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