Defector Park Ji-hyun has spoken of her year of hell in a North Korean labor camp, where starving prisoners ate rats to survive. She was forced to scrub and unblock toilets with her bare hands.
“You could say the whole of North Korea is one big prison,” Ms. Park said. “The people were all hungry. There weren’t even rats, snakes or wild plants left for them to eat.”
Humiliation was a ritual in the camp, which was situated within mountains in the Ranam district of the country. Ms. Park said: “If you got caught trying to wash your sanitary towel, you were ordered to wear it on your head, dripping blood and all, and beg for forgiveness.”
Work began at 4.30am and would continue until it was pitch dark – often as late as 9pm. The prisoners would finally eat – but before they could sleep they were forced to reflect on their performance and learn party principles and songs.
“We cleared the land with our bare hands,” said Ms. Park. “Four women had to pull an oxcart, two in the front and two in the back, carrying a ton of soil in the cart. We wouldn’t do this at a walking pace either. We had to run. We were worked harder than animals. Really, it was unspeakably bad.”
Ms. Park had fled North Korea with her son to escape starvation during the famine of the 1990s. She was sent to a labor camp after being caught as a defector in China. “A lot of people died between 1996 and 1998,” she said. “The train station platforms were full of dead bodies.”
After a year in the camp she was ailing so badly she was considered useless, prompting her release. Again she fled to China, where she was reunited with her son. Fearing for their safety, they attempted to get into Mongolia – and Ms. Park fell in love with a man who saved them at the border. The family now lives in Manchester, England.
Park Ji-hyun’s story of brutality is revealed in an Amnesty International film, called The Other Interview. Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK Director, said: “This is the other film North Korea really doesn’t want you to see, and with good reason.
“People in North Korea are subjected to an existence beyond nightmares. The population is ruled by fear with a network of prison camps a constant specter for those who dare step out of line. Thousands of people in the camps are worked to death, starved to death, beaten to death. Some are sent there just for knowing someone who has fallen out of favor.