Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here
To the best extent anyone knows, the gates above North Korea’s notorious gulags or kwalliso do not have the words “Arbacht Macht Frei (Work makes you free)” as the one above Auschwitz did, or, as we see at the entrance to hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the admonition “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”
No, the gates of North Korea’s gulag archipelago—which imprison an estimated 200,000 men, women, and children, including nursing infants at any given time—don’t have these inscriptions, but they may as well. For the authorities will work you hard, and the “freedom” this brings is almost certain death. Indeed, for most inmates, there is no hope of seeing the outside ever again. There is where you will die.
Percentage wise, 200,000 souls out of a nation of 24 million people roughly equals the percentage of incarcerated American citizens, which is also slightly less than 1 percent.
The difference, however, is that North Korea’s prison population figures include many who have no idea why they are there. They were taken in the middle of the night with no explanation and ended up here. No arraignment, no trial, only the confusing question, “What did I do?” It includes people whose only crime was singing songs they didn’t know can’t be sung. It includes people whose only crime was being careless at a café.
As implied above, it also includes people whose only crime was being related to an accused criminal. They also include children who innocently made an ignorant remark in second grade.
Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is that our system does not experience an estimated 20-40 percent annual mortality rate. And yet even with 40,000-80,000 inmates dying each year through starvation and other, much worse ways, the population in the kwalliso (pro. “kwah-lee-soh”) stays steady at 200,000. They have to. These camps are a critical piece in the totalitarianism puzzle that allows the Kim dynasty—the first dynasty in the history of communism—to stay in power.
History of the kwalliso
At the conclusion of the Korean Conflict (1950-53), Kim Il Sung, founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), initiated a series of brutal purges to weed out both potential rivals and any who would actively question his vision or decisions.
By the late 1950s, most of those swept up in these internecine conflicts were either dead or in concentration camps. These institutions were not what North Koreans have today, however. Instead, they were a more classic version of the concept. That is, their purpose simply was to segregate those who could undermine the regime by “infecting” the general population.
By 1958, however, Kim had decided this was not enough. So much did he fear any dissent in the “Hermit Kingdom” (so-called because of its utter isolation), that he ordered a complete ideological profile worked up on every one of his nation’s 9,864,000 people.
Every friend, every family member, their ancestry, their family’s connections, their family’s extended family’s connections, their connections’ connections, each relationship was studied. Anything in one’s background providing suspicion of having imperialist, reactionary, or counter-revolutionary relations or tendencies was grounds for torture and then execution or imprisonment.
To effect this, Kim’s internal security apparatus developed an almost unfathomably intricate spy network, one as interwoven as a spider’s web. The government hired one resident spy—called a “guidance worker”—for every five households. The State pays these people to monitor everything their neighbors do, whom they see, who are their friends, their tastes, how they spend their leisure time, and, most importantly, what they say.
Many a North Korean citizen has found security agents at their door late at night because of something they flippantly said, a passing comment, one which they probably don’t even remember having made. In the Nation that Tyranny Made, no detail was too trivial.
Imagine the stress this would put on you, the never-ending stress from having to mind every word emanating from your mouth, and the utter self-control necessary to do so. How many of us could do this?
And the regime felt it had no choice. In a country where outright dissent is forbidden, ideological enemies will invent more subtle means of protest.
For instance, one very likely innocent man was arrested after visiting a cafe. His crime? He had placed his glass on top of a magazine, the cover of which featured a photo of the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung’s son. His glass’ condensation dribbled onto the paper, leaving a mark on the despot’s face. The man probably hadn’t even noticed. However, what if this was the only way to dissent this man thought he had open to him?
Thus if the guidance worker detects even the slightest trace of what might be ideological deviance, the suspect then receives a late night/early morning visit from the Ministry of Social Safety. If guilt is determined—there is no trial, for the DPRK courts assume guilty unless compelling evidence overturns that foregone conclusion—he and the entire family are taken away. They only bring the clothes they wear.
The next day, cadres, first the senior ones and then their subordinates, come and pick clean the family home. First, from their standpoint, why not? Depending on the sentence, the odds of anyone returning to this dwelling are infinitesimally small. Second, by virtue of the state believing they are criminals, they have automatically become non-persons. Therefore, they have forfeited the few rights they had to begin with.
The grip of paranoia metastasizing within Kim that motivated this hyper-Stalinism came in concert with his ambitious son’s coming of age and proving himself unquestionably loyal to his father and his vision. Believing, therefore, that he had a reliable partner with whom he could move forward, the elder Kim, or “Great Leader” as he was called, determined to move beyond dossiers.
Thus in 1964, the same year the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK) Congress rubber-stamped the Citizens Re-registration Project into law. This allowed the government to divide the population into songbun (essentially castes) of three classes, with 51 categories spread across those.
Using the ideological profiles the nation had compiled since 1958, security apparatchiks divvied persons between the three songbun. In what is hailed as a “worker’s paradise” where all are equal, they based these delineations primarily on conduct and, even more importantly, family.
For instance, say someone had a great grandfather once served as a police officer during the time Japan ruled Korea as a colony from 1910-35. That makes the ancestor a collaborator. One could give no trust to such a person or his descendents, even if the living had never known the dead.
The same is true for Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic. If the ancestor or even immediate family member had been a pastor, elder, lay catechist, or anything similar, the Christians would likely face execution. If found with a Bible or the like, there would typically be no “likely” about it. The only question at that point would be whether to make the execution public or private.
One’s songbun, therefore, determines everything in your life, from whether you can attend university or are made to find work after high school regardless of intelligence and potential, to the jobs open to you, to opportunities for advancement in the military, for once an ideological criminal, always an ideological criminal.
This explains why the regime imprisons whole families. Kim Jong Il believed the nation must “root out class enemies for three generations.” His father fancied himself a poet and so put it somewhat more eloquently. He urged the nation to “desiccate the seedlings of counter-revolution. Pull them out by their roots. Exterminate every last one of them.”
This idea evidently took root, for, according to Judith Klinghofer in a 2005 piece for Frontpage magazine, “former guards admit that so sure were they that their well-being depend[ed] on cleansing the country of such bad seed, that they felt no mercy murdering mothers and their babies.”
