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I Was a Prisoner of North Korea’s Political Prison Camp
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2016-01-19 17:46:51
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 I Was a Prisoner of North Korea’s Political Prison Camp


LEE Baek-lyong (aged 38, defected in May 2000)



How I decided to escape and failed

I was born in Musan County in North Hamgyong province. After I finished grade school and junior high school I became an officer in Kim Jong-il's personal guards squadron under command of the Central Committee of the Korea Worker's Party (KWP) from 1977 to May 1989. From then I worked as a civil defense director in the Musan County branch of the KWP until April 1991, when I entered the Kim Kyong-suk Civil Defense College (100 ban Lim'um-dong, Lyongsung District, Pyongyang) which is under direct ministration of the Military Department of the KWP Central Committee. I graduated in 1994 upon which I was appointed 2nd deputy director of the military department of the KWP Musan County Committee. Fifth month into the half-year real experience training period, I began listening to the KBS Radio's social education programs at home. It was the disparity between the real life of the people and what I was led to believe during my military service in Kim Jong-il's guards squadron that motivated me to start listening to the South Korean radio. The TV, radio and newspapers would all claim that people ate and lived well, but I soon saw after my discharge from the army that things were not so. When I listened to the KBS social education programs I could hear the facts of the everyday life in North Korea as they really were. The programs talked of trains without windows. They noted the inspection of travel permits without which the people could not travel. There was truth and reality in those programs, and I became increasingly drawn to South Korea.

Only after so many years did I finally grasp the truth: the promises that Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung made about feeding rice and pork to the people and giving them nice houses to live in, the promise, in other words, for a socialist paradise were all full of lies.

I recall that on October 1, 1994, a Chinese national holiday, I crossed the border into Hwaliong, China and started teaching taekwondo. After I had saved up some money I moved to the autonomous province of Yanji. In Yanji I made friends with some Korean-Chinese with whom I shared many intimate thoughts. On November 26, 1994 I met Kim Young-ho who introduced himself as an officer in South Korea's diplomatic mission in China. Later I was to learn that he was in fact a state security representative stationed in the North Korean embassy in China. He had heard of me from a Korean-Chinese informer working undercover for North Korea and had flown over to Yanji to arrest me. We met in the home of a mathematics lecturer at the Yanbian University, and he encouraged me to write a brief statement to read out to journalists if I wanted to go to South Korea. So I wrote criticism against Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, calling them tyrannical monarchs. I confirmed in my writing that the living standards in South Korea were far better than in the North, and revealed Kim Jong-il's daily routine, e.g. on what street he walked at a particular time of the day. I included the location of his offices and his summer homes as well as the layout of his office, underground routes, the extravagant lives of his subordinates, etc.

The North Korean state security representative was obviously satisfied with the evidence he had gained and escorted me to Beijing via train on November 29, 1994. We spent a night in the Yanji Yanbian Hotel in front of the Beijing train station and three nights at an inn owned by a Korean-Chinese. During our travel Kim Yong-ho assured me by giving a South Korean brand of cigarette called "Hanaro" and a calendar also made in South Korea.

On December 3rd, Kim led me to a photo shop and had a picture taken of me telling me that it was for the passport. Around 18:30 p.m. he led me to a car, which was supposedly bound for the South Korean embassy. The truth was revealed to me in pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il that were on the wall. I had been lured into the North Korean embassy in China.

By then, it was already too late

On December 4, 1994 I arrived at the Sun'ahn Airport in the Beijing-Pyongyang bound airplane. At the time my whole body was put in a cast and injected anesthetics and morphine. In that sorry state I became a prisoner in Cell No.1 in the State Security Department preliminary investigation bureau (the 3rd bureau) in Yon'mot-dong, Pyongyang. I was interrogated in Room 216 on the second floor under Kim Soon-chol who was in charge of me. 

Horrors of the preliminary interrogation

The bureau chief of the preliminary investigation bureau listened to my testimony through the radio and shouted: 
"How could you of all people make such criticism against our Dear Leader and mar his authority? You even revealed our top secrets! By so doing you have created great danger for the safety of our Dear Leader. You are an enemy of the people and should be punished for your crimes! You should be shot to death!"

