Lee Young Guk’s time as bodyguard came to an end in 1988. He had to leave – not because he didn’t do a good job, but because his cousin got the job of Kim Jong Il’s personal driver. It was prohibited for two members of the same family to work directly for the Kims.
For the first time in over a decade, Lee left Pyongyang, and was shocked by the poverty in the rest of North Korea. “I saw that basically nothing had changed in the outside world while I was gone,” Lee said. “People were still doing as badly as they were before: They were still going hungry or even starving.”
That’s when Lee first started doubting the regime. He used his professional past to get out of the country.. In 1994 Lee got a visa to China, from where he intended to flee to South Korea. His plan did not work, as he was sold out by a man who had promised to help him. He was returned to North Korea and sent to the Yodok camp: the infamous penal labor colony No. 15.
“Prisoners were treated like animals,” Lee said. “No – worse than animals.” Lee said he ate mice and snakes to survive; there was hardly any other food. “Every two weeks, many prisoners were selected and executed,” Lee said. “The rest of us had to watch, from maybe 10 meters away.”
Lee spent four years and seven months at the camp before he was released. When security forces tried to arrest him again, he managed to get away and flee across the river that marks the border with China.