Dozens of purple scars crisscross Lee Young-guk’s lower legs, many the result of beatings endured while imprisoned in North Korea’s most notorious prison camp. Removing his dentures, Lee shows just five or six original teeth, wonky and cracked; the only ones has left after countless punches to the head. Being hit with the butt of a rifle, he says, left him blind in one eye.
Lee was the bodyguard to Kim Jong Il for more than 10 years, before the late North Korean leader assumed power in 1994. A once loyal servant of the regime, Lee says he left Kim’s employment without issues. He realized he was not a nice man, but only after he traveled out of North Korea, and saw how other parts of the world functioned, did it become clear to him that Kim was a dictator.
Lee tried to escape but was captured while trying to defect to South Korea and thrown into the infamously brutal Yodok political camp. “If you are a political prisoner, Yodok’s main goal is to kill you,” he says. He remembers when he first arrived seeing inmates who looked like walking skeletons.
“It was tough enough that they barely fed me,” he says. “What was worse was they kept on beating me, and they executed people once a week, which we were forced to watch. You have to be mentally strong, then the cycle repeats itself.”
In the five years between being arrested in China and his release for good behavior, Lee says he lost almost half his body weight. He says inmates were so weak from the lack of food, they were rarely able to life their heads unless ordered to do so by guards. If they were unable to complete their physical work for the day, Lee says they weren’t fed.
Lee speaks of the flower garden at Yodok, a euphemistic phrase used by defectors to describe mass graves at the camps. “Yodok’s flower garden has thousands, even tens of thousands of people in it. Lines and lines of dead bodies. I had to carry them, bodies with fluids still flowing out of them and bury them where the guards told us.”
Lee is adamant North Korean leaders must be held accountable from crimes committed against its own people.