Author Archives for Grant Montgomery

North Korea Gulag Nation -Part 1

Posted on by

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.”

Continue reading

North Korea Gulag Nation -Part 2

Posted on by

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.

Continue reading

 

North Korea Gulag Nation – Part 3

Posted on by

As he sits in a smoky Seoul coffee shop and recounts his past, Lee, 40, can hardly believe his good fortune. Lee once worked at the heart of power in Pyongyang, a trusted agent for Kim Jong Il in the years before Kim succeeded his father, Kim Il Sung. The names “Kim Jong Il” and “Kim Il Sung” were carved on Lee’s pistol; he considered it “the greatest honor” to serve in Pyongyang’s security elite. Lee was isolated from his family, but he enjoyed the rare perks of good food and clothing.

It was not to last. When officials discovered that one of Lee’s cousins was a driver for Kim Jong Il, he was dismissed for security reasons because of possible collusion. He returned to his hometown and became an executive in the local branch of the Communist Party. But he was shocked to see people eating grass because of crippling food shortages. He began listening to South Korean radio–a grave offense–and in 1994 decided to defect. Lee made his way into China but was tricked by North Korean agents, who smuggled him back over the border. He says that only an order from Kim Jong Il spared him from death.

He was sent to the No. 15 prison camp at Yodok. A banner greeted unlucky arrivals: “You shouldn’t negotiate with class enemies.” Lee, like the other unfortunates, received a ration of 4.5 ounces of corn powder, a few cabbage leaves, and salt. His fellow prisoners included ex-military officers, professors, and others who fell under suspicion after living abroad. They toiled in coal mines, forests, and farm fields. Beatings were routine: Lee rolls up his pants to show the grayish-brown scars on his right leg, reminders of blows from long wooden sticks. He lost most of the sight in his right eye, his teeth were broken, and blood still oozes out of his left ear at times. Of the 1,000 people in his prison unit, he says, about 200 died every year. “It was beyond my imagination. The officers treated prisoners not even like animals but like bugs. They stepped on them,” he says.

But Lee was luckier than most. He was released without explanation in 1999–his weight having fallen from 207 to 119 pounds–and returned to his home village. But he became frightened when rumors circulated that he was a South Korean agent, and he decided to flee through China again–this time successfully. Lee now runs an organic food store.

Kang Chul Hwan is also a veteran of the No. 15 camp at Yodok. Now 34, Kang had a comparatively privileged start in life. He lived in a comfortable Pyongyang apartment assigned to his grandparents, pro-regime Communists of Korean descent who had returned from Japan. In grammar school, he considered himself one of Kim Il Sung’s “little soldiers,” a member of the Pupils’ Red Army, marching with fake machine guns. But when his grandfather came under suspicion–for reasons still unknown–Kang, along with his family, was packed off on a truck to Yodok at the age of 9. From then on, he says, “I can’t believe what happened to me.”

The young Kang was ensnared in a signature feature of North Korea’s political prisons: guilt by family association. Kim Il Sung, say human-rights monitors and former prisoners, declared that three generations of a political enemy’s family can be jailed–without trial. Political rehabilitation is possible in principle, but apparently few endure the years of harsh treatment. Kang and other camp survivors say that sexual intercourse is forbidden (though some women are forced to have sex with camp guards). Women who become pregnant would swallow poison or take falls in attempts to abort. Otherwise, the fetuses are killed–sometimes by the camp doctors, themselves prisoners. Asserts Kang, “The government’s policy was to extinguish all the seeds of all the political prisoners.”

Kang says he nearly died of malnutrition. Survival depended on finding food beyond the meager diet of corn and salt, so he and others laid traps for snakes, rats, and bugs–eaten cooked or raw, if need be. Hunger dictated. “I wanted to eat anything,” he recounts matter of factly.

Ultimately, though, Kang was also one of the lucky ones. He says he wasn’t beaten severely, and part of his sentence was served on relatively light duty at a recycling center for shoes and clothing. At age 19, he was released on Kim Jong Il’s birthday. Five years later, in 1992, he escaped the country, helped by ethnic Koreans living in the borderlands of northeastern China. Now, Kang is a reporter for the Seoul newspaper Chosun Ilbo. His life experience is now his professional beat: North Korean affairs.

