How are the prisoners treated?
"We must give the enemies of the working class a taste of
proletariat revenge." - Kim Il Sung
"Escapees must be caught and killed. If they escape, they will
dishonor the Great Leader. So you guards have to make the border
an impenetrable wall and ensure that absolutely no one escapes."
- Kim Jong Il
The site of the class struggle
Some of the people who hear about life in North Korea's concentration
camps say they cannot believe that humans can be treated that way.
They think it is impossible for security agents and guards, who
are human beings after all, to treat prisoners in that way. But
the eyewitness account by Ahn Myong Chul, a North Korean defector
who used to be a guard in a concentration camp, shows that such
inhumane treatment is possible, and that it is happening not too
far from our society.
When Ahn was recruited to work as a guard at a concentration camp,
he was told the following during his orientation:
"Camp no. 13 is the site of the class struggle where evil
sectarians who have betrayed our beloved leader and the party are
sent with their children... They are so wicked that if you take
pity on them, they will smile in your face and then stab you in
the back. So you must not think of them as humans... Your duty is
to show no mercy in oppressing them and to guard the camp so that
not a single prisoner escapes. And if any of them try to rebel or
escape, it is your duty to kill them."
The recruits do not understand these words at first, but they soon
learn through experiences and adjust. In the same way that prisoners
get over their initial shock at the inhumane conditions of the camp
and adjust in order to survive...
As mentioned in the earlier part of the series, North Korean concentration
camps took on their present form during the emergence of the one-ideology
system and the process of Kim Jong Il's rise to power (end of the
1960s to 1974). Before this period, the number of prisoners in concentration
camps was smaller, and their treatment was also not as harsh as
it is today. The main purpose of these camps was to segregate political
offenders from society. However, after the concentration camps went
through an explosive population increase and a number of revolts,
Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il ordered the security agents to crack
down harder on prisoners. The purpose of the camps turned from segregation
to inducing fear and tension in society. The method of managing
the camps also became established around this time.
Food barely enough to keep prisoners alive
The first and foremost method of controlling the prisoners is to
give them just enough food to keep them alive. Eye witnesses give
different amounts depending on which concentration camp they saw,
but the average is about 500g of corn a day. According to Kim Yong,
who was in camp no. 14 (Kaechun re-education camp in Pyongnam),
prisoners there were fed 25 grains of corn per meal. The prisoners
were working long hours in coalmines on such meager meals.
It is difficult for a South Korean to imagine how little the prisoners
are fed even if they tried, since most of them have never done such
intensive labor on an empty stomach. 70 to 80 grains of corn a day
is barely enough to keep a person from starving to death. So most
of those who were sent to concentration camps as children are less
than 150 cm in height. The prisoners are all walking skeletons.
When people first set foot in a camp, the sight of the prisoners
strikes terror in their hearts. The prisoners are dressed in rags
and look like ghosts. But what is more shocking is that all of them
cannot even walk properly. With the ghostly sound of shallow pants,
they rock their bodies back and forth and use the momentum to move
their bodies forward… Kim Yong described the prisoners as 'stick
figures with only a sketch of human features left.'
With one foot in the grave because of starvation, the prisoners
still work hard, not so much because they fear the merciless beatings,
but because the punishment for laziness is giving them even less
food. The prisoners are more afraid of being fed less than being
beaten up, and so they drain what little energy they have left into
working like horses.
Some say that the famine in North Korea explains why the prisoners
are fed so little, but the concentration camps have fed prisoners
the barest minimum even before the food crisis. Prisoners are strictly
forbidden to grow vegetables or pick wild berries or catch wild
animals for food. But the prisoners who are suffering from extreme
malnutrition try to eat anything they can find. Cruel beatings and
solitary confinement await those who are discovered, but the prisoners
still stuff clumps of grass in their mouths when the guards are
The security agents make use of this inhumane method because extreme
hunger makes the prisoners very weak and therefore very easy to
control. The brutal treatment of prisoners naturally causes them
to hate the security agents and guards. But because they are so
weak from malnutrition, they do not have the strength to rebel or
even talk back to the agents and guards. And even if the camps were
not guarded as heavily as they are, the frail and sickly prisoners
would still have no chance of making it out of the mountains that
surround the camps.
