Jung Kwang Il escaped from North Korea in 2004 after spending three years in the Yoduk gulag. He relates that North Korean gulag guards use a variety of torture methods. The one Jung endured was called the “pigeon” technique: Your two hands are tied behind your back, and you are chained to a wall in a manner that prevents you from either properly standing or sitting. Eventually, the backbone starts to almost force its way out the front of your body.
“There are no guards to hear you scream,” he says. Nor are there bathrooms. Sanitation consists of a worker coming by every few days to hose everyone down with a power spray.
In the summertime at Yoduk, workers are required to weed 1,100 square meters of farmland per day — with the 600g/day food allotment dispensed on a pro-rata basis: Finish half the job, and you get half the food.
“If a guard wants to kill someone ‘legitimately,’ it is very easy,” Jung says. “The worker is given work that he can’t finish, and then he gets less food, which makes him even less productive the next day, because he is starving. It sets off a [self-reinforcing] cycle of weakness and starvation. You can kill someone in two weeks through this method.”
During the winter, prisoners were put on firewood detail. Each was made to drag a tree about four meters long, and about 30 cm in diameter, a distance of four kilometers, up and down valleys, four trees per day.
To motivate a set of four workers, the guards would set out three rice cakes on a table, with the slowest worker arriving to an empty plate. It was a sort of horrible reality-show competition staged for the guards’ own entertainment.
Jung says he saw 60 or 70 people collapse and die on tree duty. Because the ground was frozen during the winter months, the corpses were thrown into a warehouse for burial in the spring. By that time, rats — or other, desperately hungry creatures who’d broken into the warehouse — had devoured much of them.
In summertime, inmates planted vegetables. The temptation to steal and eat the seeds was so intense that guards took the precaution of mixing them with ash and human waste before dispensing the seeds to prisoners. But many inmates are so hungry that they eat the seeds anyway, after doing their best to wash them. In this way, many who escaped death from starvation instead died from colitis and other waste-borne intestinal ailments.