The guards at North Korea’s No. 22 Hoeryong prison camp had a little competition going: catch one of the rare inmates who dare try to escape and win a trip to college. And so one day, recalls Ahn Myong Chul, a former prison driver who later fled North Korea, an enterprising fellow guard coaxed five prisoners into climbing the camp’s barbed-wire fence. He shot them dead–and thereby earned an education at a state political college.
Such is the capriciousness of life in one corner of North Korea’s vast gulag, its chain of political prison camps for those who–often by chance–run afoul of the world’s most virulently Stalinist regime. Today, at least 200,000 political prisoners are held in six giant camps, according to South Korean and U.S. officials, and the number may be growing as North Korea’s leaders tighten their grip on a hungry and desperate population. The camps are nothing short of human black holes, into which purported enemies of the regime disappear and rarely exit.
“If they died, even their corpses would be buried there,” says Ahn, now a 34-year-old bank worker in Seoul.
In the past three decades, some 400,000 North Koreans are believed to have perished in the gulag. Yet relatively little is known about the camps, which are sealed off from international scrutiny. U.S. News tracked down five former prisoners and guards who managed to defect to South Korea, and they describe a world of routine horror: beatings, crippling torture, hunger, slave-style labor, executions. Fetuses are said to be aborted by salt water injected into women’s wombs; if that fails, babies are strangled upon delivery. Guards practice tae kwon do on prisoners, who obediently line up to take their punches and kicks. These are places, says Ahn, where the proverbial salt was actually rubbed into prisoners’ wounds.
Inmates are told they are traitors–and no longer human beings. Their grinding, daily routines reinforce the message. After laboring 14 hours a day, exhausted prisoners return at night to dreary, unheated quarters. A few die from illness, hunger, or injuries in a typical week, say survivors. Executions by firing squad or hanging serve as warnings not to resist. Former guard Choi Dong Chul, 36, describes the fate of a family of five political prisoners caught three days after making their escape: The grandmother and the father were hanged; his three boys were shot; their bodies were strung up; and some 15,000 inmates filed by, throwing stones, which tore apart the bodies. “Just make them obey” was the standing order on handling inmates, says Choi, who served at the now defunct No. 11 camp in North Hamgyong province.
The survivors’ recollections cannot be verified firsthand, and the North Korean government denies that it even maintains political prisons. But U.S. and South Korean authorities, along with some human-rights experts in both countries, give the accounts considerable credence since they track with what intelligence shows about the North’s repressive practices. “It’s arguably the worst human-rights situation in the world,” asserts Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican.
Life in North Korea’s secret gulag is getting some overdue attention, however. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has condemned Pyongyang for “systemic, widespread and grave” rights violations. The Bush administration is also focusing on the camps–and uncovering new detail about their surprising scope. Despite North Korea’s denials, says a senior State Department official privy to intelligence, “there’s lots of proof.”