Another reason for the use of this cruel method is that food can
be used to get the prisoners to obey. As mentioned earlier, the
prisoners' worst fear is being given less food. So the agents take
advantage of the prisoners' survival instincts to instill fear in
them and force them to obey every command.
Detention houses within the concentration camps
Another thing that prisoners fear as much as being fed less is
being sent to the detention house within the camp. Prisoners who
break camp regulations are sentenced to three months in the detention
house. Talking back to the agents, stealing food, or using foul
language are all against the regulations. Those who are sent to
detention houses in re-education camps have a chance of emerging
from there alive (even then, they usually die within six months),
but very few survive the detention house in closed camps.
Eye-witness accounts differ slightly regarding the treatment in
these detention houses, but basically, those who are sent to detention
houses in re-education camps are beaten everyday, and made to kneel
the whole day in cells no larger than 2 square meters, excluding
meal times and 4 hours for sleeping. Just kneeling in a solitary
cell may seem simple enough, but after three months, the prisoners'
legs start rotting from bad blood circulation. Total lack of sunlight
and too much moisture make the cells ideal breeding ground for lice.
With lice crawling all over their bodies, it is impossible for the
prisoners not to move, but fidgeting will earn them another beating.
Prisoners in some detention houses are subject to constant beatings
and other forms of torture. According to Kim Yong and Ahn Myong
Chul, almost all the prisoners sent to detention houses in closed
camps die in there. They are simply beaten to death. For Ahn, guarding
the ammunition depot next to the detention house was the worst experience
he had. He had to listen to the sounds of beatings and screams throughout
Detention houses are synonymous with death, and so prisoners are
extremely careful not to do anything that might land them in the
detention house. The purpose of operating these detention houses
is of course to create a climate of terror that would make prisoners
easier to control.
Public and secret executions
Executions carried out in concentration camps are divided into
public and secret executions. The type of execution is determined
by the nature of the crime. Those who break the camp regulations
and those caught attempting to escape are executed in public, and
those who may be a "bad influence" to the other prisoners
are executed in secret. Public executions are again divided into
executions by firing squad and by hanging. For example, escapees
caught within the district where the camp is located are sent before
a firing squad and escapees caught outside the district are sent
to the gallows. But because death has become so commonplace, the
public executions have little effect on the residents anymore.
Public executions are not carried out in camp no. 14 where Kim
Yong was imprisoned. In 1990, the prisoners in camp no. 14, outraged
by the public executions, had killed 8 security agents. Since then,
public executions were banned in camp no. 14. The 1990 incident
led to the massacre of 1,500 prisoners in that camp.
Secret executions are carried out in an area within the camp specifically
designated for that purpose. A truck drives up to the accused person's
house in the middle of the night, and the person is abducted and
executed in a concentration camp. That is why if someone suddenly
disappears in the middle of the night, the neighbors assume that
the person was taken away to be executed.
Daily scenes of beatings and deaths
Even if the prisoners do not die of hunger or are not sent to detention
houses, they live day by day in constant fear of death. In particular,
being beaten to death by agents or guards is commonplace, since
the agents and guards are not punished for killing prisoners, regardless
of whether the dead prisoner deserved the beating or not. According
to Ahn Myong Chul, a dog that the guards kept during the time he
was working in camp no. 13 actually killed and ate a small girl.
Instead of being reprimanded, the guards were praised for rearing
such a fierce dog. Under the circumstances, whether a beating leads
to bad injuries or death is completely up to the mood of the security
agent on a particular day. And the prisoners are so weak that a
sound beating can kill them just as easily as a shooting could.
The agents and guards regard the prisoners as less than flies,
and so they think nothing of beating or killing the prisoners to
relieve their stress. When Ahn was a recruit, there was a time when
the senior guards used the prisoners for martial arts practice.
They made ten prisoners stand in a row and used them as punching
bags. So the prisoners try at all times to please the agents and
guards and avoid running into them if possible.
