The Hidden Gulag Second Edition (2012)
WITNESS: Mrs. Bang Mi-sun, Kyo-hwa-so No. 15 Hamhung, South Hamgyong Province, (June 2000-December 2001)
Born in Musan County, North Hamgyong province in 1954, Mrs. Bang’s husband, a miner by profession, died of starvation during the mid- 1990s famine in North Korea. Unable to maintain communications with a daughter who was studying dance and acting in Pyongyang, and fearful of losing the rest of her family to famine or disease, Mrs. Bang fled to China in 1998 with her nineteen year old daughter and sixteen year old son. Apprehended by a gang of traffickers who threatened to turn over her children to the Chinese police for repatriation to North Korea, Mrs. Bang agreed to a “brokered marriage” and was sold to a handicapped Chinese farmer for 7,000 Chinese yuan (roughly US $1,000).
Shortly thereafter, while her “husband” was out in the field, she was kidnapped by another gang of traffickers and sold a second time. She ran away but was again apprehended by traffickers who sold her “like livestock” she says for a third time to a thirty-four year old bachelor who was still living with his parents. He demanded that Mrs. Bang, then forty-eight years old, bear him a child, a prospect she thought preposterous to begin with. She told her third “husband” that she had received an intra-uterine contraceptive device in North Korea following the birth of her third child. Her “husband” and his friends held her, spread-eagled on the floor, while a “doctor” of some sort “rolled up his sleeves” and manually removed the “ring.” Bleeding profusely she became infected, and could not walk or stand up. She spent a month on the floor recovering, mostly in tears, she relates, at the “cruelty and shamefulness” that enveloped her.
Upon recovery, she again ran away to the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture in Yanji province in China to search for her children. But this time she was caught by the Chinese police during an identity card check in Nampyon. She was forcibly repatriated back to North Korea into the custody of the Musan county Bo-wi-bu State Security Agency police.
Musan Bo-wi-bu Interrogation/Detention Facility (October 1999)
At the Musan Bo-wi-bu ku-ryu-jangdetention facility in October of 1999, there were some thirty detainees, mostly women, and perhaps ten men. The women detainees were required to strip naked with their hands tied behind their backs, and do the “sit-down/stand-up/ run-around” exercises in front of female guards in order to dislodge valuables that may have been hidden in vaginal or rectal cavities. During interrogation she was asked the usual questions: “Where, why, and how did she get to China?” “Did she meet any Christians or South Koreans? Did she see South Korean movies or TV?” After three days of questioning, she convinced her interrogators that her “border crossing,” occasioned by the starvation of her husband, was innocent of political motivations or implications.
Musan An-jeon-bu Ro-dong-dan-ryeon-dae Mobile Labor Brigade (November–December 1999)
It was deemed a serious offence, nonetheless, as she had taken her children with her. So she was taken to the Musan County An-jeon-bu (People’s Safety Agency) ro-dong-dan-ryeon-dae labor-training center, a mobile labor brigade, where she was held for two months in November and December 1999. Upon arrival there was more of the sit-down/stand-up/run-around routine. At that time in this labor training center, the detainees, constituting an unpaid, corvee labor force, were tasked with preparing fields for farming in the spring. As at many of the labor training centers, the detainees either jogged or marched briskly to and from their work sites, often singing patriotic “praise songs” to the Great General, Kim Jong-il. Still weak from her vaginal ring removal infections, Mrs. Bang was unable to keep up. Falling down, a guard beat her on the head and leg with a wooden stave. Her leg became infected to the bone, a kind of osteomyelitis resulting in deep scars, which caused her to limp pronouncedly ten years later.
Musan An-jeon-bu Pretrial Detention Ku-ryu-jang (January–June 2000)
Following treatment at a local hospital, in January 2000, she was taken to the Musan county An-jeon-bu People’s Safety Agency detention center (ku-ryu-jang), where she was detained six months awaiting trial for “border crossing.” Most of her fellow detainees were also held for “border crossing.” This detention center was built in a semi-circle of ten cells—six for women and four for men—that could easily be monitored by guards at the center point. The small cells were crowded to the point of overflowing. Mrs. Bang felt that she might suffocate. Prisoners were required to sit motionless for days on end, with prisoners forced to hit other prisoners who moved, even a little.
Forced Abortion and Violence against Women
In early 2002, at Musan An-jeon-bu, there was a group of ten pregnant women who were going to be taken to the local hospital to abort their “half-Chinese” babies. One twenty-one year old, who was seven months pregnant, refused to go to the hospital to give up the baby growing inside her. The guards put her on the floor on her back and placed a board over her swollen womb, and pistol-whipped two male prisoners until they agreed to jump up and down on the board. After five minutes or so, the baby was aborted, and the woman was taken to the hospital where she died. Mrs. Bang learned of her death when she was taken to the hospital for more treatments for her infected leg.
