WITNESS AND TESTIMONY: Kim Yong, Kwan li-so No. 14 (1995-1996)
Kim Yong was born in 1950 in Hwanghae province. When he was seven years old, unbeknownst to him at the time, his father and older brother were accused of spying for the United States and executed. To spare him the collective guilt attributed by North Korean officials to the families of political wrongdoers, Kim’s mother placed him in an orphanage under a false name. Kim grew up to become the Korean equivalent of a lieutenant colonel in the Bo-wi-bu (National Security Agency) police. Like other military departments and security police units, his unit set up income-generating businesses, and Kim became a vice president in the Sohae (West Sea) Trading Company, which operated three fishing vessels, exporting flounder and sole to Japan. As a hard-currency earner for the regime, Kim had access to foreign currency, goods and culture, and a chauffeur driven car.
Unfortunately, Kim’s true parentage was discovered, quite by accident, after someone else turned up bearing his assumed name. He was arrested and interrogated for three months at the Maram Bo-wi-bu detention/interrogation facility in the Yongsong district of Pyongyang and at another Bo-wi-bu jail, called Moonsu, also in Pyongyang. The torture at Moonsu was particularly severe. Accused of deliberately infiltrating the security service, Kim was forced to kneel for long periods with a wooden bar placed behind and between his knees and calves. He was suspended by his handcuffed wrists from his prison-cell bars, and he was submerged up to his waist for long periods in tanks filled with cold water.
In 1995 and part of 1996, Kim Yong was imprisoned in Kwan-li-so No. 14 at Kaechon district, South Pyongan province, where he worked in a coal mine. In 1996 he was transferred, he believes through the intervention of his supervisor at his former trading Company, to the adjacent Labor Camp No. 18, located on the other side of the Taedong River, where unbeknownst to Kim Yong, his mother was imprisoned.
At Camp 14, daily meals, according to Kim Yong, were limited to 20-30 kernels of corn and watery cabbage soup. When he first arrived at Kwan-li-so No. 14, he was assigned to coal mining at Mujin II Gang—No. 2 Cutting Face mine entrance. He was shocked by the skinniness and discoloration of the other prisoners, who looked to him like soot-covered stickmen.
For nearly two years, all Kim saw was the inside of mine shafts, and the adjacent barracks, which contained six rooms with fifty persons per room sleeping on three tiers of wooden bunks. Fortunately, as this was a coal mine, the barracks were heated. Next to the barracks was an eating room/washroom, a sawmill, and a pumping station. The mining work was divided among tunneling/digging teams, loaders, tracklayers, railcar operators, and sawmill workers. The leader of Kim’s tunneling team was a former major general, Kim Jae-keun, who had been purged and sent to Kwan-li-so 14 for having sided with Kim Il-sung’s stepbrother Kim Pyong-il against the succession of Kim Jong-il.
Men and women were segregated from each other. In fact, the only time Kim saw women during his two years of imprisonment at Camp 14 was when all the workers were taken outside the mine area for road construction.
In Kim Yong’s section of Camp 14, guards executed some twenty-five prisoners. In one execution, a prisoner by the name of Kim Chul-min was executed for collecting, without authorization, ripe chestnuts that had fallen to the ground from a tree at the mine entrance. Another hunger-crazed prisoner, Kal Li-yong, died after having his mouth smashed by a feces-covered stick for having stolen a leather whip, which he soaked in water and then ate the softened leather.
More prisoners died of malnutrition and disease than from execution, and even more died from accidents in the mines.
*Reprinted from The Hidden Gulag Second Edition (2012), pp. 51-53.