Another graduate of the prisons, Lee Soon Ok, had a rougher time of it. She had handled accounting and managerial work at a party distribution center. But when she rebuffed a security chief who demanded an extra jacket, Lee’s fate was sealed. She was accused of embezzlement and disobeying party policy. The result: seven years at the No. 1 prison camp at Gaechun. “My family was split apart in one day,” she says grimly.

At the camp, Lee was tapped to supervise production of exported goods: artificial silk flowers bound for France, handmade wool sweaters for Japan, decorative needlework for Poland. Suits and dress shirts were sold through Hong Kong, getting their origin labels there, before shipment to Europe. If quotas were missed, Lee says, she faced torture. Guards stepped on her head, knocking out teeth and skewing the left side of her face. During one beating, her left eye started to pop out of its socket. She pushed it back in with her fingers. Her arms were injured after she was hung in chains from a ceiling. Even now, she has difficulty sitting or standing for long periods.

In interrogations aimed at forcing a confession, Lee, now 56, was also subjected to water torture. She says guards force-fed her water by pushing the spout of a canister into her mouth. They laid a wooden plank across her abdomen–and pressed down, forcing water out through her mouth, nose, and bladder. “It feels like your intestines are exploding. There’s no way even to describe the pain you feel,” she recalls, with no trace of emotion.

Tears well up, however, when she ponders why a true believer in the system like herself was punished. “I believed that Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were basically gods,” she says quietly. “I was so loyal to the party, and I don’t know why they put me through this.”

Lee won release in 1993, apparently for her success in meeting production quotas, she says. The earnings had gone into a fund to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s 80th birthday the previous year. By then, though, Lee was in no mood to celebrate. “As soon as I got out of prison, I decided I didn’t want to live in that hell,” she says. Lee fled with her son in 1995. She converted to Christianity, having marveled at jailed Christians who refused to renounce their faith in the face of torture and execution. Lee moved to an apartment block on the outskirts of Seoul. Still, she is plagued by feelings of guilt about those left behind. Her new life’s mission is to expose the terrors of the camps. “I want the world to know how evil Kim Jong Il is,” she says. “The world needs to put more pressure on North Korea.”

“It was a system to kill us.” Lee Young Kook, jailed after trying to flee North Korea.

—An US News and World Report article by Thomas Omestad

50 fold increase in North Korean defectors to Thailand

Posted on by

Yonhap News agency claims that the number of North Korean defectors to Thailand has jumped more than 50 times since 2004.

Radio Free Asia (RFA), citing a Thai newspaper, the Bangkok Post, said the number of North Koreans who illegally entered Thailand and were arrested soared from 46 in 2004 to 2,482 in 2010.

Thailand is a frequent destination for North Koreans escaping through China. North Koreans are not granted refugee status in Thailand, but after serving their prison sentences for illegal entry, they’re deported to South Korea.

 

Kang Chol Hwan on the plight of North Koreans

Posted on by

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]

North Korea Prisoner Nation – Part 1

Posted on by

Dr. Norbert Vollertsen, a physician from what was East Germany, had the unique experience of working in hospitals in North Korea from July 1999 through December 2000. Following is a Wall Street Journal article by Dr. Vollertsen:

A human tragedy of hellish dimensions continues in North Korea. For nearly a decade, an unknown number of North Koreans, possibly as many as 300,000, have defected to China. These brave men, women and children risk their lives to flee the mass starvation and brutal oppression brought upon them by Kim Jong Il’s Stalinist regime. Sadly, Beijing’s official policy has been, and remains, to arrest the refugees and forcibly return them to North Korea, where they face imprisonment, torture and in some cases execution.

Until recently, these refugees’ stories and China’s practice of refoulement, or forced return, went largely untold. Mercifully, this is beginning to change. Now, action by human-rights campaigners from around the world –including my own small efforts– helps some of these refugees to seek asylum, and to publicize their brutal treatment at the hands of Chinese and North Korean officials. President Bush is right to call the regime in Pyongyang “evil.”

I know, because I have seen the evil with my own eyes. From July 1999 to December 2000, I traveled with the German medical aid group, Cap Anamur, and gained access to some of the country’s most secretive regions. What I witnessed could best be described as unbelievable deprivation. As I wrote for this newspaper in April 2001, “In the hospitals one see kids too small for their age, with hollow eyes and skin stretched tight across their faces. They wear blue-and-white striped pajamas, like the children in Hitler’s Auschwitz.”

