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After Repatriation: Three Years in Yodok
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2016-01-25 17:47:18
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After Repatriation: Three Years in Yodok

Eun-Cheol KIM 
Former Prisoner at Yodok Political Prison Camp
Survivor of the ‘Seven Forced Repatriation Incident’ in 2000
Arrived in South Korea in March of 2006

On November 10, 1999 seven North Korean defectors including myself were caught by Russian border guards while crossing the Sino-Russian border.  At first, after three days of our arrest, the Russians planned to send us back to China.  However, China refused telling the Russians “Whether you send them back to North Korea yourselves or not, we will not receive these North Koreans.”  There was something strange in the atmosphere surrounding us.  So we told them, “China will definitely repatriate us to North Korea.  We would like to talk with the UN guys.”  Luckily enough, the Russians allowed us to talk with UN personnel. We were individually interviewed for about ten minutes each and we continuously expressed our wish to be sent to South Korea.  They left us having taken a picture of each of us and saying that “We will try to do as you wish.” 

Three days later, after our story was broadcasted, the North Korean ambassador requested that he meet us.  The Russians asked us whether we would like to meet the ambassador, to which we refused. They told us to write this on paper.  So we wrote down clearly knowing that if we meet the ambassador from North Korea, we were destined to be sent back and killed, and that we did not want to go.  However, things did not happen as we wished. There he was, the ambassador, standing in front of us.  “Comrades, you have betrayed your native country and defied our great General(Kim Jong-il), who has been so graceful to us. Why?”  Sudden fear overwhelmed us as we had the ambassador before our eyes. Things obviously did not seem good to us.  However hard we tried to roll our heads, it came to our minds that despite having met the UN people, we would in the end be sent back to North Korea so we had to have this question answered: “So, what would happen to us, when we go back?”  His reply: “With the grace of the great General, you will be punished according to the rules.”

On December 30, 1999 Russian soldiers handed us over to the officers from the Chinese border investigation office.  The Chinese would ask us from time to time on how we were treated by the Russians.  We were taken to a region in China called Milsan.  We were not beaten, but nevertheless, we lived on what little bread and potato porridge, washing our faces with what water we could receive from the icicles.  We were interrogated in the investigation office building and at night transferred to the public security office building for the night’s sleep.  On the evening of January 2, 2000, when the bus transferring us to the public security office halted to drop us off, all at once we ran in all directions.  I found out later on that in three to four hours all were caught, but myself.  All of us were deprived of shoes for they took it away to prevent us from running away.  So with bare feet, it was hard to run but despite the frequent trips, I continued to run on and on. We promised beforehand to all meet again at the Yanji Church if we succeed.  But while running, it came to my mind that motels or churches in the ethnic Korean-Chinese communities would be the first place for inspections.  I couldn’t dare walk straight into the Yanji Church so in the heavy snow with bare feet, I wondered around for more than two hours until without any second thoughts I went into a shop which seemed to be the butcher’s.  The Chinese shop assistant seemed to instantly feel sorry for me and held my hand and took me into his room.  He warmed my feet with some hot water and gave me something to eat.  The shop owner came next so I drew him the map of the Korean peninsula and drew in a cross signifying the church.  The owner, he took me to a hospital. I think he misunderstood the cross for a hospital.

Before I could get some sleep, in order to avoid any suspicions that would invite interrogation I had to change my clothes with the fellow on the next bed, who looked like a Chinese beggar.  From early in the morning the next day, I waited for the shop owner to come but I could not be patient enough to wait him for a long time.  I was too nervous to just sit in bed so I fled again. Fortunately I met two ladies who understood a little of my language.  However, because I had no knowledge of Chinese it was difficult to communicate with them but they gave me some 9 yuan which I spent to take a bus to the outskirts.  I just headed straight to nowhere but in hope of finding a rural village.  From afar I could spot a big house to which I decided to try out to ask for some help.  In reaching it I realized it was a Buddhist temple. An old Chinese lady brought an ethnic Korean-Chinese to help me talk to her.  I briefly went over my story and earnestly asked her for some help.  She told me to wait a while because the leaders of the temple were in a meeting.  It looked like the temple was a place for the Falungongs.  The leaders came down and with an exchange of couple of words they collected all together about 398 yuan from their pockets and gave it to me.  A hundred yuan was put into my socks and the rest in some other places and what they said was “Inspections are strict here too. Please never reveal that you were here ever.”