After implementing the songbun system, the regime gave the labor camps a major overhaul. Until the late 1960s, the kwalliso weren’t pleasure camps, but they weren’t the hellholes they are at present. Again, their purpose was to remove the “infection” revisionists would otherwise unleash upon those struggling, ever struggling to make the nation the socialist utopia its leaders were always promising was just around the corner if only they would exert themselves just that much more.
So with dossiers in hand and the guidance workers doing their job so very well, the gulag populations mushroomed. At this point, Kim Il Sung and his son were likely faced with a decision: 1) They could spend additional resources they did not want to on building labor camps for people they considered vermin; or 2) they could ramp up the harsh treatment meted out on these persons. This would shorten their life spans and thus continue to free up room for the never ending flood of prisoners.
They chose the latter route.
This also had the added effect of inducing in the citizenry an even greater sense of this already pervasive Orwellian sense that, “Big Brother is watching you.” No one could trust anyone.
As a result, the gulags have become indispensable to the regime. “North Korea can’t exist without the prison camps,” says Suzanne Scholte, chairwoman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition (NKFC). “The most important thing North Korea needs is a means to frighten its people.”
For instance, the already very wary Christians took to meeting in ever smaller groups and began to not catechize their children. After all, what if a young child innocently spoke about what their family had taught them? By the time the children attained adolescence and the capacity for more discretion, they might already be wearing the red scarves and Kim Il Sung badges sported by the Young Pioneers, the child’s division of the WPK’s Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League. Like the guidance assistants, these young people are taught to report any suspicion of bourgeois activity, even by their own parents.
What it takes to get your own personal ticket to hell
Of course, a crime against the proletariat doesn’t have to be a religious one or one that is blatantly counter-revolutionary. In a land where malfeasance is in eye of the totalitarian beholder, a young lady named Ji Hae-nam received a three year sentence after a neighbor reported her for singing a South Korean pop song.
Lee Soon-ok was a procurement specialist. When she would not put aside extra goods for a manager’s personal use, he framed her for embezzling state property, and she received a 13-year sentence. Luckily, she survived, probably because she received one of the surprise amnesties the government sometimes gives in honor of, say, Kim Il Sung’s birthday.
Starving people who sneak into China simply for work or food will also serve time if repatriated. And, of course, the prisons also hold your garden variety rapists, thieves, murders, and other bona fide criminals.
Additionally, the camps hold some who once counted themselves amongst the country’s top leadership. In addition to whatever humanitarian offenses they may have committed for the regime, their more fatal crime was to come out on the losing side of some power struggle.
Then there are those such as Sgt. Son Jang-nam, who served in the presidential security service. When his pregnant wife came due in 1997, authorities arrested her for saying Kim Jong Il had caused the famine then rocking the country. So badly did her interrogators beat her, she miscarried.
The next year, the couple defected, where a Protestant group evangelized Jang-nam. His wife had since died from disease, and so inspired by his newfound faith, Son snuck back into his native land. However, authorities caught him with 20 Bibles and some tracts. After giving a torture-induced confession, the state executed him four years ago this November.
If a relative runs afoul of the regime, you will pay. One man, his pregnant wife, and son were imprisoned when the father’s brothers defected to the south during the Korean Conflict. Neither the imprisoned man nor his wife (and certainly not the children) had ever done a thing wrong. All but the baby boy born in the camp died of ill treatment or execution. That the boy survived is almost miraculous.
There is also the case of the late Hwang Jang Yop, who served as a top aide to the deceased Kims. It was he who took juche (loosely translated as self-reliance) from a seedling of an idea to the fully formed if tragically flawed philosophy that has governed the DPRK for over 50 years. When he became North Korea’s highest ranking defector ever in 1997, the regime imprisoned his entire family, even mere relatives.
The different types of camps
Once sentenced, the government sends you to one of several types of camps.
For instance, Camp No. 15 at Yodok is divided into two parts. The first is called the “total control” zone. It is reserved for those who come under the heading of “politically unreliable” (e.g., Korean returnees from Japan who the DPRK government actually enticed to come home with promises of a worker’s paradise). It also holds those convicted of so-called “anti-regime” crimes such as practicing Christianity. From here, there is no return. Convicts will only leave the total control zone in a white sheet en route to a shallow grade on a nearby mountain.
Those who commit lesser political crimes get put into the camp’s “revolutionary zone” where they undergo reeducation.
Camp No. 22 at Haengyong, which is the size of Washington, DC, mixes the regime’s fallen elite and their families with the sort of criminal one would find anywhere. There is one difference, however. The former’s living conditions are worse.
Conditions in the kwalliso, part 1: The guards
After you go through the tall, electric, and barbed wire gates, and as you get off the bus, the first thing that is made immediately evident is the absolute power of the guards. There are no limits on what they can do to you.
For example, they can and usually will brutally beat you each day. One report said that some prisoners have been beaten so badly an eyeball popped from their heads. Most people, however, come away with merely broken bones or maimed in some lesser way. Of course, there’s nothing that says malice more than having salt literally rubbed into a wound, which is precisely what guards will sometimes do.
Your age doesn’t matter, either, because you could be an aged person or a small child. You will still get beaten or at the very least tormented.
The guards might make you do 300 squats. They could handcuff you, lay you down, and stomp on the handcuffs. There are also finger cuffs that go around the thumbs, which make the fingers swell with exquisite pain.
Then there is the ever popular pigeon torture, where an inmate’s hands are bound to each other and then the feet are bound to each other. Both knots then are then hung high on a single peg. The individual will then spend the next three days to a week suspended like that.
Once, two starving children went scavenging for food in the garbage pond. A guard caught them, and since “stealing” food is punishable by death, he shoved both in with his boots. As neither could swim, both boys drowned.
One man found a guard’s ox tail whip, boiled it, and had begun eating it when the guard discovered him. In his fury, the guard beat this fellow, dragged him to the latrine, and forced him to pick out and then eat the intestinal worms there. This fellow died two days later.
Another time, a starving, malnourished, old man driving a coal trolley noticed some chestnuts that had dropped onto the tracks. He jumped down and had grabbed just one when a guard shot him for “stealing.” Ironically, the old man’s death caused a melee. Noticing the chestnuts, other inmates made a mad dash for them, piling on top of one another and fighting over the few they could find.