Turning prisoners into secret informers
The whole of North Korean society is covered by a maximum-security
surveillance system, but it is nothing compared to the surveillance
system in concentration camps. Ever since the prisoners' revolt
in 1970 and the imprisonment of hundreds of Kim Jong Il's political
enemies, the internal surveillance system in concentration camps
has become more elaborate than ever. Generally, one out of three
prisoners are working as spies for the agents. They spy on fellow
inmates to see if anyone is complaining. Even the slightest expression
of dissatisfaction is reported to the agents. Organized activities
in concentration camps is almost impossible, so most of the prisoners
have no other way to vent their frustration but by grumbling under
their breaths. But if their grumbling reaches the ears of the agents,
they are sent straight to the detention house. That is why Kim Yong
knew the names of only about ten inmates even though he was in camp
no. 14 for three years. The prisoners avoid talking to each other
for fear that they might end up in detention houses.
This system of informing against each other is applied not just
to the inmates but also to the secret agents as well. So the secret
agents are careful not to show the slightest sympathy for the prisoners.
Any agent caught showing compassion to the prisoners, including
giving them food, is sentenced to forced labor in the coalmines.
And an even more heartless agent is sent to take his place. When
Kang Chul Hwan was studying in a concentration camp schoolhouse,
a teacher who was kind to the children was soon dismissed. He was
replaced by another teacher who was famous even in Yongpyong closed
camp for his cold-heartedness. Kim Yong once saw a new agent who
was nice to the inmates get fired in three days.
Encouraging security agents to spy on each other is necessary not
just to cut off any compassion that they may feel for the prisoners,
but also because among the prisoners in the concentration camps
are former high-ranking officials, who may win security agents to
their side or use them to stage revolts. Several such incidents
did occur, making it necessary to use the surveillance system to
prevent any recurrences.
There are two main reasons why the North Korean regime keeps so
many concentration camps in the country. First, it would be a waste
to simply kill criminals when their labor can be exploited until
they die. And second, the camps are used to maintain social order
by proving that the class struggle is not over and instilling fear
in the public.
In this regard, the concentration camps in North Korea are different
from those elsewhere. In general, concentration camps are used to
segregate a certain group from society. But North Korean concentration
camps serve the added purpose of exploiting the people's labor and
creating a climate of terror. In other words, no matter how obedient
and ideologically "pure" the people are, the North Korean
regime has to depend on these concentration camps to terrorize them.
And that is the fundamental reason why the North Korean concentration
camps are run in the most inhumane way possible.
Closing Down the Concentration Camps in North Korea
Fate of camps completely up to Kim Jong Il
Closing down the concentration camps is actually quite easy. Chairman
of the National Defense Commission Kim Jong Il claims that he has
the power to control the timing of reunification. All he has to
do is make up his mind to soften the tone of his rule and order
the camps to be dismantled, and it will be done. In particular,
dismantling the concentration camps will be an effective and symbolic
way of showing the international community that North Korea is on
its way to reform and liberalization. All it takes would be a decisive
gesture on Kim's part. Such a unilateral decision may prompt backlash
from any other dictatorship country, but in North Korea, there is
no one who can go against Kim's authority and command.
If releasing the prisoners immediately and returning them to society
pose problems, then the regime can reform the camps to resemble
society and train the prisoners to adapt to society before rehabilitating
Naturally, it would be difficult to predict the effect that the
closing down of concentration camps will have on North Korean society.
But if the Kim Jong Il regime is seriously considering reform and
liberalization as its means of survival, it would do the regime
good to be more daring. There might be adverse side effects in the
short run, but after sorting out the big problems, the absence of
concentration camps may actually help guarantee the regime's long-term
stability. On the other hand, if Kim Jong Il is indecisive, calculating
or even deceptive about such a symbolic issue as the existence of
concentration camps, the longest he can hope to survive is perhaps
a couple of years. The issue will one day prove to be the Achilles
heel that leads to the total destruction of the regime and system.
