By: Kim Tae Jin, President of Democracy Network against North Korean Gulag and former prisoner in the No. 15 Camp in Yoduk, South Hamkyung Province.
North Korea’s political prison camp is not the official namefor these places. In North Korea, the place where people are forcibly abducted and imprisoned for political reasons is called ‘Kwanliso (management site)’.
Yoduk Political Prison Camp, in which I was imprisoned in 1988, is called ‘Kwanliso Number 15’ and it is listed as ‘2915th Troop of Korea People’s Guard’ in official documents.
Those who were imprisoned with me at the time were mostly loyal servants of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il who were made into scapegoats to pacify popular dissatisfaction. The problem was that young grandchildren of these prisoners were also imprisoned and dying there.
Of course, among them were members of the hostile classes, such as factionalists who had been persecuted for several decades, members of anti-party and anti-revolutionary factions, landowners, Japanese collaborators, religious leaders, family members of defectors during the Korean War and those who envied the Western World among the Korean Japanese Repatriates.
However, most of the inmates were former KWP officials and their families who lost power, and their increased, especially in the 70s and 80s during the idolization of Kim Il-Sung. From the late 80s, as Eastern European socialist regimes collapsed, a number of students who studied there as well as diplomats came to North Korea.
In the 90’s the food crisis caused an increase in defectors, and these defectors were sent back from China to prison camps.Of these defectors, most were believers in Christianity or people trying to seek asylum in South Korea.
North Korean prison camps operate on a strict system of surveillance and regulation to prevent disturbances and escape.On the outer part of the prison camp there are guards who form a very tight perimeter.On the inside, there are 5 different groups of guards who watch each other, so that if there is an incident there can be no solidarity amongst the guards.In places where escape would be easy, there is barbed-wire fencing and booby traps, but normally the prisoners are caught by the guards before they get that far. The fact that the prisoners rarely even get close to these traps is a testament to how well the guards watch over the prison.Another factor that makes escape difficult is the rugged terrain.If an inmate is discovered trying to escape, he or she is indiscriminately killed by the guards. Sometimes inmates are apprehend and publicly executed in order to deter the rest of the camp’s prisoners.
If you are incarcerated in a prison camp in North Korea, you forfeit not only your rights as a citizen of the country, but your basic rights as a human being. You are made into nothing more than a tool of production. Citizenship is confiscated, food or living supplies are taken away, and the rights to vote and receive education are abolished.
Inside the prison camps people cannot give birth or get married. Any connection with the outside world is not allowed nor are any visitors allowed to visit.Also, a person’s family cannot know a prisoner’s whereabouts.
In a North Korean political prison camp the day starts at 5:30 in the morning with breakfast and work preparations.After preparations are complete, security guards and work mangers take a roll call.The inmates are divided into 5 person teams and each team has its own quota to fill. Work normally goes until 9:00 at night.Lunch is from 12:00 to 1:00 in the afternoon.There are times when the inmates eat nothing but rice from the fields and broth for several days in a row. Some even have to bring balls of corn and rice themselves for their meal.The inmates take the corn they are provided and crush it until it is as small as a grain of rice, that corn along with side dishes, wild greens and salt it what most inmates depend on for food most days.In the areas where devout religious inmates live, their share of food is inadequate.For one day they receive only 360 grams of corn and salt.Meat or plant oil is never provided.
Operational negligence leads to 90 grams being deducted from the food supply, and because of this most inmates are so hungry they eat leftover pig or cow food.In really bad circumstances, inmates will wash and eat corn or beans from cow dung.
According to Kang Chul Hwan and An Hyuck’s testimony, political prisoners who live in these camps for one year lose 15kg do to malnutrition.In An Hyuck’s case, he went from 75kg to 38kg in just two years.This is why nothing is thrown away, and in order to strength their frail bodies, people even catch and eat frogs, snakes, and rats
Religious people in these camps mostly live in the barracks and live a communal life style.Families live in houses made of mud, board and straw.There is a lot of dust in these houses because they are made of mud.The roofs are made with straw laid on wood planks, and on the floors a mat made from the bark of a tree is spread out.So, if it rains, the roof leaks, and in winter the house does not stay warm.
There is not enough fuel in these camps, so apart from the kitchen stove there is no fuel for anything else.Therefore, in the winter it is not uncommon for whole families to gather in one place and rub their bodies together for warmth.On cold days people do freeze to death.Also, people drink water straight from the tap, river, and stream so water-borne diseases are common.
The supply of clothing is also inadequate.For the period of internment, one set of padded clothes discarded by the military is provided per family.One pair of work clothes is provided every 3 years, but if you are religious, you have to wear the same clothes you were brought in until the day you are released.One pair of work shoes is given every six months, and one pair of winter shoes is given every 5 years.Socks and underclothes are never provided.In the winter people try to warm up their face, arms and legs by wrapping themselves with different material, but some still get frostbite and have to amputate their toes.
While inmates suffer various disease like pneumonia, tuberculosis and pellagra due to malnutrition and hard labor, but they are all forced to work without exception. There is a hospital inside the camp where an inmate works as nurse. The inmates who are deemed not workable anymore are sent there; however, since there is neither doctor nor medicine to cure them, they are just quarantined and left alone.
Another noteworthy matter on human rights violations inside the camp is massacre. According to the testimony of Ahn Myeong Cheol, in October of 1986, at the 12th Political Prison Camp in Onsong, North Hamkyong, political prisoners rebelled against the authorities. The National Security Agency sent one battalion of guards to quell the uprising, and five thousand or so men and women, including the rebel participants, were killed.
Those who were arrested while trying to escape because of the suffering or those who resisted or beat the guards were hanged or shot publicly before other inmates. If there is a public execution, all inmates are gathered at 10:00 AM and the executed body is buried without a trace in a nearby mountain. While the execution is carried out, security guards are heavily armed and watching the inmates to prevent a rebellion by the inmates who are outraged by the public execution.
Right now, hundreds of thousands of people are living in continuation of such suffering and we must do everything possible to bring freedom and love to those people.