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.”