THE GUARDS WORE RUSSIAN-STYLE MILITARY BOOTS.
Timothy Kang remembers those boots because they met his face as the guards kicked and stomped on him over and over. The guards used wooden square paddles to beat him, too, after their own knuckles and palms started to bruise. He was dragged to 15 different jails and tortured in each one.
His crime? Crossing the border into North Korea during a trip to evangelize his native land. He was lucky: Since he was underage, he narrowly avoided the more severe political prison camp.
Now a bespectacled, lanky, 27-year-old student in Seoul, Kang was one of over 300 witnesses comprising former citizens, prisoners, defected military guards, and officials who described such inhumane treatments to a United Nations panel last year. About 80 North Koreans took the stand at public hearings in Seoul, Tokyo, London, and Washington, D.C., while others testified privately, fearing retribution against family members back home. Most showed little emotion. Others flowed tears, choked on words, and gnashed teeth.
The public testimonies were the most visceral part of the UN’s first major investigation into human rights abuses in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a yearlong undertaking conducted by a three-member “Commission of Inquiry” formed by the Human Rights Council last March. It’s an operation many defectors and human rights experts say is “long overdue” but commend as a major progress toward justice. The resulting report—a 372-page catalog that describes atrocities such as beatings, starvation, exposure to cold, various torture techniques, rape, infanticide, and public executions—is unprecedented in its forceful language and extensiveness. More significantly, it directly calls out the main perpetrators: the leaders of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, the National Defense Commission, and current dictator Kim Jong Un.
What’s chilling, however, is that even as the UN commission presents this report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 17, millions more North Koreans are still suffering under a regime that, with brazen impunity, defiles every dignity deserving to humankind—including the basic right to seek and worship God. Incriminating evidence and eyewitness testimonies have been trickling out of North Korea for the past decade, but until this UN report, there has been weak effort on an international level to bring the criminals to justice. Even more chilling: With North Korea’s latest test firing of short-range missiles last month, the regime remains unbowed to lesser forms of international pressure—and determined to overlook the human rights indictment now publicly against it.
The North Korean government’s long-standing, systemized oppression of human rights and freedoms, which many human rights activists call “the worst human tragedy in the world,” are now exposed on an international stage. And now, someone must act, because as commission chair Michael Kirby publicly stated, “We cannot say we didn’t know. We now do know.” But someone has already been consistently acting, as some of the following stories will show—someone whom the regime has despised and feared ever since it existed.
NORTH KOREA FREEDOM COALITION CHAIRMAN Suzanne Scholte, who hosted the first U.S. public hearing for North Korean defectors in 1997, said people back then could hardly believe the Nazi-like tales of torture and gulags. Previously, it had been difficult to conduct an accurate investigation in North Korea, which refused—and still refuses—to open its doors to the outside world. But today, tens of thousands of defectors have corroborated each other’s details. Some realized after leaving North Korea that they’d been fed lies their whole lives. Some met Christianity for the first time.
Timothy Kang had both a political and spiritual “turning point.” Kang grew up the way the majority of younger North Korean citizens did: without any of the benefits the privileged class enjoyed, without any recollection of the heyday of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or its “Supreme Leader” Kim Il Sung. Instead, he grew up during the mid-1990s nationwide food shortage that left millions dead and thousands of children orphaned—the result of government redistribution of food according to political class status. Kang watched neighbors die, passed raggedy orphans in the streets, and ferreted grass and roots to fill his ulcerous belly. One dominant feeling suffocates his childhood memories: the throbbing gnaw of hunger. Deep down, he realized “something is wrong with the regime.” Christianity gave him the ability to articulate what that “something” was.
Like many others, Kang crossed the Tumen River into bordering China to flee starvation as an adolescent (see "The other side of failure," Dec. 14, 2013). He received assistance from missionaries and Christian relatives: His uncle was a pastor, his uncle’s grandmother an elder. The grandmother woke up every dawn without fail to attend church for morning prayer service. Kang took her hand and followed. “I just went to church for the sake of it,” he recalls. “I didn’t really understand the gospel of Christ.”
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.
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.