Then again, beating, shooting people, and such gets so old hat after a while, don’t you agree? We can only imagine that it was for variety’s sake that some guards pulled out all of one woman’s nails, crushed all her lower teeth, and poured a gruel of boiling water and hot chilies into her nostrils.
After his escape, a gentleman testified that following one particularly memorable thrashing from the guards, they bound him and roasted his bleeding flesh over hot flames.
Another man was chained by the neck to the back of a truck and pulled along for miles. A little boy no older than seven received such a hard kick in the head, he lost consciousness. Neither lived.
In a manner reminiscent of the martyrdom of St. Lorenzo Ruiz, gaolers forced one woman to drink unheard of amounts of water. The fullness of her abdomen caused her excruciating agony. Then the guards placed boards across her stomach and jumped onto them. This painfully forced water from practically every orifice in her body.
While on the one hand, most would never think of doing this even to the worst of animals, most have never been indoctrinated as these men have, either. From day one of their training, they learn these criminals no longer qualify as human persons. Rather, once they go through that gate, these poor souls become “just tailless beasts.” Furthermore, after a while, the non-stop violence just desensitizes these jailers.
“At the beginning I was frightened when I witnessed it, but it was repeated again and again, so my feelings were paralyzed,” says Ahn Myong Chol, a former guard at Camp No. 22. Moreover, “beating and killing prisoners was not only tolerated, it was encouraged and even rewarded.”
They trained me not to treat the prisoners as human beings. If someone is against socialism, if someone tries to escape from prison, then kill him. If there’s a record of killing any escapee, then the guard will be entitled to study in the college. Because of that some guards kill innocent people.
During his training, Ahn’s teachers also told his class, “Camp No. 13 is the site of the class struggle where evil sectarians [i.e., Christians] who have betrayed our beloved leader and the party are sent with their children... They are so wicked that if you take pity on them, they will smile in your face and then stab you in the back. So you must not think of them as humans... Your duty is to show no mercy in oppressing them and to guard the camp so that not a single prisoner escapes. And if any of them try to rebel or escape, it is your duty to kill them.”
When Ahn was stationed at the now-closed Camp No. 13 at Chongsŏng, the guards kept a German shepherd that broke loose, killed, and devoured a toddler girl. The guards who lost control of the animals received kudos for having trained such a ferocious animal.
Guards can also reduce your food allotment. Remember, these are starvation rations to begin with. Imagine having that ration cut back at the same time they increase your work quota. This, too, is within the guards’ authority to do.
Additionally, they can make you kneel and scrape before them, and they can do this just because. This is the level of their supremacy.
That said, the guard’s abuse of power sometimes backfires. At Onsong near the Chinese and Russian borders, there once existed Camp No. 12, one of the largest kwalliso in the system. It housed 15,000 inmates and spanned an estimated 155 square miles.
Sometime in 1987, a coal miner witnessed one guard’s particularly egregious abuse of another inmate. Like a modern day Moses, this prisoner grew enraged, fell upon the gaoler, and killed him. Suddenly 200 prisoners were on the offensive, attacking a guard barracks and gathering to their side 5,000 political prisoners.
In no time at all, however, guards from a neighboring camp encircled the perimeter with machine guns, and within a short while, all 5,200 prisoners were dead. The camp was soon thereafter leveled to the ground, and all further mention of it became prohibited.
Conditions in the kwalliso, part 2: Orientation
Now that you understand the pecking order, it is time to get you a new set of prison clothes. Only, these clothes aren’t new. Indeed, they resemble nothing close to new and for a very good reason: They were last worn by your dead predecessors, who probably received them from their predecessors and so on.
The clothes have holes, they are threadbare, patched, and stuffed with rags.
The most problematic aspect of the clothing situation stems from the location of most camps, which is basically between the 40th and 42nd parallels. The DPRK, therefore, is on the same latitude as places such as Detroit, Boston, Windsor, ON, New York, Buffalo, Cheyenne, WY, Salt Lake City, and Hartford, CT. In other words, places with very cold winters. Except because of the prevailing winds, North Korea is even colder.
The issue this poses for our forgotten friends in the gulags is that few have weather worthy gloves, shoes, or socks, if they have these items at all.
This is why they bury the dead naked. It is so someone can wear the clothes they leave behind. It is why if someone next to you dies in the night or at your work station, you don’t make it your first priority to notify an official. Rather, your first priority is to take their clothes, blankets, and whatever else that will keep you warm.
It is after you strip your dead friend that you see the lice and fleas crawling over their corpse. Yes, it’s disgusting, but what do you expect? First, you probably have the same condition. Second, because there is extremely little if any opportunity to wash your clothing, the dirt and sweat build up and cake. This is especially true if you work with some dusty substance. As a result, your clothes gradually gain the suppleness of a hard board. This causes skin scrapes, and those scrapes get dirt in them and can become infected.
Third, if keeping clothes clean is an issue, keeping your body clean is even more of one since bathing opportunities are infrequent at best. Then there is the problem of when nature calls since there is one toilet for every 200-300 prisoners, and everyone wipes themselves with dried leaves. And don’t think you can hold it in until the line dies down or that you will go later. You go when you are told or allowed to go.
As one former inmate put it, “There are so many miserable stories… It is not a human world.”
Conditions in the kwalliso, part 3: Living quarters
Next you get to move into your new living quarters. In most places in the Western world, when we think of prison, we think of a lonely or possibly crowded cell, maybe even a dormitory bursting at the seams.
It’s just a little bit different in the kwalliso. First, the rooms are small considering the number of people that must fit into them. Sometimes the camp officials will place 30-100 individuals toe-to-toe in a room that can range between the size of a 10”x 15.5” bedroom and an 18” x 30” room, about the same size as a 2.5 car garage.
Maybe your walls are made of flat timber that allow in the wind, or maybe they’re constructed from dried mud. Your roof is likely made with wood planks topped with straw. The straw can rot, and the roof will leak. Therefore, given all the people crammed into such a small space, and considering the poor hygiene of you and your roommates, and all of this combined in such wet, dark, and cold atmosphere, it is no surprise that lice and fleas are rampant.
Your comfy bed is the floor covered with straw or a bamboo mat or maybe even a wood board with both the straw and mat. Also, that blanket you took off the dead body will come in handy because few of these cozy little homes have any heating, despite the very real possibility of temperatures in this region dropping to -10° F. The question then becomes, how does one get used to frostbite?
