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.”