While western critics denounced President Bush’s decision to include North Korea in the Axis of Evil, the long-suffering people of North Korea cheered it. I know: refugees have told me. They know how Ronald Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire” was an early and important step toward its collapse. Moreover, the Axis of Evil remark proved prescient after North Korea’s confession that it had a large, covert nuclear-weapons program. More and more high-ranking defectors have told us that Kim Jong II’s government is in a desperate situation, much closer to collapse than the outside world knows. This, they say, is why he needs the fear of nuclear annihilation to win concessions from the West, prop up his regime, and subjugate his own people.

One must remember that the famine in North Korea is not a natural disaster, but a man-made one. The North Korean dictator uses food as a weapon against his own people, keeping them weak and dependent on the state. From 1994 to 1998 (the most recent reliable data the outside world has), at least two million North Koreans perished from starvation and related diseases. Nearly 50% of all North Korean children are malnourished to the point that it threatens their physical and mental health.I worked in North Korea for 18 months until I was deported in late 2000, for publicly denouncing the regime for its human-rights abuses and failure to distribute the massive amounts of food aid to the people who needed it most. After leaving, I knew the only way I could help the people of North Korea was to tell the world what I had witnessed and work to free the 23 million people who remain prisoners in their own country.

In 2001, I interviewed several hundred North Korean defectors in Seoul, as well as near the Chinese-North Korean border, plus in several other locations where they were hiding. Many of them had spent years in concentration camps and spoke of mass executions, torture, rape, murder, baby killing and other crimes against humanity. Most were imprisoned for “anti-state criminal acts.”

During my interviews, I met with many human-rights activists who had devoted their lives to helping the North Korean refugees. Hiroshi Kato, a Japanese journalist and organizer of Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, based in Tokyo; San Hun Kim, a South Korean former UN official and human rights volunteer; Chun Ki Won, a South Korean Christian missionary; and many others. We realized from our experience in the field in China that the North Korean defectors had risked their lives fleeing starvation and oppression.

In China, most of the refugees live in utterly primitive circumstances. They have little food, no medicine, and lack proper shelter. Many live in the woods, sleep in makeshift huts, and cook in holes in the ground. Those in urban areas are sold like slaves to Chinese businessman, and the young women are forced into prostitution.     Continued

North Korea Prisoner Nation – Part 2

Posted on by

Dr. Norbert Vollertsen, a physician from what was East Germany, had the unique experience of working in hospitals in North Korea from July 1999 through December 2000. Following is part two of a Wall Street Journal article by Dr. Vollertsen:

My fellow North Korean activists and I have appealed to Beijing numerous times, asking them to change their policy toward the refugees; but to this day we have yet to receive a response. In late 2001, we agreed that helping North Korean defectors enter a foreign embassy in Beijing would be an effective way to bring the issue to international attention. Encouraged by other international and South Korean aid workers, who were consulted in the weeks that followed, we arranged a plan of action and made several trips to China to go over the logistics.

Kim Hee Tae, a South Korean humanitarian aid worker operating in China, joined us on condition that the operation be carried out on humanitarian grounds. We agreed, and thus 25 North Korean defectors were interviewed and selected from a great many defectors, all anxious to leave China at any risk. On March 15, 2002, we launched our first operation, sending all 25 defectors into the Spanish Embassy in Beijing. Several similar operations followed.

Our plan was to conduct as many operations as possible, to keep the issue in the news, and ratchet up international pressure on Beijing. Then, a plan to send a group of refugees into the Peruvian Embassy last September was aborted when the Chinese authorities arrested the chosen refugees and the activist Kim Hee Tae in late August. Things then went from bad to worse. In early November, Mr. Kato was detained by the Chinese police, very severely interrogated, even tortured, and finally released because of increasing international pressure, mainly from the Japanese media. Because the police confiscated his notebook, our whole network suffered a huge setback.

Another strategy of ours was to create a flood of North Korean “boat people.” We made extensive plans for vessels to carry refugees across the Yellow sea from China to South Korea. Once again many activists and even a freelance photographer for the New York Times got arrested. Beijing treats the North Korean refugees—and increasingly those who help them as well—like criminals. China continues to prop up Kim Jong II’s evil regime even as thousands sneak over the border to escape it.Even worse, the South Korean government has largely turned a blind eye to the plight of their “brothers” to the north, and in many cases has actually hindered their escape. Our plans to cross the Yellow Sea were foiled in part by South Korean authorities who used surveillance, interception and minders to disrupt our plans. Read this again, for I wish to stress the shame of it: South Korean authorities worked actively to foil our attempts to bring North Korean refugees to freedom. But under South Korean law, North Korean refugees cannot be turned away. It is time for Seoul to live up to this promise.

