Korean citizens who have survived the ordeal of North Korean political prison camps and escaped the regime emerge with harrowing tales of the compatriots and family members who didn’t make it – most killed off by the cruel combination of prolonged near-starvation and slavish forced labor.
“Conditions are horrific. People are worked for 14, 15 or 16 hours every day with just a handful of corn to live on and they are intentionally starved and worked to death,” said Suzanne Scholte, chairman of the North Korea freedom coalition, a group of organizations based in Washington DC assisting defectors and campaigning for improved human rights. “Torture is common, there is no medical aid and the sanitation is horrible. They wear the torn uniforms of old prisoners and sleep crammed together in a room.”
North Korea denies the existence of vast political prison camps, but according to a 2014 UN special commission report, a combination of satellite imagery and extensive human testimony proves they are still in operation and are used to perpetrate “unspeakable atrocities” on hapless citizens, who simply disappear with no word to their families even if they subsequently die in detention.
The UN reported systematic starvation, torture, rape and many executions at such camps, which hold an estimated total of 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners in the most wretched conditions. “The commission estimates that hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have perished in these camps over the past five decades,” the report said.
A 2009 legal report from South Korea cited prisoners being fed starvation rations of a few ounces of rotten corn and some kind of thin “salt soup”. “They lose their teeth, their gums turn black, their bones weaken and, as they age, they hunch over at the waist … they live and die in rags, without soap, socks or underwear,” the Washington Post reported at the time.
Former prisoners sentenced to just 18 months hard labor recalled fellow inmates not surviving amid the constant beatings and malnutrition. They often work in the fields, logging in forests, down mines with no safety measures or crude factories where injuries are rampant, Scholte said.
And in another account, a man who was arrested as a teenager trying to sneak out of North Korea, Hyuk Kim, recalled subsisting at a lower-level labor camp by catching rats, drying them out and eating the flesh raw. “If you tried to cook the rats, the guards would smell the meat or fire, catch you and beat you mercilessly,” the 33-year-old defector later said.