North Korean gulag torture methods

Jung Kwang Il escaped from North Korea in 2004 after spending three years in the Yoduk gulag. He relates that North Korean gulag guards use a variety of torture methods. The one Jung endured was called the “pigeon” technique: Your two hands are tied behind your back, and you are chained to a wall in a manner that prevents you from either properly standing or sitting. Eventually, the backbone starts to almost force its way out the front of your body.

“There are no guards to hear you scream,” he says. Nor are there bathrooms. Sanitation consists of a worker coming by every few days to hose everyone down with a power spray.

In the summertime at Yoduk, workers are required to weed 1,100 square meters of farmland per day — with the 600g/day food allotment dispensed on a pro-rata basis: Finish half the job, and you get half the food.

“If a guard wants to kill someone ‘legitimately,’ it is very easy,” Jung says. “The worker is given work that he can’t finish, and then he gets less food, which makes him even less productive the next day, because he is starving. It sets off a [self-reinforcing] cycle of weakness and starvation. You can kill someone in two weeks through this method.”

During the winter, prisoners were put on firewood detail. Each was made to drag a tree about four meters long, and about 30 cm in diameter, a distance of four kilometers, up and down valleys, four trees per day.

To motivate a set of four workers, the guards would set out three rice cakes on a table, with the slowest worker arriving to an empty plate. It was a sort of horrible reality-show competition staged for the guards’ own entertainment.

Jung says he saw 60 or 70 people collapse and die on tree duty. Because the ground was frozen during the winter months, the corpses were thrown into a warehouse for burial in the spring. By that time, rats — or other, desperately hungry creatures who’d broken into the warehouse — had devoured much of them.

In summertime, inmates planted vegetables. The temptation to steal and eat the seeds was so intense that guards took the precaution of mixing them with ash and human waste before dispensing the seeds to prisoners. But many inmates are so hungry that they eat the seeds anyway, after doing their best to wash them. In this way, many who escaped death from starvation instead died from colitis and other waste-borne intestinal ailments.

Satellite images show North Korean gulag prisons growing

Hundreds of thousands of people, including children, are detained in political prison camps and other detention facilities in North Korea. Many have not committed any crime whatsoever but are merely family members of those deemed guilty. They are detained as a form of collective punishment known officially in North Korea as “guilt-by-association”.

Amnesty International has shared the latest evidence with the UN Commission of Inquiry investigating human rights abuses in North Korea. The report is entitled “North Korea: Continued Investment in the Infrastructure of Repression”.

Researcher Rajiv Narayan, said:

  • “Under its new leader Kim Jong-un, North Korea is violating every conceivable human right.
  • “[Political prison] camps are a gruesome and powerful tool at the heart of a vast network of repression.
  • “People are sent to the political prison camps without charge, let alone a trial, many of them simply for knowing someone who has fallen out of favor.”

North Korea’s vast infrastructure of repression was exposed in satellite images taken in May showing the development of two of the country’s largest political prison camps. In a comprehensive mapping of camps, known as kwanliso, ’15’ and ’16’, Amnesty International found new housing blocks, an expansion of work facilities and tight security with perimeter fences and guard towers clearly visible.

Significant economic activity – such as mining, logging and agriculture – is  clearly visible in the satellite images and there is an expansion of an industrial area within kwanliso 16. Forced hard labor is common in North Korea’s political prison camps which hold an estimated 130,000 prisoners.

Kim Young-soon, a former detainee in Camp 15 between 1980 and 1989, described a public execution she witnessed of two detainees who were caught attempting to escape. She explained how they were first “half beaten to death” and then:  “They were brought to a stage after they were badly beaten. The prisoners were tied to wooden stakes and shot three times in their head, chest and feet.”

[Daily Mail]

Rape and murder of female inmates in North Korean political prison camp

A former security guard at the largest political prison camp in North Korea has spoken out for the first time about the rape and murder of female inmates at the facility.

Mr Lee, a former security official at Camp 16 in the 1980s and 1990s, revealed the horror of daily life for prisoners at the site near Hwaseong in North Hamgyong province, which is approximately 215 square miles. He broke his silence to tell Amnesty International about the methods used to execute prisoners incarcerated in the Soviet-style, hidden ‘gulags’.

According to Mr Lee, women were killed after being brutally raped. “After a night of ‘servicing’ the officials, the women had to die because the secret could not get out. This happens at most of the political prison camps,” he said.

He also told how detainees were forced to dig their own graves and were then killed with hammer blows to their necks.

Mr Lee witnessed prison officers strangling detainees and then beating them to death with wooden sticks at the camp.