And it’s not just the officials. South Korean students spend their time and energy denouncing the presence of U.S. troops, instead of denouncing the evils of Kim Jong II. What many foreigners fail to understand is that the student movement in Seoul is heavily influenced by North Korean propaganda, and quite possibly given logistical and financial support through spies from the North.

This is similar to the espionage and propaganda that was so pervasive in Europe during the cold War. As a German who witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, I understand the destabilizing impact an exodus of refugees can have on totalitarian regimes. Despite arrests and beatings, my friends and I will continue our efforts to create a stead flow of refugees through Western embassies in China, by boat across the Yellow Sea, and at the North Korean-Russian border.

As a German, I also know about Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy towards Nazi Germany, how badly it failed, and how disastrous were its consequences. The only way to truly help the North Korean people and to end Pyongyang’s nuclear blackmail is to hasten the collapse of Kim Jong II’s murderous regime. As President Bush said of Iraq in his State of the Union address, so too should it be said of North Korea: the real enemy of the North Korean people is not surrounding them but ruling them.

-Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2003

North Korea in need of food aid due to flooding and drought

Posted on by

North Korea requires immediate food assistance after heavy rains killed scores of people and submerged vast swaths of farmland, a U.N. office said Thursday.

Floods caused by two storm systems last month killed at least 119 people and left tens of thousands homeless, according to the North’s state media. A city official told AP that it was the worst disaster in Anju’s history.

The flooding, which occurred on the heels of a severe drought, renewed concerns about North Korea’s ability to feed its people.

In June, the U.N. said two-thirds of the country’s 24 million people are coping with chronic food shortages.

North Korean officials are asking for food, fuel, medicine, water and purification supplies, while farmers are requesting seeds and fertilizer for the next season, the U.N. said.

Collective rule governs North Korea

Posted on by

After the death of Kim Jong-il at the end of 2011, and the rise of his untested young son Kim Jong-un, North Korea appears to have shifted to collective rule from the strongman dictatorship it has been.

Kim Jong-un is indeed at the head of the ruling coterie, a source with close ties to Pyongyang and Beijing has said, and added that the military has pledged allegiance to the unproven Kim Jong-un.

This is a course what many analysts have anticipated — North Korea being governed by a group of people, though this is the first time for this approach since North Korea was founded in 1948.

North Korea’s collective leadership appears to include Kim Jong-un, his uncle and the military, sources said. Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, 65, is the brother-in-law of Kim Jong-il, and likely the power behind the throne, along with his wife Kim Kyong-hui, Kim Jong-il’s sister.

Also anticipated by Korea watchers to be highly involved was Ri Yong-ho, the chief of the military. However, in July of this year, Ri Yong-ho was relieved of his military and political duties, after more than 53 years of service.

So although only months into his reign, from this and other changes it appears that Kim Jong-un could be flexing his political power muscles.

 

A satirical Vogue profile of the new First Lady of North Korea

Posted on by

A year after the fashion magazine’s since-removed story on Syria’s first lady, here’s how VOGUE might profile Kim Jong Un’s new wife:

vogue Ri Sol Ju north koreaRi Sol Ju is glamorous, young, and very chic — the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.

The first impression of Ri Sol Ju is movement — a determined swath cut through space with a flash of red soles. Dark-brown eyes, short black hair, long neck, an energetic grace. No watch, no jewelry apart from Chanel agates around her neck, not even a wedding ring, but fingernails lacquered a dark blue-green. She’s breezy, conspiratorial, and fun.

Her accent is English but not plummy. Despite what must be a killer IQ, she sometimes uses urban shorthand: “I was, like. . . .”

And then there’s her cultural mission: “People tend to see North Korea as missiles and gulags,” she says. “For us it’s about the accumulation of cultures, traditions, values, customs. We have to make sure that we don’t lose that… ” Here she gives an apologetic grin. “You have to excuse me, but I’m a banker — that brand essence.”

Read full article at The Atlantic