It is true that families sentenced together often receive a small ramshackle house if they live in camps where separation of the sexes is not mandatory. However, it is just as true that in some cases, prisoners must burrow holes in the cold, wet ground for their humble home. No doors, no windows, and remember how cold it can get in these places.
I spy …
Besides the comfy living conditions, you also have to get used to something else: Several of your roommates and workmates are spies. The guards will put a certain group under a prisoner’s command or they’ll compel them to snoop on their fellow inmates. Roughly a third of each camp’s inmates have this unfortunate task.
If you complain, they report. If you grumble, they report. If you express a counter-revolutionary thought—probably not hard to do when the “revolution” has been anything but kind to you—they report.
People get frustrated. Unless we have remarkable control, most of us must vent those frustrations. Go ahead, but make sure you do it under your breath so no one will hear you. Because if you’re just audible enough for them to report you, the authorities will place you in a detention house, and the average time spent in one of these hell holes is three months.
What is a detention house? Let’s just say that if you think what has been detailed so far is gruesome and hard to digest, a detention house is just that much worse. It is like a demon frosting on a satan cake. It is just horrific.
Conditions in the kwalliso, part 4: The work day
Once you receive your assignment—timber harvesting, coal mining, shoe making—you might get placed in a first, second, or third degree facility. In third degree facilities, one can marry and have children, although the odds of a child surviving toddlerhood are not strong. Second and first degree facilities largely have total gender segregation, for reasons that will become evident later.
Some places only make you work 12 hours per day. The average work day in most camps, however, lasts 18 hours. It can start at 4:30 a.m. and end after 11:00 p.m.. Need it be said that there is no Sabbath day laid aside for rest?
The days are so long because the quotas each prisoner and their group have to fill are so large. This is a source of the cheapest labor one can get, slave labor. Furthermore, since the state now considers you a non-person and doesn’t care whether you live or die, it will milk your energy and abilities to the last degree possible, even if doing so kills you in the process.
This is why the regime places so much stock on quotas. This is also why prisoners who place any stock in their lives will occasionally sleep at their work station in order to meet the demands imposed upon them. And heaven forbid that you miss your quota or are perceived to be working too slowly. In that case, consider yourself lucky if you only get a beating.
The alternative, as previously noted, is reduced rations. Or it could mean the manager piles more onto your work load. Or both. If they want to execute you without making it look like an execution, it will be both. After all, one can imagine that in an economically struggling nation such as the DPRK, a bullet saved is a bullet earned.
Labor camp officials do not adjust the quotas for the very young. Think back to you own your childhood. If you have any fond memories from your youth, imagine each and every one of them stripped away by the inhuman treatment visited upon you by the guards, by the mind-numbing school work where the only subject are the philosophy and writings of the Great Leader and, increasingly, those of the Dear Leader, his now deceased son.
And for what reason? For your redemption? To give you the odd chance you will do so well in school that this will earn your release and maybe even that of your family? Hardly. The only reason one can surmise is so that you, child, will possibly have a positive (i.e., properly socialist) effect on others. It may also be to guilt you into an appropriate sense of remorse for the perceived crimes committed by someone close to you but for which you must also pay.
Keep those good memories in your mind’s forefront and further imagine them replaced by the authorities’ progressive attempts at robbing you of your human dignity systemic, by their calculated attempts to dehumanize you. Think of them replaced by never ending work. Then for these reasons, think of having not a single day with any of the myriad joys and memories most people have from childhood.
Perhaps yet most perverse is the cruel joke the system typically plays on you, child, is how they expect you to work the earth. Four, five, seven, ten years old, age does not matter for they will often give you no tools to accomplish the task set before you but those God gave you—your hands.
The Aquariums of Pyongyang author Kang Chol Hwan arrived at Yodok at age 9 because the government accused his grandfather of being a Japanese spy. He recounts the following episode:
When I was 10 years old, we were put to work digging clay and constructing a building. And there were dozens of kids, and while digging the ground, it collapsed. And they died. And the bodies were crushed flat. And they buried the kids secretly, without showing their parents, even though the parents came.
Labor camp officials do not adjust the quotas for the aged or chronically ill, either. As one report put it, you must “work until [you] drop—death is [your] only escape.”
Regardless of your situation, any non-essential conversation is strictly forbidden during the work day, nor can groups of any size congregate.
And at the end of your work day, don’t plan on going back to the barracks and falling onto your mat for a well-deserved slumber.
As former prisoner and defector Lee M. put it, “Once their arduous 12 hours has been worked, the children are allowed a one hour break before being herded, along with adult prisoners, into re-education classes where [everyone] sit[s] from 8 pm to 11 pm listening to ‘instructors’ lecture them on the compassion and benevolence of their ‘beloved and radiant Kim Jong Il.’”
Also, you must have a good memory or take excellent notes, for you will be tested. If you cannot quote from memory Kim Il Sung’s instructions, they might not only reduce your food ration but the amount of sleep they allow you.
Conditions in the kwalliso, part 5: The food
Consider that your average meal will include just 50-100 grams of broken corn (roughly equal to a quarter of a pound or 25-30 kernels), the nutritional value of which is about 86 calories. To this will be added some salty water, and, if you’re very lucky, a small cabbage leaf. At most, therefore, you will get at most 300 grams of corn each day and thereby ingest 260 calories. A lady and former prisoner named Kim Hye Sook told BBC Television in June 2011 that she “received 4 kilograms of rice per month, 50 grams, ‘about two small cupfulls.’“
For 11 years, Lee Young-kuk guarded Kim Jong Il. Then in 1988, while Kim Il Sung was still in power, his cousin became Kim’s driver, and protocol did not allow family members to serve Kim at the same in case they might conspire against him. Therefore, he had to leave government employment and moved back home with his parents.
Having seen for over a decade the luxury in which Kim lived (one palace had a wave pool and Kim road the waves on a motor propelled boogie board), and now seeing how things were worse for average people than in 1977, how his parents did not have enough to eat, he grew bitter and entered China. Captured by DPRK security agents and brought back home, he was sentenced to Yodok.
The close of the millennium coincided with the height of North Korea’s famine. During this time, Lee says, “around 20 % of prisoners in Daesuk-ri [one of Yodok’s three “revolutionary zones”] died from malnutrition each year, but new prisoners arrived every month.”