[Daily Mail]

North Korean control even beyond its prison camps

When Amnesty International officials scrutinized new satellite imagery of a notorious North Korean gulag, what caught their attention was not what was happening inside the fence but outside it.

A network of what appeared to be guard posts enclosing a valley and a small town indicated not an expansion of the sprawling Camp 14, as originally thought, but authorities’ control of those living beyond the camp’s perimeter. (The best-selling book “Escape from Camp 14” by author Blaine Harden has shed light onto one corner of the gulag.)

Amnesty said it commissioned satellite images and analysis of the area. It found that North Korea has constructed a 12.5-mile perimeter, much of it on steep terrain, next to the camp to encircle a valley that contains mines, orchards and a small town. While the perimeter is marked by posts and not a fence, there is controlled access and some 20 guard towers that are more concentrated near the town than the camp.

“What’s most worrisome is that it seems to expand the scope of control beyond the formal boundaries of the prison camp,” said Frank Jannuzi , deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA. The rights group isn’t sure why that’s happening but says it’s another good reason to step up scrutiny of human rights conditions in the secretive nation, with its unparalleled restrictions on citizenry and its vast gulag.

Amnesty is pushing for member states next week at the U.N. Human Rights Council to support an independent commission of inquiry into systematic abuses and crimes against humanity in North Korea. That would add international pressure on Pyongyang, which was hit Thursday with its latest round of U.N. sanctions.

A U.N. special rapporteur on human rights is due to present a report on North Korea to the council in Geneva on Monday. Japan, Europe, the U.S. and South Korea have all indicated support for some kind of enhanced inquiry mechanism, and only half of the 47 member states on the council will need to vote in favor for it to be established.

North Korea Gulag Nation -Part 1

The guards at North Korea’s No. 22 Hoeryong prison camp had a little competition going: catch one of the rare inmates who dare try to escape and win a trip to college. And so one day, recalls Ahn Myong Chul, a former prison driver who later fled North Korea, an enterprising fellow guard coaxed five prisoners into climbing the camp’s barbed-wire fence. He shot them dead–and thereby earned an education at a state political college.

Such is the capriciousness of life in one corner of North Korea’s vast gulag, its chain of political prison camps for those who–often by chance–run afoul of the world’s most virulently Stalinist regime. Today, at least 200,000 political prisoners are held in six giant camps, according to South Korean and U.S. officials, and the number may be growing as North Korea’s leaders tighten their grip on a hungry and desperate population. The camps are nothing short of human black holes, into which purported enemies of the regime disappear and rarely exit.

“If they died, even their corpses would be buried there,” says Ahn, now a 34-year-old bank worker in Seoul.

In the past three decades, some 400,000 North Koreans are believed to have perished in the gulag. Yet relatively little is known about the camps, which are sealed off from international scrutiny. U.S. News tracked down five former prisoners and guards who managed to defect to South Korea, and they describe a world of routine horror: beatings, crippling torture, hunger, slave-style labor, executions. Fetuses are said to be aborted by salt water injected into women’s wombs; if that fails, babies are strangled upon delivery. Guards practice tae kwon do on prisoners, who obediently line up to take their punches and kicks. These are places, says Ahn, where the proverbial salt was actually rubbed into prisoners’ wounds.

Inmates are told they are traitors–and no longer human beings. Their grinding, daily routines reinforce the message. After laboring 14 hours a day, exhausted prisoners return at night to dreary, unheated quarters. A few die from illness, hunger, or injuries in a typical week, say survivors. Executions by firing squad or hanging serve as warnings not to resist. Former guard Choi Dong Chul, 36, describes the fate of a family of five political prisoners caught three days after making their escape: The grandmother and the father were hanged; his three boys were shot; their bodies were strung up; and some 15,000 inmates filed by, throwing stones, which tore apart the bodies. “Just make them obey” was the standing order on handling inmates, says Choi, who served at the now defunct No. 11 camp in North Hamgyong province.

The survivors’ recollections cannot be verified firsthand, and the North Korean government denies that it even maintains political prisons. But U.S. and South Korean authorities, along with some human-rights experts in both countries, give the accounts considerable credence since they track with what intelligence shows about the North’s repressive practices. “It’s arguably the worst human-rights situation in the world,” asserts Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican.

Life in North Korea’s secret gulag is getting some overdue attention, however. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has condemned Pyongyang for “systemic, widespread and grave” rights violations. The Bush administration is also focusing on the camps–and uncovering new detail about their surprising scope. Despite North Korea’s denials, says a senior State Department official privy to intelligence, “there’s lots of proof.”