In this regard, Kim Jong Il is well advised to consider closing
down the concentration camps. Deception and shallow tactics can
no longer guarantee the survival of his regime. If he repents his
past misdeeds and pursues policies for the North Korean people,
South Korea and the international community will do their best to
aid the success of such sincere reform and liberalization. We in
the movement for North Korean democracy will also show the same
Kim Jong Il has made the wrong choice
Unfortunately, no substantial changes have been detected in the
past year in which Kim Jong Il has purportedly pursued policy changes
in preparation for the North-South summit. The concentration camps
have yet to be closed down, the class system yet to be dismantled,
and market economy yet to be introduced. Rather, worries over the
effects of partial liberalization have caused the regime to tighten
control over the residents. What few measures that have been taken
to open up to the world are partial, arbitrary and passive, raising
suspicion among South Koreans and the rest of the world over North
Between opening up completely for the sake of the North Korean
system as a whole and opening up only partially in order to secure
the funds and goods needed to keep the government alive, it is obvious
that Kim Jong Il has chosen the latter. Along with this, he has
strengthened the system of oppression and surveillance within the
country. In particular, the funds and goods secured through partial
opening up has had the effect of strengthening the dictatorship
by giving it the means to maneuver itself out of immediate crisis.
The significance of dismanthing the concentration camps
The dismantling of North Korea's concentration camps holds the
First of all, the absence of concentration camps means the breakdown
of North Korea's class system. As mentioned a number of times earlier
in the series, the concentration camps took on their present scale
not only because Kim Il Sung needed a place to dispose of his political
enemies but because there was a need to specially manage the 'hostile
class' after the entire population was classified into three classes
and 51 subcategories. In other words, those classified as undesirable
either ideologically or by birth under the central party's guidance
project and the resident re-registration project had to be placed
under special dictatorship, and that in turn rationalized the creation
of concentration camps. Proletariat dictatorship was the rationale
given for classifying every resident, but in truth, it was done
to strengthen Kim Il Sung's personal dictatorship.
However, this class system is both the staying power of North Korean
society and the fundamental threat to its system. According to a
survey conducted by <Good Friends> on North Korean defectors
to find out their thoughts on North Korean society, most of those
surveyed had experienced some form of class discrimination. That
a so-called socialist country that professes equality for all has
the most rigid and unequal class system in the world is in itself
a paradox. We can only conclude that during the period when North
Korea began to expand its concentration camps, it had given up its
socialist ideals and become a de facto dictatorship and class-structured
To this day, there are people in concentration camps who are living
like animals just because their parents or grandparents had been
landlords, religious leaders, public officials, or whatever job
or calling that comes under the 'hostile class.' It is true that
the caste system still exists in India and that class structures
existed together with slavery a long time ago. But that was because
society had yet to be civilized, or because the system had been
in existence for thousands of years. But today, we live in a world
of universal democracy. Furthermore, the kind of class discrimination
in North Korea today does not have a deep history. In fact, no class
system in any country has picked out a certain class and subjected
it to such unspeakable hostility and persecution. In this regard,
closing down the concentration camps will establish the foundation
for a truly democratic society that is free of the discriminatory
and inhumane class system that had propped up North Korean society
for almost 50 years.
Secondly, the closing down of the concentration camps signifies
the crumbling of the absolutism of the Great Leader, another ideology
that had ensured the survival of the regime. Besides being the tool
for the worst kind of class discrimination, the concentration camps
are also used to persecute anyone who opposes Kim Il Sung's dictatorship,
has the potential to oppose it, or has the power to oppose it. In
fact, the camps grew to their present mammoth scale in the process
of establishing the 'one-ideology system' of the Workers' Party
and the 'ten-point principles,' as well as in the process of Kim
Jong Il's ascension to his father's throne.
In particular, the rationale of the 'one-leadership system' has
been applied not only to eliminating political dissidents but also
to the daily lives of ordinary residents. Accordingly, just about
anyone can be thrown into a concentration camp, not only for being
born into the hostile class but also for even thinking about opposing
the Great Leader, for refusing to or being unable to obey his commands,
or for having displeased him. Such cases are very common today.