That was the beginning of an unending series of torture in the solitary cell. The security officers kicked me and beat me with rifles. My legs swelled up horrible to see. My eardrums shattered and no longer functioning properly, and pieces of my teeth fell out from my mouth.

They had me up at four in the morning and did not let me sleep until ten at night. Even during my 'sleep' I was not left easy. The guards came to my room poured water on my head and beat me.

As if my suffering from the torture was not enough, they shackled my feet and ordered me to thrust the shackled limbs through a hole in the door of my cell. Then my helpless limbs would be in their hands that held wooden clubs. Not one day would pass without this painful ritual.

They would use other forms of torture to extract a piece of confession out of me. I would be hung in the air in shackles and beat with pointed iron sticks and wooden clubs. The time and again asked me who had commissioned me to give out such classified information, and whatever my answer would be recorded on tape.


I also remember being tortured by water. At such times six to seven men would lay me on the floor and start forcing water into my mouth. When enough water had filled my stomach and throat, they pressed down on my belly with their feet to force the water back out. Just as painful was water being forced into my nose. After I went through these tortures I fell seriously ill.

Anything could be turned into a means of torture. Telling me that they will wash my hair clean they stuck my head in the toilet bowl and flushed the water. They beat and insulted me for hours while the toilet water ran.

That winter of 1994 was the harshest I had ever experienced, and my suffering knew no end until the next May.

Food was very scarcely rationed during my preliminary interrogations. Each meal consisted of 33 grams of processed corn ears with cabbage soup, but we were not given spoons to eat with. Things were worse when the authorities decided to starve me for punishment. The three meals per day would be reduced to two per day, resulting in a meager 66 grams of corn for the entire day. As a result, I lost 40 kg while under interrogation. I had entered the detention center weighing 94 kg and came out a skinny man of 54 kg. The one thing that sustained me through all this was my will to survive. It was all I had.

According to the articles 44, 46, and 47 of the criminal code, I was sentenced to capital punishment. It was on one April day when Kim Soon-chol ordered me out of my cell. He told me that he had been to my home in Musan to cross check my testimony. He showed me a piece of paper on which my wife and parents had written that we did not have a radio at home and sealed with fingerprints. Then, he erased from my written confession the part about listening to South Korean radio programs. The radio, an important material evidence, was disposed of by Kim Soon-chul himself. He ordered me to keep silent.

I later found out that my mother and wife had conspired to save my life and also to protect my younger brother who was employed as one of Kim Jong-il’s drivers. I was then sent away to Yodok political prison camp (No. 15) in Daesong’li. 

Life in (Yodok) Camp No. 15

I was carried in a Soviet-made car from Pyongyang to Yodok. From the entrance of the political prison camp to Daesong’li where I was to live took two and half hours by car. The newcomers were given orientation training for 15 days after which they are stationed in different groups in different platoons.

There were about 1,000 prisoners in our district alone. The prisoners of our district were divided into 6 groups: groups 1, 2, 3 and a woman’s group, a family group and a worker’s group. Each group was caged within electrically-charged wire fences 4-meters high surrounding the compound on all sides. Each group consisted of about 170 people who were divided into smaller platoons of 56 people on average. There was a steady flow of newcomers numbering five to ten per month. Every night, the guards kept vigil fully armed outside the compound built of thin wooden planks.

Work began immediately after breakfast, which we had to finish by five. It ended when the sunlight began fading into darkness. Everyone had to carry his or her own lunch to the workplace. The kind of work we were assigned varied each day.

Our platoon usually worked on lumbering. Each day, a prisoner had to cut trees into logs enough to make a pile of 1.5 m3. The logs were either sold to the people outside the camps or brought home by the security officers in the camp. Everyday we had to carry 120 piles of logs from the mountain to the fields, a distance of 1,000m, before work was finished. 


Even after our work was finished we could hope for no comfortable rest. When we came to our living quarters the officers ordered us to strip down to our underwear and kneel on the floor. We, in bare skins, were then whipped with strong wooden sticks until 10 sticks, at least, broke in two. This punishment caused greater horror among women prisoners who were treated no better than the men. They also had to strip and bare their breasts before the beating began.

