7. Kim Young-soon
As a young woman, Kim Young-soon had danced for Kim Il Sung, the founding father of the nation. One day, she was summoned by the secret police, locked in a room, and interrogated for two months about her knowledge of senior party officials. She told them she knew nothing, but she was taken—along with her four young children and her parents—to Yodok prison camp.
Food was scarce in the camp. Prisoners were only given small amounts of corn and salt. If an inmate failed to meet his daily work target, his rations were reduced. Inmates supplemented their diet with anything they could find. Rats, salamanders, and snakes provided much-needed protein. Whenever a prisoner spotted the creatures, he would grab them and scarf them down raw. The inmates had no time or means to cook.
People never could find enough food, and everyone was weakened by malnutrition. Kim saw people “drop down dead every day,” and she watched most of her family die. She barely survived her nine years in the camp. Kim was released after a visiting military official, who knew her brother, recognized her. She bought false documents and crossed into China. From there, she made her way to South Korea.
Kim later found out why she had been imprisoned. She was once close friends with Sung Hye-rim, the first wife of Kim Jong Il. The marriage circumstances were scandalous: Sung was already married and had a child, whom she left to be with Kim Jong Il. He was five years her junior. Officials wanted to keep Sung’s life a secret, so they imprisoned everyone who had ever known her.
6. Ahn Myong Chol
Ahn Myong Chol worked as a prison guard for over a decade. Ahn was trained that the prisoners were not to be treated as human beings. He was encouraged to kill any inmate who attempted to escape.
If a guard managed to kill an escapee, he was rewarded. Many guards shot innocent people so that these guards would be allowed to go to college. Ahn witnessed one of his colleagues order a prisoner to climb the barbed wire fence. The colleague shot the prisoner and left for college.
The guards murdered for fun as well. Ahn watched two girls try to take a piece of a noodle from one polluted pond where the garbage was dumped. A guard walked by, and he kicked the kids into the small pond. Both girls drowned.
The event that horrified Ahn the most was when three dogs got away from their handler and attacked five children. Three of the children were killed instantly. The other two children were still breathing when the guards buried them alive. The guards petted the dogs and fed them special food as a reward.
Ahn’s father made a few drunken, negative remarks about the country’s leadership, and his family was detained. Ahn worried that he would be taken. So he drove his truck to the shore and swam to China. He later fled to South Korea.
5. Kim Kwang-Il
Kim Kwang-Il was starving, and he could not find enough food or money to survive. He gathered pine nuts and crossed the Chinese border to try to sell them. Kim was caught and arrested. North Korean officials were convinced that he had been smuggling across the border, and they tortured him to get a confession.
Kim was forced to pose in strange positions for hours. He had to pretend that he was riding a motorcycle or that he was a plane. Prisoners had to hold these positions until they sweated enough to fill a glass beneath them. People who fainted during an interrogation session were accused of faking their unconsciousness, and they had to start over. Kim could not bear this torture for long, and he confessed. He was sentenced to six years in prison.
Kim was ordered to do difficult work in the camp. He had to move heavy logs from a mountain without any machines or tools to help him. It was a dangerous job. Rolling logs often crushed the inmates, and many of them were left with broken bones.
The hard labor killed many people, and prisoners piled the corpses on a cart. Once the cart was full, prisoners had to haul it up a mountain. They stuffed the bodies into a pot, which they lit on fire. When the bodies were completely burned, they collected the ashes left behind and used them to fertilize the fields.
Kim was released after he had served 29 months. He later managed to escape to South Korea.