Starvation caused people to take desperate measures to survive. People would capture snakes, mice, fleas, even rats and eat them.
Said one former inmate:
People tried to catch rats using shoes as traps, and then would roast and eat them secretly. What we were feeling was something beyond description as simply hunger. Salt was our only side dish. We ate leaves and grass if they weren’t harmful, putting them in soup.
Furthermore, inmates had to consume these gourmet meals quickly. If they didn’t, and a guard caught them, they might be beaten or killed for “stealing.” As a result, prisoners sometimes ate their prey without cooking them or without even skinning them.
In some prisons, however, the guards actually encouraged the eating and cooking of rats by inmates because this gave them protein and niacin, essential for warding off certain diseases.
Prisoners also eat weeds, grasses, roots, and bark. When times became really desperate and the coast was clear, they would pick corn and beans out of livestock dung.
We cannot attribute the lack of food to the famine alone, for the starvation rations were a feature of the penal colonies from the beginning when North Korea was still a reasonably prosperous nation.
Rather, when prisoners are malnourished, they are weak. When they are weak, they are more easily controlled. Although Kim’s former body guard Mr. Lee had seen many heinous things in his time at Yodok, it never affected him until he saw how the guards killed one failed escapee. “Until then I was so hungry, I couldn’t feel angry,” Lee recalls. “That was the first time I felt rage.”
Add the meager caloric intake to exhausting work, and you have a very complacent prison population.
For the prisoner, it often a no win situation. You may be a compliant prisoner, but because you’re so weak from hunger, you can’t be a productive one. So cut your food by one meal a day. Now your production output is even worse.
Some prisoners in the aforementioned third level facilities and elsewhere use their limited personal time to try and grow potatoes or corn, which can typically thrive in the worst soil conditions. However, the soil in the northern and central parts of the country is so bad, even these crops produce little.
It is true that in some camps, inmates get corn meal and a little animal fat with the Korean national dish kimchi (fermented cabbage). They might even get some cabbage soup. This is still not enough on which to live, and it does not take long for the workers to look quite skeletal. Just in the six months the former bodyguard Mr. Lee underwent interrogation before being sent to Yodok, he dropped from 205 to 120 lbs. Upon entering Yodok, his 4.5 ounce-per-meal diet took his weight down ever further.
Conditions in the kwalliso, part 6: Diseases
After work accidents and starvation, the next biggest killer is disease. When people live in such crowded, unsanitary conditions and have such little food or energy, one’s immune system often takes a holiday, and diseases have a field day. Tuberculosis is common as are a variety of chest conditions such as pneumonia. Many contract lung diseases from constantly inhaling coal and limestone dust, as well as diseases rare in the West such as paratyphoid (often caught from eating or drinking something infected with Salmonella) and pellagra (a disease characterized by skin lesions caused by eating too much nutrient-deficient corn to which women are particularly prone).
For most of these diseases, cures are readily available. Pellagra, for instance, merely requires the introduction of fruits and other vegetables into the diet plus maybe a little brewer’s yeast to make up for corn’s lack of niacin.
Even so simple a remedy, however, or any medical treatment are too good for “tailless beasts.” Fortunately for prisoners, though, camp commandants sometimes grow concerned that they are accruing too many deaths or executions, that they have to slow it down a bit.
Therefore, they will often send a prisoner who they think is close to death home, believing they cannot possibly recover. Once they reach their family and are under a loved one’s tender care, though, many regain their health. And when this happens, many of these will attempt to defect. It is because so many have achieved success in this that we know what little we do about the kwalliso. Without their testimonies, all we would know is what we see from satellite images.
Conditions in the kwalliso, part 7: Death
Of course, most inmates aren’t this fortunate. Especially for those in the total control zones, it would take a miracle for them to leave alive. Instead most leave being carried out the gates for burial in a small mound, or become they food for the guards’ dogs or the birds in the fields.
As mentioned before, the dead get buried wearing nothing. According to one man interviewed by Human Rights Watch, “death is so common in the camp” that one of the first things the guards make you do is bury a corpse. Then the gaolers will compel you to wear the clothing directly off the dead person’s grotesquely thin, blackened, and stinking body.
This same individual related:
When I first came into the facility, they ordered me to go to a hallway in a building that was like a storage barn to fetch a spade. But I screamed because there were four corpses at the end of the hall.
Believe it or not, this little initiation ritual accomplishes two objectives. First, it gets you clothing you otherwise would not have had. Second, it sends a message: Death is common here, so you had better get used to it.
Indeed, it is very common. In one report, a person identified only as “Former Prisoner #19” related that during his eight month term at kyo-hwa-so (reeducation camp) No. 4 in Kangdong, 41.25 percent of his 80 person work unit died: “three prisoners died in work accidents, ten died of malnutrition and disease, and twenty were sent home on ‘sick leave’ in order to reduce the high numbers of deaths in detention.”
Combine malnourishment and dangerous occupations, such as coal mining, and it’s easy to see why deaths amongst laborers are reasonably common. Mr. Kim Yong said that in his 500 miners work unit, five to six deaths per month was typical.
One lady figured that during her two years of incarceration, 20 percent of the prisoners perished. As mentioned above, Some say the rate is 20-40 percent per year, while others estimate “a cumulative death-in-detention rate of one-third to one-half.”
A 1997 study by the University of Virginia titled, Statistics of Democide places the number of people killed by regime from 1950 to the time of the document’s writing from “710,000 to slightly over 3,500,000 people have been murdered, with a mid-estimate of almost 1,600,000.” Keep in mind, this was prior to the full effect of the famine being known. The true figure would be much higher today.
Death by execution is also common. During his term, Prisoner #19 also saw eight executions. Executions can be for any reason, really. A little girl was killed for stealing five grains of wheat. Someone talked back to a guard. Another person tried to escape. In the camps, there really doesn’t have to be a reason.
When they happen, the executions might be public. When this happens, the entire camp and you must witness the grotesque, barbaric ritual.
First, guards fill the mouths of condemned with rocks. This prevents the condemned from shouting any brave last words that others might remember as a rallying cry for rebellion.