There was a lack of facilities for maintaining the minimum sanitary conditions. When we excreted, we had to wrap the feces in corn leaves and bury them in the ground. 

A day’s food ration ranged between 100g to 150g of corn per person, depending on the daily work performance and the agricultural produce of the year. Soup was simply some dried leaves of cabbages or radishes floating in a bowl of salted water.

We knew no holidays except for three: January 1, February 16, and April 16. 

Inside the camp grounds there were many signboards with slogans written on them: 
“There is no reconciliation or negotiation with enemy of the class!” 
“Guard against antiparty and antirevolutionary elements!” 
“Agriculture is our life. Work hard!” 
“Escapees will be executed on site by shooting or by hanging.” 
They were indeed horrible slogans. 

The prisoners must kneel with forehead touching the ground when security officers, guards, or visitors from outside the camps were present. If they caught us looking at them even from afar, they would immediately beat us with rifles and rocks or trample on our bodies folded helpless on the ground. It was not uncommon that a prisoner died from damage of the skull and brain on these occasions. 

If one were caught carrying in the pocket some salt or pieces of metal that could be used to start fire the consequences were grave. It was considered an attempt at escape, punishable by execution by shooting, hanging, and even burying alive. A sad example was that of Hahn Seung-chol. He was formerly a resident of Osan-dong in Hoe’ryong, North Hamgyong province. He was caught in an attempt to flee to South Korea. Four years into his imprisonment in Yodok he was found with salt in his pocket. The guards tied him by the neck to a vehicle with iron wires and dragged him from one end of our district to another, a distance of 4km. Other prisoners were lined up on both sides of the road to watch. In the end, the skin covering Hahn’s waist and that covering his head were completely worn and the poor man did not survive the torture. The camp authorities then tied the skinless corpse to the stake and ordered each prisoner to touch the blood. It was a horrible lesson to teach all about the end of a failed escape attempt. All during the execution a whole group of guards armed with rifles and automatic guns surrounded the prisoners and shot them when they spotted a suspicious move. 

At Hahn’s execution, it was Ahn Sung-eun, an old man of sixty from North Pyong’an province, who was summarily shot. He was imprisoned for having allegedly said that Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were cruel fascists worse than the Japanese colonialists. The horrible scene of Hahn’s death was too much for the old man to endure without protest. He rushed out in front of the unwilling spectators and shouted: “How could you kill a man for a handful of salt in his pocket? And in such horrendous ways? On top of all you made us watch it all and dip our fingers in his blood!” The old man had obviously been shocked to insanity by Hahn’s execution and was unable to control himself. Shots rang out in the middle of his protest and the man fell dead. Six to ten people per month were victimized as the old Mr. Ahn. 

I have also witnessed burial of people live. Kim Seung-chol (aged 28) was arrested in 1996 for anti-government conspiracy and attempt at defection to South Korea. One of the camp directors called him out at night and pulled a bag over his head. Five prisoners were ordered to dig a hole for Kim’s burial while guards stood watching. Lights went on as other prisoners were ordered to come and watch. A voice rang out: “Let it be known that anti-revolutionaries will be punished thus!” A blow to the head fell Kim Seung-chol unconscious. Then, his body was thrown into the hole and quickly covered with earth. One of the prisoners was shot in the process for not shoveling as hard as others. He was shot on the forehead and buried in the same hole as Kim. 

There were victims of human experimentation as well, and I clearly remember two men. One of them was Jung Hyon-su (aged 26), son of a South Korean POW. He was a worker in the Lakwon Machinery in Shinuiju, North Pyong’an province before trying to reach South Korea by ship. Another victim of human experimentation was Lee Chung-keun(aged 36). He was from the upper class. His father was the County party secretary in Chungdan County, North Hwanghae province. He was arrested in Germany where he became a spy for South Korea. He was dragged to the lab because of his good build and health. The lab was located in Nampo. To my knowledge it has been in use since the Korean War when POWs were used for experimentation. 

