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North Korean soldiers
Associated Press/Photo by Lee Jin-man
North Korean soldiers

Running from the regime

North Korea | North Korean escapees tell stories of brainwashing, abuse, and survival

Today a United Nations commission will formally present a 372-page report to the Human Rights Council documenting abuses in North Korea. As we reported in the March 22 issue of WORLD, UN investigators have spent the past year probing eyewitness claims of atrocities committed by Kim Jong Un’s regime, interviewing former North Korean citizens, prison camp inmates, and military officials. What follows are graphic accounts given during UN hearings.

‘Just like animals’

The Tumen River felt icy as Kim Song Ju waded through it in March 2006. He was 32 years old, had sold his house and goods for food, and was desperate to escape poverty and starvation in his homeland of North Korea. On the river’s far side was China, where he’d already sent his mother to live with relatives. By crossing the Tumen without permission, he was breaking laws in both nations.

Kim was one of thousands who have fled North Korea in recent years. Food rationing, political and religious suppression, and severe abuse in prison camps make the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea one of the cruelest places on earth.

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Like many defectors, Kim’s first trip to China was brief. Chinese authorities soon discovered and deported him. During a truck ride to a North Korean detention center, guards made Kim and other detainees sing.

At the detention center, detainees had to crawl through an entrance about 20 inches high. Guards crammed up to 50 of them into a single cell, where they could barely move. “The North Korean prison guards were telling us that once you get to this prison … you’re not human, you’re just like animals,” Kim said. They ate watery soup made of powdered corn and corn husk.

Once, a guard caught a fellow prisoner talking without permission: He ordered the prisoner to put his hand through a tight metal grid opening, then hit it about 30 times with a gun cleaning rod. Afterward, the prisoner’s hand was so swollen he couldn’t pull it back through the grid.

Interrogators beat Kim, hoping he would confess to ties with religious groups or South Korea. They ultimately sent him to a prison camp to serve a one-month sentence cutting lumber. After contracting a fever and being sent to a doctor, he escaped from the hospital, and soon made another crossing into China.

Chinese officials were ever ready to deport him again. In all, Kim escaped from North Korea four times—the last by jumping out of a moving train while his guard ogled an attractive woman. Missionaries ultimately helped Kim, now 40, reach the United Kingdom, where he lives today.—Daniel James Devine

Strong as steel

Beginning in kindergarten, Park Jihyun grew up learning the history of the Kim family—North Korea’s ruling dynasty. Her third grade class rose at 4:30 a.m. to study and work until 8 p.m. Besides bookwork, they cleaned the schoolhouse, collected twigs for firewood, and labored on local farms.

In 1997, her family troubles began. Her mother left for China on business, her father had a brain aneurysm, and military officials beat her brother severely for alleged involvement in a gold scheme. After the brother escaped from guards, government agents began watching the family home.

From China, her mother sent word urging the family to leave North Korea. Park’s father was too sick to travel, but as he was dying said, “Please save your brother.” Park left the sick man with a bowl of rice, and escaped to China with her brother and sister.

Once across the river, however, Park’s situation only got worse. She was sold in marriage—with her mother’s cooperation, she believes—to a Chinese man. In her new husband’s village, she lived in a mud and straw hut. Her husband and his family told Park she was their property: They would turn her in to police if she tried to escape. 

When she became pregnant, she rejected a neighbor’s advice to abort, and hid the pregnancy early on by tying a tight cloth around her waist. She finally gave birth to a boy. “I wished him to become really strong like hard steel, so I named him Steel.”

When her son was about 4 years old, Chinese authorities found Park, and sent her back to North Korea as an illegal immigrant. Her son stayed with his grandmother.

In a North Korean prison, Park was strip-searched. Along with other female prisoners, she was deprived even of menstrual pads, except for a single rag. When Park tried to wash hers, a guard made her wear it on her head as punishment.She raised corn and vegetables during a one-month labor sentence. While pushing a heavy cart in bare feet, she cut herself, causing an infection that spread to her leg and nearly resulted in amputation.

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