Next, everyone in the camp must throw stones at the person and shout insults and curses at them before they’re shot. If you fail to throw a stone or fail to put any gusto into it—whether out of pity or any other reason—they will execute you right after that first person. They will also do this to you if you show any other sign of sympathy or make the slightest show of protest.
Not all executions are public, however. The public ones happen when someone violates some rule or attempts escape. Secret ones occur when the person is deemed to have a “bad influence” on the other prisoners. This would presumably include (although it is impossible to know) evangelization.
When an execution is secret, everything is done to minimize knowledge of it. For instance, under darkness’ cover, authorities will arrive at the condemned person’s quarters in a black vehicle prisoners call the “crow,” take the person away, and that is the end of it.
More executions are being conducted this way. After one public execution in 1990 at Camp No. 14, the inmates rose up in anger and took the lives of eight guards. Authorities retaliated by killing 1,500 prisoners, but public executions were reportedly less frequent after that.
The Hunger Games, DPRK style
One will not get a sense of this from the movie, but for those who have read The Hunger Games, the smash first novel in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy about a despotic country named Panem, one almost wonders if she used North Korea as her model. The similarities are striking. The only thing missing are the actual hunger games themselves.
Or are they?
In political indoctrination camps, to survive, most adopt the attitude, “Just go along with it, keep your head down, do what they tell you to, get out of here alive.”
Others, however, for reasons of conscience, cannot.
When officials determine a prisoner or group of inmates will never accept indoctrination, they round them up. Then these starving, emaciated persons are dropped into some dense forest and told to find their way home.
What they don’t and can’t know is that Special Forces soldiers are lurking in the foliage bearing various weapons with which to kill them.
This gives the commandos both experience in hunting and killing actual humans, and it inures them to thinking about the enemy as a person. Also, says a 2003 BrookesNews.com story, “it instills in them an utter contempt for the lives and suffering of others and ... weed[s] out, with fatal consequences, those who might retain any humanitarian sentiments.”
Conditions in the kwalliso, part 8: Women
Considering all of the above, it is natural that many hope death will come quickly. This will be, after all, the only way most will ever escape these blotches of hell on earth.
Perhaps for obvious reasons this is truer for the women than for any other group of prisoners.
The guards can prey upon anyone, but through sexual assault and other forms of violence, it is the women who have it really bad. Is this treatment against the rules? Absolutely. Then again, if the commandant doesn’t observe them, why should the rookie guard? Yes, there have been a few reported cases of officials being disciplined, but these are in stark contrast to the many instances where such abuse is just a normal part of life.
Because of the great latitude guards possess, they will order lady inmates to completely disrobe and then will beat and humiliate them. Gang rapes and other forms of abuse are sometimes so extreme, the women die afterward.
Perhaps former prisoner Lee M. puts it most vividly:
In these places, there are no human rights at all for women. What they call sexual harassment in South Korea is nothing. What was going on was beyond description. Everything is exposed, it was nothing to have sex openly…It may be better when a man is married, but as for women, they can’t protect themselves in that situation. Even though a man might know his wife is having sexual relations with an official, he can’t protest or talk.
Although the sex is almost always coerced, the violence leading up to this is often not physical, at least in typical terms. Instead, what guards will do is offer food or jobs that help them get more or better food.
A 2007 Freedom House report titled, Concentrations of Inhumanity says:
Two former prisoners, interviewed separately about the practice used the same phrase, “The guards lived like kings.” This was not a reference to palatial guard barracks, which they were not, but the feudal practice where royalty kept concubines within the palace grounds for the king’s pleasure.
Aquariums author Kang notes the official sanction against sex between guards and female inmates exists because any resulting pregnancies “would give rise to another generation of counter-revolutionaries.” The same reason would seem to explain the treatment of newborns, as well. Therefore, one can comprehend why guards are careful to not suffer the consequences of their actions.
Despite this, women will nonetheless conceive. Therefore, the guard/father will often take his victim for a forced abortion. Another tactic is to ensure she transfers to a very strenuous, physical job that will hopefully cause a miscarriage. Or he will enjoin his comrades to practice their soccer kicks on her abdomen, which accomplishes the same end.
Sometimes the father will get another guard and escort the woman outside the camp’s boundaries. Always, only the two guards return.
In the aforementioned Freedom House report, Kang “tells of a young woman who became pregnant and disguised her pregnancy for some time. When discovered, she was forced to disrobe in front of her assembled fellow prisoners, male and female, expose her pregnant body and compelled to recount publicly the details of her sexual encounter.”
One defector relates that she came due on November 29, 2005. With walking made difficult by her condition, she was slower in going to work that morning than her guards liked. So they kicked her to make her go faster, which caused her water to break.
When it became evident to them what was happening, they took her to a nearby hospital. She was not even given a proper room but gave birth in a hospital corridor assisted by another female inmate. Even after giving birth, she received no proper care. Thus her companion had to use teeth to severe the baby from the umbilical cord.
What happened next is unimaginable. The guards turned the newborn girl on its stomach and effectively asked her mother for permission to kill the child. The woman screamed she would not do this. The blows her face took not only broke several teeth, they disfigured her. She was kept there had to listen until her baby’s cries became screams and then gradually became ... nothing.
The mother was returned to the prison at 3:00 a.m. and reported for work as normal at 5:00 a.m., still bleeding. In a remarkable outpouring of human kindness, her fellow prisoners tore up their priceless blankets that they would need for the winter that was just upon them so she would have something to stem the flow.
While the means may vary, almost every baby born within a camp meets the same fate as this lady’s.
Conditions in the kwalliso, part 9: Human experimentation
After World War II, records revealed that the Nazis did not confine their atrocities to murdering of several million Jews, Catholics, gypsies, and other groups. Rather, the Nazis had also used the concentration camp prisoners, whom they deemed untermensch (subhuman), for various experiments with chemical and biological agents.
That frightening legacy lives on in the DPRK as confirmed by former prisoners, an ex Camp 22 manager named Kwon Hyok, and various original documents smuggled out of Camp 22.
The North Korean authorities believe it is not prudent to use laboratory animals for testing such agents, since it is not laboratory animals they desire to kill. Better to test them on those whose death they will hasten in the case of insurrection or war: other humans.