As mentioned earlier, people are being shipped to concentration
camps for failing to memorize Kim Jong Il's New Year Address, for
tearing up newspapers that have Kim Il Sung's or Kim Jong Il's name
printed on them, for not taking proper care of the two Kims' portraits,
and so on. This shows that North Korean society has gone beyond
the ordinary class structure or dictatorship to take on an outrageous
and loathsome social system called 'absolutism of the Great Leader.'
The concentration camp is where that absolutism is epitomized.
Therefore dismantling the concentration camps will definitely be
the starting point of the crumbling of the absolutism of the Great
Leader. In all democratic societies and even in countries like China
where the communist party has dictatorship, it is common to see
people commenting or criticizing their political leaders. Only North
Korea has such cruel punishment for criticizing the head of state.
The absence of concentration camps will be a dramatic change in
the eyes of the North Korean people. Although they will not be able
to immediately oppose their leader's policies, they will be able
to at least think about whether the policies are right or wrong,
and to develop their own ideas about alternatives. But under the
kind of absolute persecution that exists today, the North Korean
people are naturally fearful of even thinking about opposing the
regime, and the regime in turn is making use of this situation to
keep the people ignorant and docile.
To dismantle the concentration camps
No one knows better than Kim Jong Il what kind of effect the dismantling
of concentration camps will have on the future of his dictatorship.
But if he makes up his mind to seek the stability of his government
and nation through complete liberalization and closes down the concentration
camps, he may be able to protect his government. It is impossible
to ensure the long-term stability of the regime with the current
situation anyway, so taking the bull by the horns may be a better
solution. But Kim Jong Il seems to be headed in the opposite direction
right now. The worldwide movement for human rights will not wait
indefinitely for Kim Jong Il to clean up his human rights record,
and he may decide to hold out on reforms for as long as he can.
We have to be prepared for that eventuality.
Today, it is possible for the world to learn about conditions in
North Korean concentration camps. But in reality, the existence
of these camps is still not a well-known fact in South Korea or
the rest of the world. One urgent task therefore, is to inform influential
countries of the conditions in North Korean concentration camps.
Efforts have been made to this end, including the publication of
Kang Chol Hwan's journal in France. But this is not enough. It is
up to South Korean organizations advocating North Korean human rights
such as Nknet to continue these much-needed publicity activities.
The North Korean ruling class is definitely not immune to public
opinion in the international community. But believing that global
opinion alone can dismantle the concentration camps is much too
optimistic. The problem is that although extensive effort is needed
to wipe out concentration camps in North Korea, there is a severe
limit to realistic measures that we can take at the moment. Furthermore,
because the entire ideology of absolute allegiance to the Great
Leader is compressed into the issue of concentration camps, it is
unrealistic to handle this as a separate issue from the rest of
North Korea's problems. Thus, unless there is a fundamental change
in Kim Jong Il's attitude, the fate of concentration camps hinges
on the movement for North Korean democracy.
In this regard, human rights activists should support the movement
for North Korean democracy while continuing to raise awareness of
North Korean concentration camps and call for the dismantling of
these camps. Only then can we expect the democracy movement to grow
in North Korea and the human rights situation to improve.
In the midst of concluding the series on North Korean concentration
camps, an important news article was published in 「Chosun Ilbo」
about Lee Baek Ryong (alias), a North Korean defector who had been
imprisoned from April 1994 to January 1999 in camp no. 15 in Yoduk,
the same camp where Kang Chul Hwan and Ahn Hyuk had been sent.
Lee's testimony, together with Kim Yong's, provides information
regarding the changes that have taken place in North Korean society
and concentration camps since the food crisis in the mid-nineties.
The first shocking change is that in the span of one year in 1996,
400 of the 2,000 inhabitants of a prisoner's camp in Yoduk died
of starvation. North Koreans outside the concentration camps are
starving to death, so one can imagine the conditions in the concentration
camps that led to the deaths of the inmates. But more important
than the number of deaths is the increasing number of prisoners
in Yoduk despite these deaths. The number has increased from the
approximately 20,000 as testified by Kang Chul Hwan to some 40,000.
