Dogs ripped kids to pieces in North Korean prison camp

Ahn Myong-Chol witnessed many horrors as a North Korean prison camp guard, but few haunt him like the image of guard dogs attacking school children and tearing them to pieces.

Ahn, who worked as a prison camp guard for eight years until he fled the country in 1994, recalls the day he saw three dogs get away from their handler and attack children coming back from the camp school. “There were three dogs and they killed five children,” the 45-year-old told AFP through a translator. “They killed three of the children right away. The two other children were barely breathing and the guards buried them alive,” he said, speaking on the sidelines of a Geneva conference for human rights activists.

The next day, instead of putting down the murderous dogs, the guards pet them and fed them special food “as some kind of award,” he added with disgust. “People in the camps are not treated as human beings… They are like flies that can be crushed,” said Ahn, his sad eyes framed by steel-rimmed glasses.

The former guard is one of many defectors who provided harrowing testimony to a UN-mandated enquiry that last week issued a searing, 400-page indictment of gross human rights abuses in North Korea. [Read summary of report]

After fleeing the country two decades ago, Ahn worked for years at a bank in South Korea but gradually got involved in work denouncing the expansive prison camp system in the isolated nation. Three years ago, he quit his bank job to dedicate all his time to his non-governmental organization, Free NK Gulag. “It’s my life’s mission to spread awareness about what is happening in the camps,” he said.

Ahn Myong-Chol knows all too well the brutal mentality of the camp guards. When he, as the son of a high-ranking official, was ushered onto the prestigious path of becoming a guard in 1987, he says he was heavily brainwashed to see all prisoners as “evil”. At his first posting at camp 14, north of Pyongyang, he was encouraged to practice his Tae Kwon Do skills on prisoners.

And he recalls how guards were urged to shoot any prisoner who might try to escape. “We were allowed to kill them, and if we brought back their body, they would award us by letting us go study at college,” he said. Some guards would send prisoners outside the camp and kill them as escapees to gain access to a college education, he added.

Although he witnessed numerous executions, starving children, and the effects of extreme torture, it was not until he was promoted to be a driver, transporting soldiers back and forth between camps, that he began to question the system. During his travels he sometimes struck up conversations with prisoners and was astonished to find that “more than 90 percent” of them said they had no idea why they were in the camp.

There are an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners in North Korea, a nation of 24 million people.

[ Agence France-Presse]

 

North Korean Prison Camp Locations

North Korean prsion camp locationsThe report issued by UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea is staggering in its breadth and detail, including ample reference to North Korean prison camps. The adjacent map details locations of the prison system throughout the country. (Click on map to enlarge)

The Economist estimates between 80,000 and 120,000 people are imprisoned in these camps, and notes that they are usually members of one of three groups:

  • people trying to flee the country,
  • Christians and those promoting other “subversive” beliefs, or
  • political prisoners.

The UN report is written by a three-member UN panel headed by Michael Kirby, an Australian former judge, and it is extraordinary in the fierceness of its condemnation.  Mr. Kirby told journalists North Korea was comparable to “Nazi Germany,” and the report itself urges the UN to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for prosecution for war crimes. In a letter sent directly to Kim Jong Un, the North’s dictator, the commission warned that he could be held accountable for crimes against humanity.

For all its might, though, the Commission of Inquiry may not have much teeth. China, as a permanent member of the UN’s Security Council, can veto any referral to the ICC. And China certainly has no reason to call attention to human rights abuses. As The Economist noted, Beijing has blood on its hands, too:

“Equally striking is the [report’s] indictment directed by the COI at China. Chinese leaders refused to let the commission visit its border provinces with North Korea and have opposed the commission’s inquiry from the start. They too received a critical letter from the commission, suggesting that they are ‘aiding and abetting crimes against humanity’. Refugees are routinely rounded up inside China and returned to North Korea, often to face imprisonment, torture and even execution.”

A 36-page summary of the 400-page report can be found here.

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.

North Korean prisoners programmed to be informants

As a 13-year-old in a North Korean prison camp, Shin Dong-hyuk overheard his mother and brother speaking. One word made him perk up — escape.

Knowing the rule, “Any witness to an attempted escape who fails to report it will be shot immediately,” Shin’s “camp-bred instincts took over,” as journalist Blaine Harden writes in “Escape From Camp 14.” Running out of the house and finding the school’s night guard, Shin did exactly what he had been raised to do — he ratted on his own mother and brother, explaining what he had overheard.

That night, he slept at the dormitory, not at home.

The next day, guards came and found Shin in the schoolyard. Handcuffed, blindfolded, pushed into a car and taken to an underground prison in Camp 14, he was confused why he, an informer, was being treated like this. Eventually, he realized that the night guard had taken all the credit for foiling his family’s escape plan — his mother and brother were both caught. Unable to trust the son of attempted runaways, guards held Shin in the underground prison for eight months, initially subjecting him to brutal torture and feeding him just enough tasteless food to survive his dark cell, which he shared with a kind old man.

Upon his release, he was handcuffed and blindfolded, then driven to a field near his childhood home — the same field where he had witnessed several annual executions for most of his life. A guard removed his handcuffs and blindfold and sat him down. Then, his mother and brother were dragged out and led to a gallows and wooden stake lodged in the ground.