I went to downtown Milsan in a taxi.  After having my hair cut, I used about a hundred yuan on new clothing and something to eat and went down to the train station.  I could spot some Chinese policemen whom I had a hunch was in search of me.  I think I just slipped out of their suspicion with the sunglasses that I was wearing.  With another 30 yuan I bought a ticket for Mokdan river, waiting for the train from a distance away.  As the departure time approached, it looked like as if the police on guard outside would go into the station.  And for real, when the departure time came, the policemen started to inspect each and every person going on the train even with the desk set up at the entrance.  Despite these hurdles I had no other choice but to find my way out of Milsan.  So not daring to pass through the security, I went over the fence jumped straight on to the train car and did not dare to come out of the toilet for about 40 minutes.  About four hours later, the train reached its destination at Mokdan river and I transferred trains to go into Yanji.  I went to see an elder at the Yanji church whom we had met before we went to Russia.  The elder was so surprised to see me as a fugitive, having seen our group holding a press conference in Russia.  He had thought that we had made it to South Korea and that all had gone well. 

After three days of failing to capture me, I found out that about thirty Milsan district policemen started a search even at Yanji.  Yanji was no more a place to stay and too risky but I was at a loss with no ideas where to go from there.  The only place that rang my mind was back at home, to North Korea.  I persuaded myself that if I stayed quiet, and out of sight, it would be less of a problem.  I crossed the thin icy Tumen river from Deokhwa-jin of Hwaryong city(Chinese border) and after a night at a house of someone I knew before, I went into the Musan-kun(one of the county of Northern Hamkyong Province, North Korea).  I didn’t go directly to my parent’s home but to a neighbor’s.  They hid me in return for some rice I bought with some 500 yuan I received from the Yanji Church.  I asked them to contact my father.  I bought my father some rice with the extra money I had on me and stayed at the neighbor’s for a couple of more days.  On January 16, 2000 a full moon shone brightly in the dark sky.  Having made up my mind again to go into China, I really longed to go home for one last time.  It did not cross my mind that my news had reached all the way from China to Musan in just a few days.  But as soon as I stepped into my home, safety agents(policemen) who I could not spot beforehand, all rushed in and seized me.  I had been an officially wanted person and secretive police had waited in ambush.  I was hit hard on the head with a revolver and while I fell I was beaten up so hard for more than half an hour that I felt like I could not even gasp for some air to breathe.  With shoestrings tied tightly around my ankle, I was dragged on the ground.

I was taken to the Musan–kun anjeon-bu(safety agency).  I was not so mistreated at the safety agency because it was just a transit before being transferred to the bowi-bu(national security agency).  What awaited me at the Musan-kun bowi-bu after the transfer was something totally different.  For six months, I was subjected to the kneeling torture – with a thick wooden piece fixed in between my knees and calves in a kneeling position – I was posited to kneel on a heated iron plate.  In that position, I cannot say exactly how much they had beaten me. So frequently all throughout the day I was beaten up but I withdrew from admitting that I had ever gone to China. I was able to hang on with this denial for about ten days.  However this too had to end when the official documents of my interrogation as well as a photo arrived from the Chinese officials.  I could not say anything different with such obvious evidence laid out before me.  “Did you ever go to a Christian church in China?” “What was discussed?” “You should tell everything from scratch!”  Right to the end, I did not admit that I had been to a church, but I admitted that I was present at the press conference in Russia.  However, gradually the fear of my end, my death, loomed over me and I felt all was useless and with such despair, I began to give up.  With my arms and legs tied up from the ceiling, dangling over in the middle of the room, and fiercely beaten, I could not but give up on myself, on my existence as a human being.

I was given a bunch of paper, about hundred pages, and was told to fill them up with whatever accounts I had to tell – as I had to scribble on the papers and fill the entire bunch, at the same time as I was being beaten up, I wrote down whatever that rolled inside my head according to whatever question they threw at me.  I wrote down whatever they made up, whether they were true or not did not really matter to me.  After two months of interrogation and continuous beatings, I had to wait about another four months at the detention facility waiting for another transfer to a place unknown.  The detention center was no much better.  The aggressive disciplinary guards agents at the detention center were no less vicious.  They would not leave me alone and continued to beat me up.

