Any North Korean who commits a crime or questions his leaders or government is sent to a prison camp. The inmates are forced to do hard labor. They are also starved and beaten for the slightest offenses.
An Auschwitz survivor declared that these camps are just as bad—if not worse—than the Nazi concentration camps, and a UN commission stated that the prison system is a crime against humanity.
10. Jeong Kwang-il
Jeong Kwang-il worked as a trader, and he made business deals with South Koreans in China, thereby associating with the enemy under North Korean law. Jeong was accused of being a spy, and he was dragged to a prison camp. Interrogators attempted to torture a confession out of him. He was beaten so severely that all his teeth were broken, and the back of his head was terribly injured and permanently scarred.
Jeong was tortured with a technique known as “pigeon torture.” His hands were handcuffed behind his back, and he was hanged by the handcuffs so that his feet were suspended from the ground. Jeong was left in this position for days at a time. It was so painful that he “felt it was better to die.” Jeong confessed to his falsified crimes after 10 months of torture.
He was sent to Yodok, one of North Korea’s largest prisons, which housed around 50,000 inmates. A sign on the gates greeted the newcomers: “Let’s sacrifice our lives to protect the revolutionary leadership of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.”
Many people died under the camp’s brutal treatment. Prisoners were awakened at 5:00 AM and given a bowl of rice with beans and corn. Then they were forced to work. In the spring, inmates were required to tend to a field. They had to cover around 1,170 square meters (12,600 ft2) in a day. If they didn’t, they were given less food.
The winter work was more difficult. The prisoners had to cut and carry huge logs, which were over 4 meters (13 ft) long, for more than 3 kilometers (2 mi). Many people died from accidents, and all who were injured starved to death since they could not work.
Jeong remained in the prison for three years until a senior guard decided that he had been wrongly accused. When he was released, he discovered that his home was gone and his family had disappeared. Jeong escaped North Korea within the month and fled to South Korea.
9. Jihyun Park
Jihyun Park’s father was ill, and he begged his family to leave North Korea. Park’s mother bribed the border guards to let them cross the river into China. She found a broker who promised a good job in China. Instead, Park was sold as a wife to an alcoholic farmer for 5,000 yuan ($750). Park spent six years as his slave, working 16 hours day. Her only source of happiness was her son, Chol.
He was five when she was arrested and deported to North Korea. She was sent to a labor camp where “the conditions were unspeakable” and the prisoners “were worked like animals.” Park and her fellow inmates had to clear the hills of trees so that crops could be planted. The prisoners were not allowed to wear shoes, and the skin on Park’s feet became broken and calloused from the rough stones on the ground. Her wounds became infected, and gangrene set in.
Park was released because the guards wanted her to “die outside the prison camp.” She slowly recovered from her wounds, although she still walks with a limp. Park managed to escape to China. There, she found her son, who had been left to starve. She fell in love with another defector, and the three of them were granted asylum in Britain.
8. Kang Cheol Hwan
Kang Cheol Hwan’s grandfather was declared a traitor of the people, and he and his family were forced to go to a prison camp. Kang was only 10 years old when he entered Yodok. He immediately noticed the camp’s other children: They were all skin and bones, and they looked “worse than beggars.”
Kang was immediately sentenced to hard labor. He had to carry large logs on his shoulder for miles to the camp. If an inmate could not perform the expected work, the guards would order members of the work group to beat that inmate.
Prisoners could not refuse a guard’s order. If they did, they were sentenced to a prison within the prison camp. Detainees were held for six months in a tiny cell, where they were forced to sit in cold muddy water. Few people survived the micro-prison.
Kang witnessed two soldiers escape. Both were captured and hanged. Thousands of prisoners were ordered to form one line and march by the hanged men. They were ordered to throw rocks at the bodies and yell, “Down with the traitors of the people!” Some people could not bear to throw stones, and the guards beat them.
Kang spent a decade in the camp before his family was released. Five years later, he and another former prisoner escaped to China, where he took a ship to South Korea.