ONE WAY THE KIM REGIME exerts control over the population is by starvation—a recurring theme among escapees. The government controls markets and distributes food according to a class-based system called songbun, in which people are divided according to party loyalty and family associations. While its citizenry starved and died in the ’90s, the government refused to swerve from its “inefficient economic production and discriminatory resource allocation,” stated the UN report, despite opportunities to do so. When other nations provided humanitarian food aid, the Kim regime diverted the food to top officials and military, even storing the excess away. Escapee Jo Jin Hye, 26, told UN investigators it’s incomprehensible how North Korean officials drive BMWs and drink “exotic” whiskeys “while there are all kinds of kids dying of starvation.”
Jo remembers hunger well—hunger that made her head spin as a young girl. Growing up in a poor family in North Hamgyong Province, her family was among those hit hardest by the famine. Her teenage sister and father disappeared on trips to find food—the sister apparently sex-trafficked to China, the father killed in prison for crossing borders. A fellow prisoner later said he’d been tortured and starved to death.
When Jo’s baby brother was born, her mother was so malnourished she couldn’t lactate. Jo’s family begged other women in town for milk, but the women drove them away with a broomstick. The baby withered away in 10-year-old Jo’s arms.
Jo, her mother, and sister soon slipped into China for food. They found food, and Jo found Christianity. One night, feeling overwhelmed by her life’s hardships, Jo cried while leading goats to a watering place. On the road she heard music and singing trilling from a house. Curious, she peeked inside: A man was playing a piano while another sang. Jo, overcome by the beauty of the music, crumpled to the ground and sobbed. An old woman invited her in. “Don’t be afraid,” she told her. “This is where the wounded and weary gather.”
Jo attended this small church of chosunjok people (ethnic Koreans in China) for several months until her mother found out. Christians are cruel Westerners, her mother warned her. She related a North Korean textbook story of how an American missionary in Pyongyang once beat a kid with a branch for eating from his apple tree. But Jo thought, “All they do is share Bible messages and sing praise. What’s so bad about that?” She ultimately returned to the church, where she read the Bible and learned to pray.
Later, prayer sustained Jo when Chinese authorities repatriated her to North Korea, where prison guards beat, kicked, and slapped her, pulled her hair, and whipped her back with wires. Jo told WORLD she was close to execution—for repeated defection, helping other defectors, and interacting with Christians—but escaped death because of prayer: “I was between life and death—what had I to lose? I had no fear or doubts, I just prayed. I prayed with 100 percent assurance that God will answer my prayers, and God answered them all.” The ultimate answer: A Korean-American pastor she befriended in China, through donations from American churches, pooled a $10,000 bribe to help free Jo.
Today, the three women live in Virginia. Jo’s mother, now a deacon, regularly listens to Christian sermons while she makes kimchee (traditional pickled cabbage) and cleans the house. Meanwhile, Jo feels her own faith has dwindled as she got “a little too comfortable” with her religious liberties in America. It’s a vastly different spiritual landscape in North Korea, where “just by professing your faith, you can get killed. … You’re putting your life at risk by becoming a Christian.”
PREDICTABLY, THE NORTH KOREAN government has denied the testimonies of Kang, Ahn, Jo, and hundreds of others. It repeatedly ignored the UN commission’s letters requesting entry to North Korea, and called the testimonies a “charade” performed by “human scum.”
In its report, the commission called for North Korea to dismantle all camps and release its prisoners. It recommended the UN Security Council use the report to formally prosecute North Korean officials with “crimes against humanity” before the International Criminal Court. The commission also urged the international community (especially China) to grant asylum to North Koreans fleeing their country.
All these recommendations are unlikely to happen: China, one of five veto-wielding UN Security Council members, calls North Koreans illegal “economic migrants,” not refugees, and aggressively repatriates them. China even denies that defectors face punishment upon return.
“If China vetoes this, then they have to be held to account,” said Stuart Windsor, a spokesman for U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide, one of the earliest advocates for the UN investigation. He said the report means the entire international community is responsible to act: “The evidence is damning.”
Jo said the UN report won’t change things in North Korea, at least on the top level because “they’re like gangsters, mobsters,” but she believes a shift is happening within her people, especially through the underground churches. But it won’t be easy, she added, because the North Korean philosophy of Juche—an ideology that man has ultimate control over the world and his own destiny—leaves no room for God: “Kim Il Sung took the place of God, and Kim Jong Il took the seat of Jesus.”