Facing execution, his mother tried to catch his eyes, but he refused to look. As his mother hung, he felt at the time that she deserved death for endangering his life with the escape plan.

Tied to a wooden pole, his brother was next: Three guards each fired three shots, killing him instantly, which, Shin felt he also deserved.

[Excerpts from Jewish Journal article authored by Jared Sichel]

What life is like in a North Korean prison camp

Based on North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk’s experiences, families at Camp 14 get just two hours daily of electricity — from 4 a.m. to 5 a.m. and from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. They have no beds, tables, chairs or running water. They use a communal privy, the waste from which is used as fertilizer for the camp farm.

At Camp 14, Shin’s diet was corn porridge, pickled cabbage and cabbage soup, twice daily, for 23 years. There were no exceptions, except when the political police, the bo-wi-bu, withheld food as punishment.

As is true for most North Koreans, who live near starvation, almost anything at Camp 14 is viewed as edible. Shin and his fellow prisoners ate frogs, snakes, insects, rats —anything.

In the winter, when food is scarce, prisoners try to abate hunger pangs by not defecating, regurgitating and re-eating food — nothing is off limits, but none of it changes the fact of starvation.

One day, when Shin was 6, he was sitting in class when his teacher “sprang a surprise search,” digging through the pockets of all 40 students in class. The teacher found five kernels of corn, as Shin tells it, all of which belonged to a female classmate.

Ordering the girl to kneel in front of the class, the teacher repeatedly struck her head with his chalkboard pointer. After repeated strikes, lumps puffed up on her skull, blood poured from her head, and she collapsed, unconscious. Later that night, she died. The next day, the teacher was back in front of the class.

It wasn’t the first murder Shin witnessed, but it was the first informal one. Aside from the two or three annual executions that every prisoner has to watch at Camp 14, the bo-wi-bu have the green light to punish at will.

Unlike students in the rest of North Korea, prisoners are not fed the brainwash devised by the Kim regime of its own god-like benevolence. Rather, they are taught next to nothing. Shin believes children born in the camp were intentionally kept ignorant.

[Excerpted from Jewish Journal article authored by Jared Sichel]

North Korea using prisoners as lab rats

Like its Nazi counterpart, the North Korean government sometimes uses prisoners as lab rats to test the potency of certain chemicals.

Shin Dong-hyuk [formerly interned in the North Korean Camp 14] remembers when guards gave 15 inmates chemical solutions to rub on themselves. Shortly thereafter, they developed boils on their skin. As [his biographer] wrote, “Shin saw a truck arrive at the factory and watched as the ailing prisoners were loaded into it. He never saw them again.”

According to The Guardian newspaper, prisoners and guards from Camp 22 in Hamgyong “described watching entire families being put in glass chambers and gassed.”

One official document smuggled out by a defector said that 39-year-old Lin Hun-Nwa was transferred from Camp 22 “for the purpose of human experimentation of liquid gas for chemical weapons.”

“I will never forget the anguish of a North Korean defector who years after the fact broke down describing how he supervised the slow killing of parents and their child in a glass-encased chamber,” writes Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who also sits on the board of directors of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

“Shocking details of how long the agony went on and the efforts of the doomed parents to breathe air into the lungs of their dying child were duly written down and forwarded for analysis to those in charge of the production and upgrade of North Korean poison gases.”

[Excerpts from Jewish Journal article authored by Jared Sichel]

Shin Dong-hyuk’s escape from North Korean gulag

As Shin Dong-hyuk crawled over his friend’s lifeless body, the 23-year-old North Korean could feel the electric current shooting through him. Luckily, for Shin, the two pairs of pants he was wearing, coupled with his friend’s corpse, shielded him for the most part from the deadly voltage pulsing through the barbed-wire fences.

Those fences had trapped him since his birth inside Camp 14, a North Korean prison on the Taedong River in the hills about 50 miles northeast of the capital city of Pyongyang. But on this frigid afternoon, Jan. 2, 2005, something happened at the camp that had never happened before — someone escaped.

Shin’s friend, Park Yong Chul, had made it to the fence first, pushing his upper body through the lowest two strands of electrified wire. The current, though, was so powerful that it glued Park to the fence, killing him within seconds.

As journalist Blaine Harden writes in “Escape From Camp 14,” the gripping account of Shin’s life in the forced labor camp, “The weight of his [Park’s] body pulled down the bottom strand of wire, pinning it against the snowy ground and creating a small gap in the fence.”

Shin crawled through that gap, but not before exposing both of his legs to the wire, incinerating his skin. In terrible pain, he ran down the mountain away from Camp 14, becoming the first known person to have been born in and lived his whole life in a North Korean prison camp, and then to escape.

By evening, after traveling a few miles, he had found a few ears of dried corn, some cotton shoes and a worn military uniform that would allow him to ditch his prisoner’s garb and avoid unwanted attention. Shin had no money but was trying to make his way 370 miles north, to the Chinese border, to freedom.

He was wary of running into police, but he was also thin and starving.

He blended perfectly into North Korea.

[Excerpt of Jewish Journal article, authored by Jared Sichel]

Read more
View video clip of Shin Dong-hyuk

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]

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]

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.