The aforementioned Mrs. Lee Soon Ok, author of Eyes of the Tailless Animals: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman, was one of an estimated 6,000 political prisoners in Kyo-hwa-so No. 1. She reports that during her captivity, authorities particularly singled out Christians. If they refused to apostatize, their captors would pour molten metal on them or down their throats.
But Christians were especially used for NBC (nuclear/biological/chemical) testing. The state sees Christians as the lowest of the low.
She recounts another time when, “An officer ordered me to select 50 healthy female prisoners. One of the guards handed me a basket full of soaked cabbage, told me not to eat it, but to give it to the 50 women. I gave them out and heard a scream.... They were all screaming and vomiting blood. All who ate the cabbage leaves started violently vomiting blood and screaming with pain. It was hell. In less than 20 minutes, they were dead.”
Im Chun-yong says the DPRK carries out such experiments on mentally or physically handicapped children. Im was a captain in the Korean People’s Army’s Special Forces who defected with a handful of his troops. One of his soldiers told him how he had helped force a group of people into a glass room that slowly filled with gas. The doctors used a stopwatch to measure how long it took the agent to kill everyone in the chamber.
“If you are born mentally or physically deficient,” says Im, “the government says your best contribution to society… is as a guinea pig for biological and chemical weapons testing.”
Im also says that human testing is something of an open secret amongst the population.
Kwon Hyuk was head of security at Camp No. 22, the nation’s largest. In a 2004 BBC documentary, he said, “I witnessed a whole family being tested on suffocating gas and dying in the gas chamber. The parents, a son, and a daughter. The parents were vomiting and dying, but till the very last moment they tried to save the kids by doing mouth-to-mouth breathing. For the first time it hit me that even prisoners are capable of powerful human affection.”
Did this brutality trouble him in any way? Not at all, he said. “I felt that they thoroughly deserved such a death. Because all of us were led to believe that all the bad things that were happening to North Korea were their fault. It would be a total lie for me to say I [felt] sympathetic about the children dying such a painful death. Under the society and the regime I was in at the time, I only felt that they were the enemies. So I felt no sympathy or pity for them at all.”
Former prison guard Mr. Ahn reports that prisoners provide practice for young surgeons who were learning to operate. Inmates were not given anesthesia beforehand. Authorities also deliberately starved inmates in a “deliberate effort to study physical resistance.”
Furthermore, he says:
The people who carry out these executions and these experiments all drink before they do it. But they are real experts now; sometimes they hit prisoners with a hammer on the back of the head. The poor prisoners then lose their memory, and they use them as zombies for target practice. When the Third Bureau is running out of subjects … “the crow” turns up and picks out a few more prisoners, sowing panic among the rest. The crow comes about once a month and takes forty or fifty people off to an unknown destination.
In a 2004 article, the British newspaper The Guardian reported:
Defectors have smuggled out documents that appear to reveal how methodical the chemical experiments were. One stamped “top secret” and “transfer letter” is dated February 2002. The name of the victim was Lin Hun-hwa. He was 39. The text reads: “The above person is transferred from ... camp number 22 for the purpose of human experimentation of liquid gas for chemical weapons.”
Kim Sang-hun, a North Korean human rights worker, says the document is genuine. He said: “It carries a North Korean format, the quality of paper is North Korean and it has an official stamp of agencies involved with this human experimentation. A stamp they cannot deny. And it carries names of the victim and where and why and how these people were experimented [on].”
Because of all this human experimentation, the North Koreans are said to have made great advances in the effectiveness of their NBC agents. This makes what must surely be a growing arsenal of these at least as concerning as any nuclear warheads they may possess or come to possess.
Yet, as will probably surprise no one, the DPRK officially denies the very existence of the camps, much less what is happening behind their fences.
Ben Rogers is East Asia team leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a United Kingdom-based non-profit that works to heighten awareness of human rights violations in other parts of the world that would otherwise go unreported.
In an interview with CWR, he told of a diplomatic trip Baroness Caroline Cox, Lord David Alton, and he took to North Korea.
He says that whenever they met officials and the British delegation brought up the subject of the camps, “they listened impassively, the temperature in the room dropped a bit, their body language dropped a bit, and they silently received documents we brought.
“One meeting, however, took on a different nature when we were in their Supreme Court” being given a tour of a courtroom by the DPRK’s equivalent of a Supreme Court Chief Justice.
Rogers says at one point, Lord Alton, who is Catholic, seized on something this gentleman said and started to raise issues about the prison camps.
Our host initially denied the existence of the camps, but then Lord Alton raised specific examples such as Yodok.
The man answered, “I’ve been to Yodok, and we don’t execute anyone there except for crimes like murders. Where have you got these stories? Did you get them from the Americans? From the South Koreans?” “No,” Lord Alton answered, “we got them from many survivors.”
“Oh, well, these people, they are criminals who’ve escaped from the prison camps.”
At that moment, Alton said to him, “How can you say they’re criminals when we know the case of Shin dong-yuk born in prison camp and spent his first 23 years in camps escaped when 23, witnessed his mother and brother executed in the camp, witnessed torture, how can somebody be born a criminal?”
After that, there was this kind of electrifying silence for probably 30 seconds, although it felt like longer. And then the law officer simply, “Please kindly, shall we continue with our tour?”
The NKFC’s Scholte says another factor is that in a cash-starved nation, the items produced by slave labor in the camps “are definitely a source of income for the regime,” although she notes it is not an important source.
However, what sometimes happens is that some products saying, “Made in China,” were actually made by a North Korean prison camp slave laborer, shipped to China, and then exported from there.
In the documentary, “Welcome to North Korea,” a former guard reports how one “concentration camp was moved further inland, [because] in the present situation [authorities]’d rather hide these matters. They’re scared of the international community. That’s why they lie about how many people are in jail.”
Dr. Lee Sung-Yoon, who teaches International Politics at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass., tells CWR, “They are quite sensitive to world public opinion, For instance, when the UN General Assembly passes a resolution condemning human rights abuses, they don’t like it. North Korea is the only country in the world that claims it has no human rights problems at all.”
The situation today
Many had hoped that having spent his adolescence in the West, Kim Jong Eun, Kim Jong Il son and successor, would have eased the situation in the concentration camps.
