The Hidden Gulag Second Edition (2012)
WITNESS: Ms. Ji Hae-nam, Kyo-hwa-so No. 1, Kaechon South Pyongyang Province (July 1993-September 1995)
Ms. Ji Hae-nam was born in 1949 in Namun-ri, Hamhung City, South Hamgyong province. At one point, she worked as a Korean Workers’ Party propaganda cadre, visiting factories to explain party policy and exhort factory workers, sometimes through patriotic work songs, to meet their production quotas. But after the 13th Party Congress in 1989, her faith in the Party began to waver. A decade of hardship began shortly thereafter.
At the time, a North Korean TV show mocking former South Korean President Park Chunghee featured one of Park’s concubines singing an apparently popular South Korean pop song, “Don’t Cry for Me, Younger Sister (Hong-do). Ms. Ji was taken with the song and its melody and memorized it. On a lunar calendar holiday coinciding with Christmas day, December 25, 1992, Ji and four other women had an evening song party in Hamju-kun, South Hamgyong province. At this party, she taught the song to the other women. Overheard by neighbors, she was reported to the authorities, and arrested for singing a South Korean song. First, Ji was taken to the An-jeon-bu (People’s Safety Agency) jail in Hamju-kun for fifteen days, and then to the An-jeon-bu police jail in Myungchon-kun, North Hamgyong province. During her pre-trial detention, she was beaten and sexually abused by a detention-facility guard. Mortified at her mistreatment by the young guard, who was in his early twenties, Ji tried to commit suicide by swallowing pieces of cement.
The other four women at the song party were sentenced to eight months of forced labor. During the investigation of Mrs. Ji’s role as the song leader, the charge of falsifying documents to get more food rations was added to the charge of “disrupting the socialist order”—“Article fifty-something,” she recalls. She was sentenced to three years of rehabilitation-through-labor at the woman’s prison Kyo-hwa-so No. 1 at Kaechon, South Pyongan province (for her Testimony about No. 1, see below).
After serving two years and two months of her three-year sentence, in September 1995, Mrs. Ji, along with fifty other “light crime” prisoners, was released on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation. She returned to Hamju-kun, but as a former prisoner, felt that doors were closed to her. As the economy deteriorated, she was unable to make ends meet as a peddler and resorted to selling her blood at transfusion centers. Hungry and disillusioned about her future prospects, she fled to China in September 1998, but she was almost immediately caught by a trafficker and sold to a physically deformed Chinese man who locked her up as a “sex toy” for seven months before she was able to escape. She then made her way to Weihai, where she worked in a restaurant and saved what little money she could. She eventually teamed up with six other North Koreans in China and stole a boat to try to get to South Korea by sea, but the engine broke down. The boat filled with water on rough seas and had to be towed back to shore by Chinese fishermen. Shortly thereafter, Ji and her fellow Korean escapees stole another boat and again set out to sea, but this boat was intercepted by the authorities and the amateur sailors turned them over to Chinese border guards.
Taken to the Dandong detention center in China, Mrs. Ji was forcibly repatriated to North Korea and sent to the Bo-wi-bu (National Security Agency) police jail in Sinuiju, where there were twenty-five women and thirty men—all tal-buk-ja(“escaped North persons”). While in this Bo-wibu jail, she was beaten with broomsticks, forced to kneel for hours at a time, and made to do the “stand-up-sit-down” exercise to the point of collapse, usually after thirty to forty minutes. Some of the younger women were kept in solitary confinement and sexually abused, Ji reports. After a month, she was sent to the Sinuiju jip-kyul-so (detention center). But a week later on December 25, 1999, she was released as part of a larger pardon for persons repatriated from China.
Fearing she would be constantly watched and possibly re-arrested, Ji made her way to Musan. In January 2000, she crossed the frozen Tumen River back into China. This time, her luck turned. She found work in a company managed by a South Korean. She then met a South Korean pastor who assisted a group of North Korean refugees, including Ji, in making their way to South Korea. The group went from Weihai to Beijing to Kunming in southern China. Caught by the Chinese police near the Vietnam border, they successfully passed themselves off as Korean-Chinese and walked overnight over a mountain path into Vietnam. By train, by motorbike, and on foot they made their way down through Southeast Asia and on to Seoul, where they obtained asylum.
During her interview for this report, which lasted all afternoon in a human rights NGO office in Seoul, Ji spoke in rapid anger as she described the conditions of Kyo-hwa-soNo. 1 at Kaechon. She laughed as she recounted her misadventures on the high seas in stolen, leaky boats that had almost no chance of actually crossing the West Sea (also called the Yellow Sea) to South Korea. And she fought back tears as she referred to the sexual harassments and violations she endured in custody and as a trafficked person. For the last question of the interview, the KoreanEnglish translator asked Mrs. Ji if she ever again sang the song, “Don’t Cry for Me, Hongdo.” Straightaway she replied, “Oh yes, and now without fear.”
Kyo-hwa-so No. 1, Kaechon, South Pyongan Province
Surrounded by a 4-meter (13-foot) wall topped with barbed wire, Kyo-hwa-so No. 1 held roughly 1,000 women prisoners who made clothing and leather goods during Ji’s imprisonment. (Shortly before her arrival, hundreds of women had been transferred to another prison, she was told by other inmates.) The prisoners were divided into nine work divisions and smaller work units. Two work divisions made shoes and leather bags. Men from another prison were brought in to prepare the leather. As the leatherwork was the worst work, it was the repeat offenders and prison rule-breakers—some seventy to eighty women—who were assigned to the leather divisions. Ji’s offense was essentially political, but many other prisoners had been convicted of theft, fraud, murder, adultery, and prostitution.
While most women worked in sewing lines, other work units were organized for cooking, construction, cleaning, maintenance, farming outside the prison compound, and a mobile “day-labor unit.” Each work unit was given a production quota that required hard, fast work. Talking was not allowed on the sewing lines, and “on a daily basis,” the women guards or wardens would kick or beat women prisoners who worked too slowly in front of the other prisoners. Minor rule-breakers were given less desirable jobs or reduced rations. Worse offenders were placed in tiny punishment cells where they were unable to lie down or stand up.
Working hours were from eight in the morning until six in the evening, followed by hour-and-a half unit-wide self-criticism sessions, both saeng-hwal-chong-hwa (daily-life criticism) and sang-ho-bi-pan (mutual criticism). There were incentives and rewards for the prisoners to spy and tattle on each other, and the prisoners did so. According to Ji, the theory of the prison was that with their strength and spirit broken by hard labor, the prisoners would repent through self-criticism and change their way of thinking.
The most salient characteristic of this prison was the inadequate food rations. Each day, prisoners were given a palm-sized ball of cornmeal and some cabbage-leaf soup. According to Ji, seventy percent of the prisoners suffered from malnutrition, and during her two years of imprisonment, a fifth of the prisoners—namely those without nearby families to bring them extra food—died of starvation and malnutrition-related disease.
*Reprinted from The Hidden Gulag Second Edition (2012), pp. 100-103.