a basket with a handful of seaweed mixed with flour. At 12 pm we returned to the Gyohwaso and ate lunch and went back to work at 1 pm. We worked at the field until 8 pm in the evening. Again, we had dinner inside and sat down until 10 pm for group training sessions.  


Inside the prison cell, the floor was cement. If we had winter clothes, we used them as a blanket since we weren't given any. We weren't given anything other than the ones we brought. We didn't even have pillows. The bathroom was located in the Gyohwaso, on the side of the hallway. There was a guard in the middle of the hallway, but just in case we tried to escape, we had to report continuously that we needed to use the bathroom. Nobody followed us. We could go anytime we wanted to. We were allowed to take baths once a week and there was a separate place to take baths. People who had visitors used soaps.  


In there, I used to trim hair and work on the farm. We went out in groups when we farmed. Each group consisted of 6~7 people and a leader. There was a leader and a vice-leader. We stood in a line and walked while singing Kim Jong-Il song. Two teachers who were about 21~22 years old followed us with guns around their shoulders. All the guards were male. We got crazy and ran after food since we didn't get to eat much. Even if it was a frog or rat, if it passed by, they caught it and ate it. During fall, we went out to pick cucumber or eggplants. If the guards caught us eating, they checked our mouths and made us skip a meal.  


The medical room did not have a bed, but had a cement floor like all the other rooms. There was no doctor, but if there was a nurse among the prisoners, then that person did the work. All that person had to know was how to give shots. If a person got injured, they just applied medicines. There were two such people. But if a person got very sick, then they had to die. Gyohwaso provided everything including the needles. Medicine was only a temporary measure. They had medicine for anti-indigestion and diarrhea, but they didn't work. Parathyroid fever spread inside the Gyohwaso once, and we were isolated. I was infected as well. I suffered with high fever and I couldn't eat or control my bladder. Many people died then on a daily basis. During August 2006, I was sick for about a month. For treatment, they inserted a hose through my nose and throat to give water. 


In February 5, 2007, the guards gathered everyone in front of the Gyohwaso and called out "1445!" My number was 1445. They didn't say anything other than "release" and on February 8th, I received my release document and was freed from Jeungsan Gyohwaso. There were many others who were released also. I was supposed to go back to my hometown and report with my release document to receive the identity of a citizen, but I walked from Hyesan City for a month and escaped to China.  


Freedom Found


After my escape, I stayed in China to get some rest. During March 2008, I crossed through Myanmar and Thailand to South Korea. I didn't want to be repatriated to North Korea again. South Korea is a better place than I had imagined and I am happy now. But I still can't sleep since the day I arrived to Korea. I wake up in the middle of my sleep, shocked with the life in the Bowibu. Although in Gyohwaso I was able to talk with people and feel the sunshine, living 1 year in the Bowibu prison cell felt like 10 years. It is a miracle to be out here.  


I still suffer from Bowibu and Gyohwaso side effects with chest and ear pains. I can't breathe deeply. The place where they beat me (my back) is still uncomfortable, but it's manageable. I can't eat any oily food since my digestive system is not used to taking too much food. I suffer with diarrhea right after eating. Rice, Kimchi and fish (not fried ones) are what I can eat. I used to eat well, but not anymore.  


Even though I'm in a very happy place, when I think about my children back in North Korea, my heart aches. Two of my sons are left in the North and I heard my daughter went to the States in August 2008, but I can't contact her. I just want to meet my children.  


I really want to visit a South Korean prison. I heard they were good, but I cannot believe it. I would like to see how it is. I have no regrets about leaving the North.


■ Translated by Lily Lee and Michael Glendinning