Growing up in North Korea, Gim Gyu Min listened to banned radio broadcasts from the South that turned him against his own country. “I was born in a normal worker family,” he said. “My father was a weapons technician, and my mother worked at the local state-owned market.”
As a student, he turned to activism. He destroyed several symbolic sites of the state, including a local polling station. He was arrested and while in prison awaiting trial, Gim realized he would be sentenced to a prison camp. In order to be sent to a hospital instead, he swallowed a nail, causing enough injury to require surgery. After the operation, he took advantage of lax security during a public holiday to escape and flee across the border into China, where he was arrested and returned to North Korea.
This time he was imprisoned at the Chongjin Detention Center, a political prison in the mountainous northeast corner of North Korea, relatively near the Chinese border. From there, he escaped a second time, again taking advantage of the public confusion during a holiday. Crossing parts of China and Mongolia on foot, he was finally rescued by the South Korean government.
Gim had good reason to flee a North Korean concentration camp. Political prisoners in the camps have been ordered to dispose of corpses and women have been forced to kill their own babies, according to a 2014 UN report. Some escapees have described watching the mortal remains of prisoners being “burnt like rubbish” and their ashes used as fertilizer.
It is not unusual for entire families, including young children, to have been incarcerated as a form of collective punishment against a single malcontent who committed the same sort of anti-state activities as Gim. As for his own family, Gim has heard they’re all dead.