According to Lee, most of the prisoners are escapees who had come
into contact with South Koreans while in China, students who had
studied abroad, and political dissidents who had organized anti-government
Thanks to Lee's testimony, we now have some clues to the North
Korean government's treatment of defectors and its attitude regarding
concentration camps. We can also confirm the existence of anti-government
Opposing the government in North Korea involves stakes much too
high for someone in South Korea or anywhere else to ever fully understand.
It does not stop at sacrificing one's own life; political dissidence
puts the lives of entire families and relatives at stake. The fact
that anti-government activities are actually taking place under
such severe circumstances shows that the North Korean people are
at last beginning to assert their rights. Their demands are emerging
through the cracks that the food crisis has made in the social system.
This can be seen as the prelude to the inevitable and unmistakable
fate of the North Korean regime.
The time has come for democracy fighters in South Korea and the
world to support the struggle of their North Korean counterparts
for human dignity and independent development. The time has come
to redouble our efforts for North Korean democracy. That is the
only way we can help the forerunners of democracy in North Korea
who are fighting against insurmountable odds, the only way we can
help the North Korean people. And that is the only way humanity
can destroy the pockets of hell on earth that remain in North Korea
and comfort the souls of the innocent people who were massacred
1)The following reference materials were used in writing about
the concentration camps for political prisoners in North Korea.
-Kang, Chul Hwan. 「Festival of the King」 (Wails of Mt. Byongpung).
Korea: Hyangshil Publications, 1993
-Ahn, Hyuk. 「The Yoduk List」. Korea: Cheonji Media, 1995
-Ahn, Myong Chul. 「They are Crying」. Korea: Cheonji Media
-Kim, Yong. "First-ever Testimony of a Survivor - Inside 'North
Korea's Auschwitz' Camp No. 14." 「Monthly Chosun」, May, 2000
-Database on North Korea's concentrations camps for political prisoners
-Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights website corner
on North Korean defectors' journals at www.nkhumanrights.or.kr
-Newspaper articles from 「Daily Dongah」 and others
2)Introduction of interviewed witnesses
Kang Chul Hwan
Born on Sept. 18, 1968 in Kyongrim-dong, Jung-gu, Pyongyang
Entire family deported to Yoduk camp (no. 15) after his grandfather
Kang Tae Hue, committee member of Jochongryun, was framed by the
Entire family lived in the concentration camp for a decade (1977~1987)
Escaped North Korea with Ahn Hyuk, entered South Korea 4 months
later via China (1992)
Currently working as a reporter in the Reunification Institute of
Chosun Ilbo (2000 ~ present)
Ahn Myong Chul
Worked as a security guard at concentration camps no. 11 (Kyongsung,
North Hamkyung Province), no. 13 (Jongsung, North Hamkyung Province),
no. 26 (Seungho, Pyongyang), and no. 22(Hweryong, North Hamkyung
Province) from 1987 to 1994.
Escaped North Korea to come to South Korea in 1994
Born on Jan. 3, 1968 in Manpo City, Jakang Province
Entered Central College of Physical Education, a training center
for national sportsmen, on Sept. 1, 1979
Arrested as a political criminal in Jan. 1986 after touring China
Imprisoned in the secret detention house of the Ministry of State
Security (Maram Detention House) until Nov. 17, 1987
Imprisoned in Yoduk concentration camp (no. 15) from Nov. 17, 1987
to Feb. 29, 1989
Escaped North Korea with Kang Chul Hwan in March 1992
Arrived in South Korea in Aug. 1992
Born on Jan. 18, 1850 in Daepyong-ri, Jeokyeo-myon, Shinkye-gun,
Majored in Automation Engineering at Kim Chaek College of Engineering
from 1974 to 1980
Worked as an agent for Seohae Asai Trading company, a new company
managed by the Ministry of State Security from 1990 to 1993
Arrested and interrogated for forging his resume in May 1993
Deported to camp no. 14 located in Bukchang-kun, North Pyongan Province,
in Aug. 1993
Transferred to camp no 18 in Oct. 1995
Escaped from camp no. 18 in Sept. 1998
Defected to South Korea in Oct. 1999