FORMER PRISONER TESTIMONY
hrnk'S REPORTS INCLUDE TESTIMONY FROM OVER 60 FORMER NORTH KOREANS. HERE WE HIGHLIGHT THE TESTIMONY OF FORMER PRISONERS IN NORTH KOREA'S PRISON CAMPS.
Kim Young-soon defected from North Korea in 2003, after being held in a prison camp as a political prisoner for 10 years. I talked about her story today; it's one that is similar to the horrific experiences of tens of thousands of North Korean political prisoners
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.
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-jang detention 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.
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-so No. 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.