This secret was disclosed by Mitsubishi Humiko, a Japanese woman who had moved to North Korea with her Korean husband. She had survived the experiments in the labs and returned to Yodok. Mitsubishi Humiko was put in another detention center in August 1996 for disclosing the secret. At the end of her detention she was again returned to her quarters, but the days were numbered for her. The guards one day tied her by the wrist to the end of a Soviet jeep and drove down to another district inside the camp. She died on the way. 

Another woman named Hahn Shin-ok died an unjustified death. She was formerly an ethnic Korean in Japan who had moved to North Korea leaving behind her parents and younger sister. In North Korea, she lived in Sariwon, North Hamgyong province. She was sentenced to imprisonment in Yodok for scoffing at Kim Jong-il’s statement: “The Earth cannot turn without Chosun(DPRK).” She had said a number of things among them: “How can a nobody like Kim Jong-il make the world turn as it does?” She protested against physical abuse by the camp director who beat her in shackles. For her punishment she was deprived of food and water for five days. She died from thirst and hunger. 

Sometimes the camp authorities sexually abused the women. Lee Chang-ok was one example. Originally a North Korean resident in China, Lee became a conductor in Pyongyang Municipal Orchestra. Her father was the Dean of Yookmun Junior High School in Jilin, China. Her crime was outspokenly comparing China and North Korea and criticizing Kim Jong-il based upon her observations. 
One day, a security officer rounded up the women outside the quarters, leaving only Lee inside. He ordered Lee to take off her pants and raped her. When he had satisfied his sexual desire he stuck a wooden stick in Lee’s vagina and beat the lower part of her body. Lee died within a week. 

In the Yodok Camp were detained a number of formerly high-profile officials. Kim Jong-nam who was the head of North Korean Consulate in Shenyang, China entered the camp in 1997 for criticizing Kim Jong-il’s policies as being the only reclusive policy in the world. An old man who claimed that he was the right arm of Jang Sung-taek said that had worked in the Central Party building No.3. He often refused to follow the officers’ directions. He was punished one day for not kneeling forehead on the ground in the presence of a security officer. He was ordered to crawl 100m almost naked except for a trunk. His compliance did not satisfy the officers who picked up a large rock and laid a blow with it on the old man’s back. The man suffered greatly from the injury. 

Political prisoners dying of hunger 

The political prisoners in Yodok camp are given a daily average of 120g of corn gruel(40g a meal). With so little nutrition to go on, the prisoners are forced to hard labor of 15 – 16 hours per day. Under such conditions, the camp authorities order each prisoner to appreciate the great love and care bestowed by Kim Jong-il. 

When I was first sentenced to the camp I did not quite anticipate what my life would be like. I had a vague expectation of a place not comfortable but livable. I could not have been more wrong. The physical as well as psychological suffering was hard to bear, especially when I was abused, starved and forced to hard labor. After my 15-day orientation I was given the clothes that my predecessor had worn till his dying day and placed in the quarter that was originally built for storage of corn. The building was worse than a pigsty in nearly every aspect: the shabby hut was such that it rained and snowed inside. 

Prisoners are compelled to pick all parts of all kinds of plants and hunt for all crawling living creatures to eat, not excepting snakes, frogs and rats. In other words, anything and everything that has life is edible. I would rather not go into detail about people eating snakes and mice with skin, guts and all. Ironically, the chicken, goose and ducks that will eventually be served at camp authorities’ meals are regularly and amply fed corn, while the prisoners pick the undigested corn kernels from their excrement to survive. These prisoners slowly die from malnutrition if other events do not claim their lives. A newcomer visibly shrinks to deformity in the beginning days of camp life. When their bodies have shrunk to their limit, they then begin swelling up and discharging bodily fluids. When a prisoner dies in such a way, the other prisoners carry the corpse dripping a combination of fluids to the mountains to bury. Occasionally, one or more persons trip on something and roll down the hills with the corpse. Some never make it back up alive. 

I would like to close with two urgent appeals to the readers of my testimony: 
Please, join in the fight to improve the human rights situation in North Korea. 
Please, remember the plight of North Korean refugees who roam the Chinese lands for survival. 


*This testimonial essay is translated from the original testimony written by Lee Baek-lyong in April 2000 while the author was still hiding in China. He had given his manuscript to NKHR staff.