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North Korea Gulag Nation -Part 2

Early in the Bush administration, a U.S. spy satellite was assigned to shoot high-resolution pictures from space of one camp in mountainous northeastern North Korea. At first, officials were mystified: Where were the camp’s fences? They repeatedly ordered the satellite to expand the frame of its pictures. Finally, a senior administration official tells U.S. News, the perimeter was located, revealing a camp larger in size than the District of Columbia, with clusters of buildings that look like villages.

“If you look at a map of North Korea, it would not be just a dot on the map. It’s a perceptible portion of the map,” says the official. “There’s a general lack of understanding of how depraved the human-rights situation in North Korea is,” the official says, predicting that “the horrors that will come out” will rival those of Cambodia in the 1970s.

And yet, stories from the North Korean gulag receive surprisingly little attention in South Korea and elsewhere. The South Korean government has turned the spotlight away from the North Korean gulag. The South’s “sunshine policy” of reaching out to the North seeks to avoid confrontation with Kim Jong Il in favor of encouraging Pyongyang to open up to the world.

That hope doesn’t impress many human-rights activists. “The defectors are politically inconvenient,” says Tim Peters, the founder of Helping Hands Korea, a Seoul-based group that helps North Korean refugees make their way to the South. “They’re not consonant with the sunshine policy,” a tenet of which, he argues, is “Don’t offend the Kim Jong Il regime.” One result is public indifference. Young South Koreans, Peters says, “are woefully ignorant of the gulag in North Korea.”

But those who endured the camps are anything but indifferent. They describe a level of savagery that satellite photographs can never convey. Nor does the Orwellian terminology for the camps reveal much. Political prisons are called “management centers.” Those centers, in turn, are divided into two categories: “complete control zones,” with life imprisonment, and “revolutionizing process zones,” from where some inmates, principally family members, might eventually return to society. The prisoners are banally referred to as “resettlers.” Other camps, dubbed “re-education” places, lump together common criminals and political prisoners.

The horror of the North Korean gulag is compounded by the trivial offenses that can draw such punishment: listening to foreign radio, accidentally sitting on a newspaper photo of Kim Jong Il, or making a heedlessly candid remark. Most prisoners, recalls Ahn, “made one small mistake.”

One was arrested after singing a South Korean pop song titled, “Don’t Cry for Me, Younger Sister.” The unlucky woman, says David Hawk, a researcher for the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, learned the tune from watching a North Korean propaganda film but was nonetheless accused of disturbing the public socialist order. Often, individuals and even whole families are whisked away from their homes in the dead of night and packed off to camps. Says Hawk, a veteran of human-rights probes in Cambodia and Rwanda, “I don’t know of a country in the world today that’s as repressive as North Korea. I believe it’s the worst.”

The camps serve as a frightening, if mysterious, deterrent to anti-Communist activity. North Koreans receive few details about the gulag–but enough is known that parents see fit to warn their children to keep family opinions to themselves. “There were rumors that nobody can get out,” says Soon Young Bum, a 46-year-old fishing boat captain from North Korea who brought his family to freedom last August. Adds Benjamin Yoon, a leader of the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, “We call North Korea a prison state. It’s rule by terror.”

The camps also generate funds for a cash-strapped regime whose economy has shrunk by about half since 1990. Prisoners mine coal, harvest trees, and manufacture goods for export and domestic consumption–from snake brandy to bicycles. They gather the roots of plants used for traditional medicines, some destined for sale in Japan. The hot pepper sauce from Ahn’s camp at Hoeryong sits on the tables at Pyongyang’s Koryo Hotel, where westerners stay. Ahn likens the camps to Nazi-run Auschwitz. The survivors agree.

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Kang Chol Hwan on the plight of North Koreans

Kang Chol Hwan is a former North Korean prisoner and author of The Aquariums of Pyongyang.

The plight of North Koreans today, Kang says, is “very similar to that of Jews during World War II. Hitler and Kim Jong Il are very similar,” he says. “The methods of killing are different, but everything else is the same. When I see photos of the Jewish genocide, my heart just breaks.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and member of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, suggest a more accurate parallel would perhaps be Joseph Stalin — “he built the gulag.”

“Stalin, ultimately the worst dictator probably of the 20th century, said that one death is a tragedy and that a million deaths is a statistic.

“Take the power of one girl, Anne Frank, whose name, for so many millions around the world, is more than just a statistic from the Nazi Holocaust. I’m not making a direct comparison between Anne Frank and Mr. Kang, but I am saying that having someone as a symbol is enormously important.”

[From “A View From Inside” by Grace E. Jang, published in KoreAm Journal]