Dozens of purple scars crisscross Lee Young-guk’s lower legs. He says many are the result of beatings endured while imprisoned in Yoduk, North Korea’s most notorious prison camp. Removing his dentures, Lee shows just five or six original teeth, wonky and cracked; the only ones he 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. A once loyal servant of the regime, Lee says he left Kim’s employment without issues. While trying to defect to South Korea, he 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.