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Experience in Political Prisoners' Camp
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2016-01-20 14:30:18
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Experience in Political Prisoners' Camp


CHOI Dong Chul


Place of Birth : Onsung-up, Onsong Country, North Hamgyong Province, North Korea 
Feb. 1985 : Worker at the Officers Cadet School, the Political Prisoners Camp 
Feb. 1994 : Escapess to China 
Dec. 1994 : Defectss to South Korea 

The 417th Unit 

My father was the principal of a senior high school and my mother was the manager of a state-run store, and therefore I was regarded as having a good family background. I was named a candidate to join the State Security Ministry. After an examination, I was assigned to the ministry's 9th Bureau(Farm Management Bureau). The Bureau was composed of the Planning Department, the Management Department, the Production department and a Guard Brigade which was organized of 8 battalions. These battalions were responsible for guarding the ministry headquarters and various political prisoners' camps. 

From May 1983 to February 1985, I served in the Headquarters Platoon of the brigade, and from June 1986 in the cadet school located in the 11th Political Prisoners' Camp located in Gyongsong, North Hamgyong Province. This school was called the "417th Unit of the People's Security Unit." This school conducted supplementary course for officers and noncommissioned officers and also for drivers belonging to the guard brigade. 

The 'Enemy District' 

The 9th Bureau was in control of political prisoners' camps at 11 different sites. They were the 11th Camp in Gyongsong, North Hamgyong Province, the 12th and 13th Camps in Onsong, North Hamgyong Province, the 14th Camp in Kaechon, South Pyongan Province, the 15th Camp in Yodok, South Hamgyong Province, the 16th Camp in Hwasong, North Hamgyong Province, the 22nd Camp in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province the 24th Camp in Wooshi, Jagang Province, the 29th Camp in Chonma, North Pyongan Province, the Hawchon Camp in Sunghori near Pyongyang and the Susong Camp in Chongjin North Hamgyong Province. These camps occupy vast areas and they are located in remote areas surrounded by mountains. We used to call the areas where the prisoners lived the "enemy districts." 

The largest camps are the 14th and the 15th and these camps incarcerate about 40,000 to 50,000 prisoners each. The total number of detainees in 11 camps is estimated to be about 200,000. The 11th Camp where I served had farm areas of about 4,000 acres and coal mine stretching over the area of about 8,000 acres. There were about 20,000 prisoners there. 

Later I heard dthat the 11th, 12th and 13th camps, and the Hwachon Camp near Pyongyang were relocated somewhere else, and the designation of the 9th Bureau was changed to the 7th Bureau in 1988. 

People say that these camps were set up as early as the lated 1950s, and in the 1960s, thousands of prisoners had been seen transported to these camps by train. 

Once labelled a political prisoner, the accused is sent there together with his family members. Sometimes, the wives of the accused avoid the punishment of being sent to the camps by divorcing their husbands. 

Slaves in the 20th Century 

The inmates of these political prisoners' camps are spurred on to engage in hard labor from 5:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. They are treated as enemies of the people, but the camps try to keep them alive in order to exploit their labor. In general, farms in the camps maintain higher productivity than cooperative farms outside the camps because the inmates are spurred on to work like slaves. Most of the products are carried away by the State Security Ministry. 

The conditiions in the camps are far worse thank those in prison (for ordinary lawbreakers other than political crime). The inmates are regarded merely as a labor force. Even the political indoctrination programs for them receive little emphasis because they are regarded as life prisoners. Children in the camps are given education only up 3rd grade and then they are driven out to the work site. Due to undernourishment, those who were brought up in the camps are short and skinny. 

'Papions' Devouring Even Black Beetles 

The inmates are given very little food, and they devour every thing edible, including rats and snakes and even black beetles. The work sites they prefer are pigsties and cowsheds because they can pick up something to eat from the animal feed. 

They are pitifully clothed. Especially in winter they must wrap their bodies with whatever things available. Most of them must spend the cold winter without shoes. 

Their quarters are built in caves or made of mud bricks, and therefore, these quarters can not be identified when seen from the top of mountain slopes. 

Members of the State Security Ministry, Living in a Paradise in a Hell 

Quite opposite to the inmates, members of the State Security Ministry assigned to the camps can enjoy a luxurious life together with their family members. They are given quarters equipped with a bathroom and furnished with cabinets and wardrobes and also with a TV set and a refrigerator. 

The members of the guard unit are also given good treatment. Soldiers and enlisted men in the unit are given the chance to become cadre members of the ministry and also given the privilege to receive higher education in colleges and universities upon completing ;military service there. I was one of such persons, though later I was expelled from Kimilsung University and sent to a tobacco farm, after my mother was imprisoned in the Kaechon Prison.