One day, my father came to visit me with some rice cakes. People around asked for some, which I really wanted to share, but the disciplinary guards would never allow it however you asked for the permission.  Nevertheless I tried to sneak some into someone’s hands while they seemed to be occupied with something else.  But unluckily, I was caught right in the middle and had invited myself big trouble.  As a punishment, they forced me to bang my head hard on the wall.  They shouted at me and compelled me to bang even harder to which I responded with harder hits against the wall until I thought I heard my head echo.  Blood poured down on my forehead. Maybe because this took place where everyone could watch, they took me to the toilet.  And there, they told me to continue this against a toilet bowl.  With strong revulsion and grief at the same time, I decided to do as they wished and just end my life there.  Madly, I kept the banging. Soon I was covered with blood spurting everywhere.  After this incident, the agent in charge of me came to me and asked me why I had done that.  I was afraid I would get into more trouble if I told him the truth – about the anger inside me towards them that drove me insane to bang even harder – so I told him it was really nothing. He insisted on knowing why, to which I answered in the end.  To my surprise, he spread some medicine (Chinese ointment) on my scars.

From June, when the weather was warmer, the punishments that we received were much severe.  Inside the detention center packed with prisoners, in the early summer heat, we were compelled to cover a thick blanket over our bodies and were forced to repeat a sit-down-stand-up punishment.  In the heat, repeating this over five hundred times, you cannot even regard yourself as a human being.  With all the sweat covered in the dusty blanket, if you don’t dry yourself well, you grow lice all over your body and you will not be able to find any aspects of a proper human being.

On June 30, 2000, I was sent to the Yodok prison camp No. 15.  I was nineteen at the time.  I had no idea where Yodok was, and all I could tell myself was that I was going somewhere where there would be no exit out.  My family would not know about my whereabouts, and in my home village I had heard later on that there was a rumor that I was shot to death accused of espionage and thrown away.  Inside Yodok at the time of my presence there, a new hyuk-myung-hwa-ku-yeok(revolutionizing zone) in the Kueup-ri was set up with people from the central Korean Workers’ party, safety agency, security agency and prosecutors going through the revolutionization education.  The first night at Yodok, I stayed at a detention facility for first-comers.  Because most people in this part of the camp were newcomers who had received severe mistreatment from the interrogations that resulted in deteriorated health conditions not used to the harsh forced labor, we were given some rice to eat and the labor assignments were relatively bearable.  About a fortnight later, political head officer from the kwanli-so came to talk to us, and from him I found out that I was sentenced for three years on the ground of treason. Stout and healthy people were sent to company for construction in a week or ten days but whether I had been favored for being young, I was allowed to stay there for a month before being sent to the company.

I was assigned to the construction work unit, - 3rd platoon of 2nd company.  From then on, I had to work day and night. In the summer, I had to wake up at 4:30 in the morning, support the agricultural work unit, carry the fertilizers, plough, and return to the camp at 7 for breakfast.  Basic construction work started at 7:30 in the mornings, dig grounds, mix cement with hands, newly build the security office, and expand it.  While I was in the construction work unit for the three years, I built various facilities for poultry, goats, cows and warehouses.  With only sixteen inmates in the unit, we had to build all these establishments which were to be in fact left empty.  Lunch was self-prepared with what was distributed in the morning.  We would normally try to pull out grasses or wild grasses/potherbs to add on to our ration into our brass bowls for a more filling feeling in the stomach.  A 30-minute break was usually allowed after five hours of hard labor and depending on our effectiveness in completing our workload.  Normally we were to work until six or seven in the evening but blaming the efficiency of our work, they would compel us more work even when dark into the night.  At night hours, three teams of six people or two teams of eight would work extra night-time hours.  The first team would work from five in the afternoon to one in the morning, the next team from one in the morning to five or six the next day.  The last team would work for the rest of the day meaning that the labor work went on almost 24 hours a day.  The assault and beating in the labor camps were not as much as in the bowi-bu office or the detention centers, nevertheless it still continued.  There would be battery amongst the prisoners themselves if you were not working your best, but chances were less likely when you were cunning enough to know your way around and actually had a strong fist yourself.

Death came easily.  When you witness or find out by chance something you had not meant to, you were killed and because of the presence of snitches amongst the prisoners, if you made a mistake of denouncing the supervisors you would end up in another separate room within Yodok.  One meal would just be about 10 grams; malnutrition would risk your life even after just a month.  Even if you did survive such conditions, you would have to crawl out of the prison camp.  Someone who is even more than 1.7m tall would actually end up as bent and short as a child and would barely survive for another three remaining days.

