Ex-prison guard viewed North Korean inmates as subhuman enemies

An Myeong Chul offers a rarely-heard voice from the other side of a prison network considered as merciless as those of Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. In the North Korean prison camps where Mr. An worked for eight years as one of the system’s feared, ruthless guards, Taekwondo was a weapon of subjugation.

“I remember practicing Taekwondo on the prisoners,” Mr. An said in an interview. “It was a way to control the inmates. For instance, if we had a high-ranking official visiting the prison camp, we would be told to show what we’ve learned and practice … Taekwondo on the inmate.”

Commanders drove home repeatedly that the inmates were enemies of the state, guilty of serious anti-regime crimes who deserved to be treated like scum, he said.

“If we were to help these prisoners in any way or be compassionate, we would be executed and our families as well, and we were given the right to kill any prisoner who attempted to escape,” he said. “I remember a colleague dragging a prisoner who was working in the field and executing this prisoner.”

Mr. An said he witnessed “a lot of deaths” of inmates, whether as a result of violence by camp authorities, starvation, overwork or accidents in workplaces like the coal mine where prisoners toiled at the notorious Camp 22.

In October, 1992, 300 of Camp 22’s 50,000 inmates died from an infectious disease they caught from a contaminated field mouse, he said. The prisoners were particularly susceptible to communicable illness, said the ex-guard, since they were fed the minimum amount of food needed to carry out their work tasks.

“The best way to put it is they were the slaves, and we were the slave owners.”

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Non-specific crimes result in North Korean prison camp

An Myeong Chul worked for eight years as one of the feared, ruthless guards in one of North Korea’s prison camps. Mr. An eventually became curious about the prisoners he once viewed as sub-human, discovering that, far from being enemies, most were hapless victims of an often-indiscriminate dragnet.

About 90% were arrested in the middle of the night without knowing what they had done wrong, he said. “They would be told they were there to pay for the crimes of some distant relative that they had never met,” said Mr. An. “I saw even two-year-olds and four-year-olds sent to the prison camp, and what crime did these children commit?”

Then his own father came under suspicion after suggesting that blame for the famine wracking the country lay with top Communist leaders, not local officials as suggested by supreme leader Kim Jong-il. Knowing the kind of fate that awaited him for voicing dissent, the father killed himself by drinking poison, said Mr. An. His mother, sister and brother were arrested and dispatched to the gulag themselves, but he managed to escape Camp 22 and make it across the nearby Chinese border.

Helped on the other side by ethnic-Korean Chinese, he eventually wound up in South Korea.

He still regrets, though, that the search launched by both North Korean and Chinese agents after he ran led to 140 Korean refugees in China being sent back to the regime they had fled.

He has other regrets, too, about his years in the gulag. “I’m very sorry and apologetic for the fact I was part of that system.”

[National Post]