If anything, the exact opposite has happened. This is for several reasons. To start, he is so young. Some reports put him at 28 or 29, since no one knows the exact year of his birth. Thus, unlike his father, he had very little experience before assuming power, at most two years. It is reported that many in the upper echelons are disgusted with the idea that a socialist country would do something so bourgeois as pass on power no differently than a monarchy. Because of this, many are hoping Kim will slip and show he is too weak to handle the job. Then they will pounce.
As a result, in order to show he has what it takes, he has actually increased the number of people in the camps, increased public executions, and increased the manhunt for those who escape to China. In concert with Chinese police, North Korean security agents have swarmed the cities along the DPRK-PRC border and remote surrounding countryside looking for defectors.
A US human rights activist who operates along the China-North Korea border named Tim Peters recently told the Los Angeles Times, “We cannot say with absolute certainty what their fate will be, but definitely, since the death of Kim Jong Il, the message is that punishment for defectors is extremely harsh,” said. “I don’t want to say all will be shot, but the consequences are graver now than they were 3 or 4 years ago.”
This cannot happen without Chinese complicity. The Chinese, who call these escaped persons “illegal economic migrants,” say there is no proof that they will face the harsh conditions described in this piece. Given their unparalleled access to North Korea, however, that claim is disingenuous at best.
Between January and March of this year, English-language Korean news outlets have regularly reported on efforts to get the Chinese to recognize these individuals as refugees, as they most definitely are under Chinese-signed UN treaties, and to allow them safe passage to South Korea or any other country that will take them.
The concern for China, however, is two-fold. One, they do not want a flood of people pouring across their border à la the East Germans in 1989 who began pouring across the Hungarian border with Austria when given half a chance to do so.
This leads to their second concern, the destabilization of the regime. If the DPRK falls, absent China sending its PLA forces pouring across the Tumen and Yalu Rivers into the peninsula and resurrecting the Korean Conflict, the Chinese would have an America-friendly neighbor. It was to prevent this that they became involved in the Korean Conflict to begin with back in the early 1950s. Clearly, this is not an option with which they have grown comfortable in the intervening years.
Does anyone have George Clooney’s number?
Nonetheless, despite South Koreans’ ambivalence toward the defectors when they actually arrive, many are now taking an active interest in the plight of refugees in China and in keeping them from being repatriated back to the DPRK.
As such, a steady series of demonstrations organized by Scholte’s NKFC and others have taken place outside of Chinese embassies and consulates around the world since late February, not only in Seoul, but in New York, Washington, DC, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
Korean film star Cha In-pyo, and his wife, actress Shin Ae-ra have created a group called “Cry With Us” to help those caught in China. On March 4, Cha and his wife hosted a concert featuring 50 Korean musical acts and movie stars.
Cha says this is not a one-time effort, and that he would try to enlist the world renowned Irish rock band U2 and other Western artists and celebrities.
Locals call it, “Riding on the Korean Wave,” referring to the growing prominence of South Korean pop culture, which has exploded all over Southeast Asia and has even slowly started to infiltrate the West, especially with films such as The Man from Nowhere, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, Poetry, Castaway on the Moon, and Cha’s own Crossing, to name a few.
The Korean daily Chosun Ilbo reported on March 6 that, “Opposition is growing [even] within China against the forced repatriation of North Korean defectors who were arrested there, with columnists, novelists and other intellectuals posting comments on the social media criticizing Beijing’s policy.” Furthermore, 75 recent posts on Weibo, the Sino version of Twitter, were against the government’s repatriation policy.
The importance of this lies in the Chinese concept of “saving face,” which is different than how we might define it in the West. According to the travel website china-mike.com, “Generally speaking, the Chinese ‘behave properly’ generally to avoid shame and they fear losing face—not necessarily because they might feel badly about their actions. For many, anything goes….as long as you don’t get caught!” There is no distinction made in this regard between a person or a culture.
It isn’t as if Cha and other activists don’t understand this. Saving face is important in most Far East Asian cultures. The obvious hope is that the international swell of acrimony will be so face “losing” for the Chinese that they will have no option but to change their policy. There will probably be some face saving method given for doing so, but in the end, the refugees will not face execution or the hell of the camps. Again, that is the hope, at least.
Indeed, movement on this front has recently happened. Just before the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit in March, unnamed sources said China would allow those North Korean refugees who had attained asylum in the South Korean embassy and its consulates in China to discretely leave for ROK. Coupled with Chinese President Hu Jintao's remarkably unusual statement about the DPRK’s proposed April missile launch that, “North Korea would be better off focusing on improving the lives of its people,” this could mark the turn of the situation with defectors. And if that happens, it could mark a turn with situation in the kwalliso. Any or all of this, however, may be hoping for too much at present.
The abstraction of horror
During an interview for this series, CWR asked Tufts’ Dr. Lee about whether the Kims had done anything good for their country, whether it was simply all about keeping power or if they had ever truly wanted to make their subjects lives’ better.
“In the end,” said Dr. Lee, “the verdict on the Kims won’t be based on whether they had any degree of humanity, for what they did was so cruel, so totalitarian. Their crimes against humanity—which are going on to this day—were so heinous in so many aspects that anything positive they did would not vindicate them, even if they had moments of kindness and genuine consideration for their own people.
“It’s odd, because when we have governments in other parts of the world killing such huge numbers of people, we want to be involved. We want to prevent atrocities. With the North Koreans, however, it seems what is happening there means little, even though the crimes perpetrated by the State over the decades represent some of history’s most serious human rights problems in terms of duration and scale. It’s just not visceral or palpable enough for the outsider. We treat North Korea as some far distant abstraction.”
Luckily, a growing number Congressmen and Senators are taking up these forgotten people’s plight, as are members of both houses in Britain’s parliament. Most, however, are backbenchers (i.e., people with no particular clout). The most prominent US congressman is Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), long known as a pro-life and human rights stalwart but with little influence beyond that.
Only one—Jeremy Brown, MP, Britain’s minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with responsibility for, amongst other things, South East Asia, the Far East, and human rights—has anything approaching power.
Nonetheless, it’s a start, and with the incrementally growing awareness of the situation—TIME magazine recently reported on China’s treatment of refugees and what happens to them upon return—there is more light being cast on the suffering within the camps than at any other time in history.
Between this extra attention and God’s grace, there is a slim chance that these forgotten captives might soon see the proclamation of their release and liberty from their oppression.
After 60-plus years, that would be a good thing.