In his frightening decade as an inmate of a huge North Korean prison camp, Kang Cheol-hwan could never be sure of exact numbers, but knew the statistics were chilling. Of the 35,000 or more prisoners at Yoduk camp, about 10% died every year, succumbing to malnutrition, mistreatment, overwork or a combination of lethal factors, he estimates.
“I myself almost died three times,” Mr. Kang said. “And I remember burying with my own hands about 300 prison inmates.”
As one of the first defectors to speak openly on the topic, Mr. Kang helped draw the curtain on the Stalinist network of political prisons, designed to tamp down any hint of opposition. His 2001 memoir about the years in Yoduk, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, is now a standard text on the gulag.
The network of half a dozen camps, he said, is comparable to the gulags of Stalinist Russia and Mao Zedong’s China, but probably most similar to Hitler’s concentration camps, he argued, given the number of North Koreans who die behind their fences.The Nazi analogy would undoubtedly be debated by some, but testimony by Mr. Kang and others has provided mounting evidence of the camps’ brutality.
He was sent to Yoduk in 1977 at age nine, one of several relatives imprisoned after his grandfather was accused of being an agent of Japan, where the family had lived earlier.
The camp was divided into the total-control zone and the less-severe zone, where he was held. It was still “very harsh,” with forced labor from early morning to nine at night, torture rooms and “massive malnutrition,” Mr. Kang said.
“It actually depended on the prisoner themselves and how much effort they put into trying to survive — if they made an effort to catch insects or rats or snakes to supplement whatever food they were getting.”