If a person dies in the camp, it is basically another job allocated for the construction work unit to deal with the corpse.  It is less of a work because the bodies are buried without erecting a mound. Nevertheless when some of us even try to make a coffin for the dead with any sort of wooden panels, we would be pushed to rush, then gasping to hurry, we just throw the body into the wooden box and nail them in any manner.  We carry them on oxcarts, but once we stumble on stones, the coffins would break open, throwing the body on to the ground.  I would usually be the one to pull the cart, but once the body that falls out catches my eye, a strong sense of survival would seize me. (It was sad to think that life after death would look like the body that falls out of feeble coffins in the camps).  The place of burial of these bodies was called the “grave valley.” The burials usually took place late in the dark so we would hasten as fast as possible and taking the benefit of being in the dark, try to dig whatever that is edible and fill it up into our mouth. 

There were five of us who crossed the borders to Russia and ended up in Yodok.  One of them was a woman named Yong-sil Bang(her real name is Yong-soon Bang).  The story of her death is so sad indeed.  Her husband, a man named Yong-il Heo, was one of the nicest men I could recall. If he had been an average North Korean man, as selfish as one would be in such horrendous circumstances as to not even know about one’s own fate, it was likely that you had no strength or the piece of mind to care for your spouse.  Nevertheless, he would leave what meat that was distributed at national holidays hidden, not eating it for himself and instead feed his poor wife.  He would rush to her after his work is done and wash her and stay next to her for about an hour.  In her final days he would take care of all her urination and defecation and take care of her so much sparing no pains whatsoever.  Despite such sincerity on the part of her husband, she couldn’t make it but passed away.  It was really the saddest moments in my life to bury someone who has shared so much of the journey. 

In July 2003, I finally finished my three years in Yodok.  When I came out of the prison camp, they made me agree to a written oath with a hand stamp.  The pledge read: “I will face execution if I reveal the secrets of Yodok.”  A meal was distributed to eat on the way out.  They took me to the security agency in my district.  Once your documents are confirmed you are transferred to the military labor party unit and filed for a new assignment of a workplace.  I was assigned to Saegol-ri farm at the Musan-kun.  There is heavy surveillance while working.  The supervisor watches you without a word, 24hours.  Even the village people are educated to “immediately report any person suspicious of border crossing to China or show strange behaviors.”  Nevertheless people did not stay away from me at ordinary times because they were people from the same village.  On the contrary, some would come up to me and ask how I had survived having heard the rumor that I had received a death sentence.  Because of the oath that was at the back of my head, I could not really tell them the truth.  So I would just say that I had worked somewhere else.  It was really at times, at the tip of my tongues that I had wanted to reveal my experience at Yodok.  At times I thought it would have been easier for me if I had my lips all sealed and sewn.  So even until now, my elder brother and sister do not know what I have been through.  The first time I told someone of my experience was to my twin brother whom I had met out in China again.  But after this, after telling my own brother, I was so restless and worried that someone might have overheard and that people would come after me again.  So I regretted it so bad that I thought it was better not to tell anyone from then on. 

In August 2004, life was difficult for my family.  But I had to support my parents and the rest of the family.  So I crossed the border into China again to earn what little money I could.  I think I was just so unlucky.  With lack of fortune I was caught again.  Being caught again, I was likely to face a sentence of about fifteen years.  I was released with the help of my relatives who bribed the local official with one whole goat and some 300,000 won that was hidden in the house.  I would have been able to get away with the bribery had it not been revealed by one of the two officials involved during the inspection from the central party.  I insisted that I had no intentions whatsoever to stay in China or to cross the border in the first place right to the end, so I was sent to the dan-lyon-dae(labor-training facility) in the Musan-kun.  I spent about six months there from October 2004, until I escaped in April 2005.  I hid in the mountains for about fifty days.  I built myself a dugout and hid myself there.  I finally got in touch with my twin brother who was out in China.  My brother sent 2000 yuan to my elder brother at home and my elder brother found me again and gave me 1000 yuan.  I had planned to pay back what I owed to my relatives – a goat and 300,000 won – spent on bribing the local officials, and go back to North Korea after earning a little money out in China.  But everyone tried to stop me from going back to North Korea.  They all said that I would die for sure the next time I am found.  My brother in China, continued to persuade me to go to South Korea.  It looked like I had no other choice had I wanted to carry on with my life.  I arrived in the South on March 16, 2006.