Kang said the Kim regime fears Christianity because “in church, we talk about truth … but everything is a lie in North Korea.” Change is happening in North Korea on multiple levels, but he believes “50 percent of change will come from religion. You cannot dismiss the power of religion.”
Although Pyongyang now has four state-approved “Christian” churches, defectors call them “fake.” Out of sight, about 230 underground churches exist in North Korea, according to an estimate by Christian Solidarity Worldwide. Perhaps North Korea isn’t so dark after all.
Kang said he still thinks about the hyungs (older brothers) he met in China, who also voluntarily returned to North Korea to evangelize. He has not heard from them for a while, but he still has hope that their sacrifice will bear fruit: “I’m praying for those who are in North Korea spreading the words of gospel.”
When UN-commissioned investigators present their report of North Korea’s crimes against humanity in Geneva this month, they’ll be competing for attention. After four days of dignitary speeches, experts will present over 100 reports during the month-long annual session of the UN Human Rights Council. Weighty subjects will come after lighter ones, such as the human rights of a “sustainable environment” and “adequate housing”—indicators of an ever-expanding definition of “rights” beyond life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Critics point out the summit’s hypocritical element: In addition to the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, the Human Rights Council’s 47 members include nations (like Saudi Arabia, China, Cuba, Russia, and Vietnam) that restrict religious liberties and free speech, control family size, or jail political dissidents. Says Ann Buwalda of the Jubilee Campaign, a group fighting religious oppression and trafficking, “The fox is in charge of the henhouse.”
Human Rights Council highlights
March 2 Opening day
March 10 Human rights obligations for a “safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment”
March 11 Freedom of religion and “religious hatred”
March 12 Child trafficking, prostitution, and pornography
March 13 Challenges of abolishing the death penalty
March 14 The rights of ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities
March 17 Human rights abuses in North Korea
March 18 Human rights abuses during Syria’s civil war
March 24 Israeli settlements and human rights in the Palestinian territories
March 25 Sexual violence in Congo; racial discrimination and “xenophobia”
March 26 Human rights in Afghanistan
Sitting before United Nations officials, Shin Dong-hyuk holds up his right hand: His middle finger is missing above the first knuckle. A North Korean prison camp official cut it off with a knife as a punishment for dropping a sewing machine, he explains. Oddly, Shin remembers feeling gratitude. “I thought my wrist was going to be cut off, but it was just a finger.”
Shin’s finger and the burn scars on his back are evidence of two dozen years of cruelty in North Korea’s Camp 14. Shin, 31, is the only known escapee born inside a North Korean political prison camp. His testimony—including his 2012 book Escape from Camp 14, co-written with Blaine Harden—has enlightened the world to conditions inside North Korea’s gulags.
Born to two inmates, Shin grew up in the 31-mile-wide Camp 14 surrounded by electric fences and snowy mountains, stained with the political crimes of his relatives. He and other children were so hungry they caught mice and snakes and picked grains from the floor. They had to ask permission from a guard to eat them or risk a severe beating.
His father may still be alive in the camp. His mother was hanged and his brother shot after 13-year-old Shin tipped off a night guard to their escape plans. From childhood, he had been brainwashed to believe snitching on other prisoners was honorable, a path to food rewards.
Instead, the guard took credit for Shin’s tip and left the boy to be tortured by interrogators: “I was chained and hanged upside down. And they lit a little bit of fire from coal. … They burned my back with that … for two to three days.”
Shin only gained courage to escape when a new prisoner told him stories of the outside world—especially descriptions of grilled meat. In January 2005, the two prisoners made a break for a fence. The other inmate was electrocuted, but Shin wriggled through the wires, ran down a hill, and eventually found his way to China.
Wearing a crisp dark suit and cuff links when I met him last year, Shin has adjusted to physical comforts, but not psychological ones: Camp 14 returns in his dreams. He feels deep shame about his role in his mother’s and brother’s deaths. Growing up, he never learned the affection normally associated with family: Life was a survival competition.
Camp couldn’t snuff out everything, though: When I asked his biggest wish, Shin said, “To meet my father.” —D.J.D.