Mrs. Bang was brought to trial at the Musan-kun (county) Court. Eight men sat behind a long table. Two or three were dressed in Kim Jong-il style jump suits, the others in regular shirts and jackets. Using An-jeon-bu-prepared paperwork, the man in the center of the long table read the charges against her: illegal border crossing and taking other persons (her children) with her across the border. Another man asked her if the charges were true. She was told that one of the eight men was her lawyer, but she did not know which one he was, though she believes it was the one who asked her if the charges were correct. She was sentenced to five years at the women’s Ro-dong Kyo-hwa-so labor penitentiary No.15 near Hamhung, South Hamgyong province, minus the time already served in her various pretrial detentions. Her trial took ten minutes.
Kyo-hwa-so No. 15 Near Hamhung, South Hamgyong Province (June 2000–December 2001)
A prison farm located in Sungwon-ri, Hyesan district, South Hamgyong not far from the industrial city of Hamhung, Penitentiary No. 15 held some five hundred women organized into five groups (ban) of prison laborers. Group 1 grew vegetables. Groups 2 and 3 grew corn. Group 4 cut wood. And Group 5 did construction and repair. At the time of her entry in June 2000, the prison was still under construction, and her dormitory cell was covered only in tree branches. When it rained, they all got wet. Upon entry she turned in her civilian clothes and was given old clothes from former prisoners and prisoners who had died. Mrs. Bang was in Group 3. There were fifty-three women in her group, ranging in ages from twenty-one to seven. Most were in their thirties or forties. Four-fifths of the women in her group were there for “illegal border crossing.” The same held true for the entire prison, where, according to Mrs. Bang, only some ten percent were incarcerated for “ordinary crimes.”
The prison day began, except in the dead of winter, at 4:30 AM, with farm work from 5:00 to 9:00 AM; breakfast from 9 to 9:30 AM; farm work from 9:30 AM to 12:30 PM; lunch from 12:30 to 1:30 PM; farm work from 1:30 to 7:00 PM; 7 to 10PM “re-education” and mutual self-criticism, which could result in reduced food rations if the criticism of prison work was severe. The “education” utilized a prison newspaper that carried stories of the Great General Kim Jong-il, stories about exemplary Korean Workers’ Party members, about prisoners who were doing well on the outside upon release, and stories about model prisoners currently in the penitentiary.
Without variation, each meal consisted of fourteen beans per meal mixed with powdered corn. For the year and one-half she was detained (before early release), she was always hungry. Her body constantly craved salt and protein. After one month she was reduced to “skin and bones”—her body weight dropped from fifty four to forty kilos (roughly 119 to 88 lbs.). Her skin turned black and wrinkled. Like other women, while doing farm work, she constantly searched for snakes, frogs, and insects that could be eaten raw. The women prisoners constantly tried to hide seeds and food in their clothing. The prison guards constantly searched under their clothes for hidden food, with kickings or beatings with rifle butts when hidden food was found. Out of her work group of fifty three persons, ten women died during the year and one-half remained at Women’s Penitentiary No. 15. It was the same, she said, for the other Work Groups.
Fearful of reduced food rations, Mrs. Bang worked as hard as she could, but with her damaged leg she could hardly bend over to work the short handled hoe. After five months she could not move her leg. So she was confined to the dorm cell, blanket-less, where her leg wounds continued to fester. She did sewing for the prison guards to avoid beatings for not working. A year later, on October 10, the anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party, she was told that because she had observed prison rules and because of the Great General’s grace (eunhye), she was granted amnesty.
Upon release, she went back to Musan to recover at the home of her deceased husband’s parents. In March, a Korean-Chinese man came to the house looking for her. During the time of her post-repatriation imprisonment, her son had made it from Yanbian China to South Korea. Using his government resettlement grant and employment income, he hired a Korean-Chinese agent to search for his mother, and bring her to Seoul. Mrs. Bang could not yet walk, but with her son’s money she bought food and medicine to restore her health. By October, she was able to travel. On October 27, she bribed a border guard and crossed again into China. In November 2003, she sought refuge in the South Korean Embassy in Beijing. On January 8, 2004 she came to Seoul. At the Hanawon orientation center for North Korean refugees newly resettled in South Korea, she met another defector whom she married. Reunited with her children, she now lives just outside Seoul with her new husband. She is hoping to form an NGO to assist North Korean women trafficked in China.
*Reprinted from The Hidden Gulag Second Edition (2012), pp. 93-98.