Ahn Myong-Chol witnessed many horrors as a North Korean prison camp guard, but few haunt him like the image of guard dogs attacking school children and tearing them to pieces.
Ahn, who worked as a prison camp guard for eight years until he fled the country in 1994, recalls the day he saw three dogs get away from their handler and attack children coming back from the camp school. “There were three dogs and they killed five children,” the 45-year-old told AFP through a translator. “They killed three of the children right away. The two other children were barely breathing and the guards buried them alive,” he said, speaking on the sidelines of a Geneva conference for human rights activists.
The next day, instead of putting down the murderous dogs, the guards pet them and fed them special food “as some kind of award,” he added with disgust. “People in the camps are not treated as human beings… They are like flies that can be crushed,” said Ahn, his sad eyes framed by steel-rimmed glasses.
The former guard is one of many defectors who provided harrowing testimony to a UN-mandated enquiry that last week issued a searing, 400-page indictment of gross human rights abuses in North Korea. [Read summary of report]
After fleeing the country two decades ago, Ahn worked for years at a bank in South Korea but gradually got involved in work denouncing the expansive prison camp system in the isolated nation. Three years ago, he quit his bank job to dedicate all his time to his non-governmental organization, Free NK Gulag. “It’s my life’s mission to spread awareness about what is happening in the camps,” he said.
Ahn Myong-Chol knows all too well the brutal mentality of the camp guards. When he, as the son of a high-ranking official, was ushered onto the prestigious path of becoming a guard in 1987, he says he was heavily brainwashed to see all prisoners as “evil”. At his first posting at camp 14, north of Pyongyang, he was encouraged to practice his Tae Kwon Do skills on prisoners.
And he recalls how guards were urged to shoot any prisoner who might try to escape. “We were allowed to kill them, and if we brought back their body, they would award us by letting us go study at college,” he said. Some guards would send prisoners outside the camp and kill them as escapees to gain access to a college education, he added.
Although he witnessed numerous executions, starving children, and the effects of extreme torture, it was not until he was promoted to be a driver, transporting soldiers back and forth between camps, that he began to question the system. During his travels he sometimes struck up conversations with prisoners and was astonished to find that “more than 90 percent” of them said they had no idea why they were in the camp.
There are an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners in North Korea, a nation of 24 million people.
[ Agence France-Presse]
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