Cover Story

Fleeing hell

"Fleeing hell" Continued...

Issue: "Inside the wire," March 22, 2014

Handout photo
As he hopped from shelter to shelter, a Bible was always present in the house. Cooped up for days and weeks inside, it was oftentimes just Kang and the Bible. He would flip through the riveting book and read—and read, and read. As he understood the text and felt the missionaries’ tangible care, his eyes opened: He realized what the gospel and “true love” were.

His understandings shattered every brainwashing he underwent as a child: state-owned radio blaring songs praising the nation’s “Eternal President” and “Dear Leader” Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and state-owned television programs condemning South Korea and the United States as “monsters.” He remembers films demonizing Christian missionaries as “a product of capitalism” and condemning Christianity as “a drug, narcotics, the sin to society.” Kang’s interactions with Christians in China shook all the falsehood out of North Korean propaganda. He realized North Korea may preach “freedom of religion” in its constitution, but in reality, “the purpose is to praise and idolize Kim Il Sung as the only god,” he said.

Kang decided to take the truth back to his people, but he was caught in North Korea and sent to labor camp. There, Kang saw fellow prisoners hunched in cells like “skeletons barely covered with skin,” feebly squashing the lice that crawled over them. Breakfast was about five spoonfuls worth of mushy rice smashed with 150 beans—an unseasoned, meatless lump called gadabap, bloated with water into a pasty slurry. Kang was forced to work 17 hours of hard labor daily. He watched several inmates die within two months from exhaustion and starvation, then watched their corpses being carried away to be dumped over a hillside.

“There is no way to express what I suffered,” Kang told UN investigators of his time at the North Korean detention center, or bowigwa, bluntly describing it as “living hell.”

ONE OF THOSE RESPONSIBLE for keeping the prisons a living hell was Ahn Myong Chul, a military guard at detention and political camps for seven years, who also testified before the UN. Using satellite images, he described the layout of various camps where he had worked: the electric fence around the perimeter, the main detention center, the solitary cells reserved for torture, the village where bowibu (national security) agents and guards lived, and the sleeping area for inmates. “The village of bowibu agents is heaven, and those inhabited by the inmates is hell,” he said.

Associated Press/Photo by Lee Jin-man
All guards undergo a six-month-long training session drilling into them the belief that inmates—many whose families were accused of disloyalty to the regime—are traitors. Instructors will say, “Never listen to their request! Don’t sympathize with them! If they try to escape, shoot!” Martial arts instructors lined inmates up as human punching bags. Ahn himself “practiced kicks and hits” on an inmate until he collapsed, a fact Ahn is now “ashamed to admit,” but credits to the indoctrination all trainees receive: “I believed truly that the inmates were bad people.”

Most of the prisoners don’t make it out of camp. “They’re never meant to be released,” Ahn said. Those sentenced for life face a bleak future of hard labor until they die of exhaustion, malnutrition, disease, abuse, or execution. One October, 200 inmates died from contagious disease caught by eating field rats.

Ahn also detailed grotesque scenes of abortion and infanticide. During his second year, a leader of his platoon raped and impregnated a female inmate. After the woman gave birth to a baby in the field, she and the baby were locked in a detention house. The father was identified, but committed suicide rather than face disgrace. The woman disappeared, presumably killed or sent to labor camp. The newborn was dumped into a pot and fed to military dogs.

As the person responsible for driving soldiers to the execution site, Ahn witnessed up to 20 executions a year. Although only three shooters typically perform the execution, an entire team marches out with dogs and 128 bullets loaded into their guns: Inmates are weak and underfed, yet guards constantly worry over the possibility of a revolt and international exposure. In such cases, Ahn’s orders were to “shoot them … to wipe them out so that there is no evidence of inmates.”

The prison camp situation has only grown worse since Kim Jong Un succeeded his father in December 2011. Greg Scarlatoiu, the executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea in Washington, D.C., said the Kim regime has cracked down harder on attempted defectors: North Koreans who escaped to South Korea in 2013 dropped by half the previous year’s number. The latest estimate of prison camp population may have decreased from 150,000 to 120,000, but that’s “not because the overall human rights situation has improved, but because of the astoundingly high rates of deaths in detention,” Scarlatoiu said.


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