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Twenty-Eight Years of My life in Political Prisoner Camp (Gwalliso) No. 18
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2016-01-26 12:58:40
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Twenty-Eight Years of My life in Political Prisoner Camp (Gwalliso) No. 18


KIM Hye Sook

Escaped from North Korea in 2009

Entered South Korea in 2009



Life and family in the Gwalliso

In 1970, while I was still living in Pyongyang, my parents were taken to a Political Prisoners Camp(hereinafter, Gwalliso) for reasons unknown to me. Five years later, when I was thirteen, I was also taken from my grandmother’s house to Gwalliso No. 18, in South Pyongan province(In Bongchang village of Bukchang county of South Pyongan province.) where I would spend the next twenty-eight years of my life.


My aunt took me to Gwalliso No. 18. I waited 16 hours in front of the Gwalliso for my mother. Five years had passed since I had last seen my mother and I could barely recognize her at first; she had become very feeble and weak. I was young, and at first I had no idea why we had to come to this place, but after we walked for 30 li (12km) and arrived where my family was staying, I understood. Once I had arrived, I found out my

father had passed away. I also discovered I had new siblings.


On the dinner table my mother had set up the night of my arrival, there were ingredients that I had never seen before, such as wild herbs, grass, and a handful of corn powder. I was hungry from the long trip, but I just couldn’t swallow the bitter food. We used to eat rice and flour back in Pyongyang, and this bitterness hurt my throat. 


While my parents were in the Gwalliso, my mother had started working on a farm after my father was taken to the National Security Agency(Bowibu) in order to support the family. Mine workers, farm workers, and woodcutters received 15 days of food rations per month, while all other workers received five days of food rations. The heads of families also received an additional ten days. Six to seven kilograms of wet corn was what my whole family of seven (five children, grandmother, mother) could receive for 15 days. But when the corn was dried, we would only have four to four and a half kilograms left. It was hard to eat even one meal per day. Eating corn for fifteen days without wild herbs was disgusting, but we had no choice because with so little food even walking around was hard. Humans were only called humans because they looked like humans; nine-year-old North Korean children were small compared to five-year-old South Korean children. It is a sad thing.


Towards the end of fifth grade, my mother died from falling off a cliff on May 30, 1979. I was scheduled to graduate during August that year, but instead I received the responsibility of caring for the family in place of my mother(Even though the Gwalliso was a prison camp, it functioned like an ordinary community where people went to work and school). While my mother was alive we could at least live off the food rations she received, but after my mother passed away our situation became even more uncertain. After my graduation, I started working in a mine. Then, my grandmother passed away too and people started to steal from us. Our situation got a little better when my siblings graduated and started to work in the mines as well. My brother died in a mine accident when he was 21. The mines were poorly developed and very dangerous, but the authorities didn’t want to spend the high modification costs to fix them. Thus, mine accidents commonly occurred in Gwalliso No. 18, but the authorities didn’t even blink at the deaths of prisoners. My family never found the remains of my brother.


In the Gwalliso, marriage was allowed only for those who were exemplary workers. They simply signed you up as a married couple and that was literally your marriage. In order to support my family, I had no choice but to marry a man in his thirties who was sent to the Gwalliso without a family. His support was a tremendous help to the family; people stopped taking our things and we had a trustworthy person to rely on. By 2000, my younger sisters became adults and they married as well, which really helped our family because less mouths to feed meant less pressure on us.


I had two children. In the Gwalliso, they actually permitted a vacation for those who were pregnant. When my mother gave birth to my siblings, they gave her 90 days off. But as the workforce within the camp started to decrease in the 1980s, childbirth was encouraged with rewards. If you had two children, you were given a 150-day vacation and 280 won per month for five months. However, you needed to be officially married in order to have a baby since you needed a marriage certificate for the hospital. 


My husband died in a mine accident, just like my brother. There were seven people stationed in one work group and all seven died due to the accident. I had no choice but to go out and work again. My lungs still hurt from those 13 years in the mine.


Gwalliso No. 18, the blind spot of human rights

When I came out of the Gwalliso in 2008, there were about 20,000 people living in the camp. About 17,000-18,000 of them were prisoners and 3,000 were either members of the authorities or their family members. The Gwalliso No. 18 is divided into two parts by the Taedong River; one part is for the prisoners and the other part is for the National Security Agency (Bowibu). 


When I was first sent to the Gwalliso No.18, I lived near the guard base (left on the map). We moved to Shim San when my mother started working at a farm in February 1975, and we lived there until September 1989. In1989, Gwalliso No 12 in Bongchang Village was relocated, and the area was taken over by Gwalliso No. 18. The prisoners of Gwalliso No.18 were forced to move to this new area, and released prisoners were moved into the area they formerly occupied. My family lived in the area of Gwalliso No. 12 until we were released on February 16, 2001, and we moved to the released prisoners’ area. We left the Gwalliso altogether on August 13, 2002.


The prisoners there did not know the meaning of ‘human rights.’ They were living lives worse than dogs’ lives. Gwalliso was surrounded by a 4m high fence and the people were always observed by the People’s Security Agency (Anjeonbu).3) It was located deep in the mountains with no paved road. Once a week, we were required to memorize the Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-Ideology System. The vicious security personnel and agents would prepare to spit when they saw the prisoners coming towards them. Once the prisoners arrived, they would command the prisoners to get on their knees and open their mouths, and then spit in them. If the prisoners didn’t swallow, they would be savagely beaten. This happened to me three times during the 28 years I spent in the Gwalliso. For days afterwards, I felt sick and couldn’t eat anything. My daily existence was filled with pain. Countless times I felt like committing suicide, but I couldn’t bring myself to take my own life.


Gwalliso No.18 was a mine. Women prisoners were generally sent to stalls or a thermoelectric power plant to transport coal. Many died from pneumoconiosis. Frequently, people lost their limbs from intense labor. I developed a pulmonary tumor because I inhaled dust for 16 to 18 hours every day in the mine. In my work group of 15, 7 were women and eight were men. Regardless of our gender however, everyone was required to do an equal amount of labor. Because I worked very hard, I was rarely beaten and was able to attend a night school. Rumors say officers raped other women and gave them free soaps in return. Mine captains also raped many women.


There was never time to do house chores because the authorities always assigned too much work. If I had only worked one 8 hour shift, I could have had some time for house chores, but doing an extra shift never left me any free time for house chores. After 16 hours of intense labor, I was extremely exhausted. When I lay down after working, I felt as if my whole body was falling into the ground. I was often injured and had to go to the infirmary. The infirmary was in a tiny one-room building. They wrote prescriptions lasting maximum of 3 days. If a prisoner’s limb was cut off during labor, the injured person would have to walk to a hospital 30 li (12km) away from the mine because there was no transportation. There were many people who ended up losing their legs in the hospital. I cannot believe that I survived living at the Gwalliso No.18 for 28 years. I think it was a miracle.


There was always not enough food to eat, and many people starved to death. Soon, I didn’t feel anything seeing dead bodies after seeing so many of them. The situation in the 1990s was exceptionally tough. People did not even try to steal food from others because there was no food to steal. 


In April, when plants began to sprout, people ate grass roots or made a soup with ground corn. When I dried 7-9kg of corn, I could make 2-4kg of powder which would last for a month. Acorn tree leaves were easy to eat because the leaves were tender. By boiling the leaves, I could make a soup. With some salt in it, the soup was not too bad to eat.