Features | The horrors of North Korean prisons

Beth Hong and Matthias Heilke urge internal measures to reform the chilling reality

Last spring, North Korea sentenced two American journalists to 12 years of hard labour in its prisons. After a visit from Bill Clinton, they were returned to the United States. Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the journalists, are now free. Had they not been rescued, however, Ling and Lee may have faced hardships barely imaginable to those of us who live outside of North Korea.

For over half a century, North Korea has maintained a prison system so secretive that our knowledge of it comes only from satellite photos and stories told by refugees in South Korea and China.

One 25-year-old, identified only as “Case study 29,” tells of North Korean prison life in Anti-Slavery International’s 2007 report “Forced Labour in North Korean Prison Camps.” An orphan since he was 11 years old, “29” was caught by North Korean security while looking for food in China. He spent over a year in several low-level labour camps, called anjunbu and kyo hwa-so.

“We worked in a stone quarry where we had to load stones onto carts and transport them to the train depot. We then unloaded the stones onto the trains. We had to finish our work in the quarry and return to the labour camp by 7 p.m. I had no choice but to work. Even if I was sick or near death, I would still have to work. There wouldn’t be any help for sick people anyway because the clinic at the labour camp didn’t have any medicine. We were hit frequently by the guards. We were hit even for smoking. My body became numb to pain. I had no skin, just bones so when I was hit, I stopped feeling pain.”

In addition to backbreaking labour and frequent beatings, prisoners suffer from severe malnutrition. “Case study 29” states, “For food, we were given rice made of grass, corn, and beans. It was only two mouthfuls. The guards didn’t care if we died of starvation.”  
While attempting to flee or even exiting temporarily remains illegal in North Korea, the punishment for the offence has softened as continuing famine forces more and more Koreans to seek food outside the country. According to David Hawk’s article “The Hidden Gulag,” 93 per cent of North Koreans who cross the border into China do so to procure food or money for their families. While refugees may go through several cycles of arrest, repatriation, imprisonment, and fleeing, their crimes are considered non-political and result in punishment that is mild by North Korean standards. 

In fact, the kyo hwa-so described by “Case Study 29” are far from the worst prisons in North Korea. Koreans sentenced for political crimes, which the government takes more seriously, can be sent to the far harsher kwan li-so, “reeducation camps.” Entire families, up to three generations, can be sentenced to these camps if one family member is accused of treason. This is meant to ensure the complete eradication of any treasonous elements in the state.

Hawk estimates that currently there are 150,000 to 200,000 prisoners throughout North Korea in the kwan li-so alone. There is no right to a fair trial in North Korea, and many are sent to prison camps without knowing the specific crimes for which they were sentenced. The actual crime may be mundane; for example, “The Hidden Gulag” mentions a woman sent to a prison camp for singing a South Korean song.

Kang Chol-hwan, author of The Aquariums of Pyongyang, was sent to the kwan li-so at Yodok (central North Korea) at age nine when his grandfather was purged. On top of the same grueling labour described above, children were forced to snitch on each other, work in dangerous mines, bury corpses, and even engage in public stoning. “In October 1985, two prisoners were executed by hanging,” Chol-hwan wrote. “Once both men were finally dead, the two or three thousand prisoners in attendance were instructed to each pick up a stone and hurl it at the corpses while yelling, ‘Down with the traitors of the people!’ We did as we were told, but our disgust was written all over our faces.” 
The worst of the “reeducation camps” belong in another class altogether. Their goal is not to reeducate, but to extract labour until death. The largest of these is Camp 22, with an estimated 50,000 inmates. Forced abortion, once common across the entire North Korean prison system, has reportedly decreased over the last decade. However, the very few eyewitness reports from Camp 22 include stories of infanticide, in which guards stomp on newborns’ heads to kill them. Worse, North Korea experiments with chemical weapons at Camp 22, using prisoners as test subjects. In a report from the BBC’s “This World,” a defected security officer known only by the pseudonym Kwon Hyuk recalled one such experiment.

“I witnessed a whole family being tested on suffocating gas and dying in the gas chamber. The parents, son, and a daughter…. The parents were vomiting and dying, but till the very last moment they tried to save their kids by doing mouth to mouth breathing.”

Kwon’s allegations of chemical testing have since been verified by at least one other source. 

North Korean prisons, as these accounts show, clearly violate internationally recognized human rights. However, the international response to these violations has been complicated by regional politics. Jack Kim, executive director of the North Korean human rights group HanVoice, observes that “the countries that are involved in [talks with North Korea] are countries that have agenda space that is so covered by nuclear issues…that North Korea will not listen to them.” Canada, which has not participated in these talks, has been particularly slow to act. The first piece of Canadian legislation addressing human rights in North Korea, a non-binding resolution regarding refugees, has yet to reach the floor in the House of Commons. That said, Kim admits that there are no easy solutions. “You can really put pressure on [North Korea], up to some regime change, but realistically speaking, we’ve tried doing that for 60 years, and it just hasn’t worked.”

Reform requires a change in attitudes, and actions taken from within the country – as opposed to estranged diplomatic attempts – stand the best chance of causing that change. Although foreign media remains illegal, television, radio, and videos from South Korea and America are readily available in North Korea. Meanwhile, evangelical Christian churches operate illicitly, both as places of worship, business, and charity. Kim believes the Christian church should serve as a model for foreign intervention.

“These small businesses that affect the local economy in North Korea have a huge impact. If small Christian churches can do this, then why can’t the Canadian government do this, and why can’t [the Canadian International Development Agency] go and open up a hundred bakeries within North Korea?” 

Given Kim Jong-il’s ailing health, a concerned reader should be confident that the regime will soon change. The testimonies of refugees indicate that however bad North Korean prisons are, they are better today than they have been in the past. Nonetheless, Koreans who have survived their imprisonment will remain affected by their experiences for life. Chol-hwan describes the dehumanizing effect of poor treatment.

“I once believed that man was different from other animals, but Yodok showed me that reality doesn’t support this opinion. In the camp, there was no difference between man and beast, except maybe that a very hungry human was capable of stealing food from its little ones while an animal, perhaps, was not.” 
While Ling and Lee brought international media attention to the existence of North Korea’s prison system, the spotlight has faded since their release. Today, thousands of individuals continue to live, work, and die within North Korea’s prison camps.  Thousands more will be sent to replace them in the years to come, unless change comes soon.

Beth Hong and Matthias Heilke are directors of HanVoice Montreal, a branch organization that deals with North Korean refugee issues. For more information visit hanvoice.org. To get involved contact info@hanvoice.org or hanvoice.mtl@gmail.com.