“Their crime was stealing corn from the home of residents after crossing the Taedong River from Camp 14. They knew that, if caught, they would be shot in public. However rather than dying of starvation they would much rather die by being shot, after filling their stomachs with corn—this is the grisly truth of the immigrants in this area.”
Kim Hye Sook, a defector who spent 28 years in the Bukchang concentration camp, illustrated daily life as part of her memoirs, “A Concentration Camp Retold in Tears (The Zeitgeist, 2011).” Kim’s book describes her time at Bukchang, the truth behind the gruesome human rights violations that occur there, her initial escape from and her repatriation to North Korea. As both an accusation of the Kim regime’s suppression of human rights and a reflection of the pain that prisoners endure at concentration camps, Kim remarked that “though it was painful, I was able to lift my pen out of resolve.”
Kim added that, “The story of North Korean concentration camps is an uncomfortable one—yet it must be told. Readers may struggle in deciding whether what they are reading is fact or fiction, but Korea—and the world—must know the truth of 23 million North Koreans.”
This book describes Kim Hye Sook’s story in faithful detail from when she was first imprisoned at 13 by way of her grandfather’s attempt to escape to South Korea, precluding any formal education, and the 28 years of labor and starvation that she endured. To supplement the text and the readers’ understanding of its contents, Kim includes illustrations of life and the other prisoners in the camp.
Recollecting those days of malnutrition, Kim described that “during the rare occasion that we had a day to rest, everybody went up into the mountains to collect all the edible plants that they could find. At the concentration camp, you had to something to keep you going. Adults and children alike would walk around with mesh pouches to collect these plants.”
“Your body swells up after eating nothing but porridge for several days, but without real sustenance you steadily lose strength until even walking becomes an ordeal. However, if you did not go to school or work, a large commotion would ensue,” testified Kim, referring to the misery of having to work while starved.
To add to that situation, authorities would regularly execute people in public as a terror tactic to keep inmates under control.
“A fellow inmate who had two miscarriages and was predicted, by a fortune teller, to lose her third child, was hanged. Using a large tree as a pillar, one end of a rope was tied around an iron ball. The other end passed through a hole and was tied around her neck. Shortly after, her neck was slit. A metal bar was used to tighten the rope so that the body would be decapitated.”
Even in those conditions, Kim’s family waited for her release and persistently bribed officials. However, even after receiving the freedom that she dreamt of, her husband died of persistent sickness and her daughters were lost in a flood, painting a bleak future. After falling into despair, she decided to defect to China.
“While waiting beside the Tumen River, a national border guard came. After having a nearby woman hold his firearm, he held my hand and crossed the river. The water did not rise beyond my knees, but I was afraid that at any moment, someone would grab me by the neck from behind. I became anxious at even the sound of the guard’s voice. I pushed through the final 50 meters of the river driven by thoughts of life and victory.
Though she had departed North Korea, her trials were not at an end. As was the case for most North Korean women, she was now exposed to the threat of human trafficking.
“Whenever North Korean women came to China, Chinese men would pay money for them unconditionally. Older women were less expensive and the younger you were, the higher you were valued. This was so-called human trafficking. Before being sold, these women are exposed to wicked acts until they are sold to the buyer, who only continues these acts. Ultimately, the woman’s life is handed over to the man entirely,” she said, denouncing the indiscriminate acts of sexual violence to which North Korean women are exposed.
Kim was then uncovered by a crackdown team and repatriated to North Korea, where she was to meet a cruel destiny. The book further details the hardships that resulted from her repatriation.
“Female defectors who were caught and returned from China were ordered to do the high jump by female guards. They did this because the captured women would hide money in their uterus, so by doing the high jump the money that they hid would usually fall out. I had eight rolls of money, four of which I hid in my throat and the other four that I hid in my uterus. Since I was able to retrieve the money by defecation, I had to adjust what I ate. The money came out after about five days, so I quickly washed and then swallowed it again. Having to swallow such dirtied bills was certainly a difficult task. Not only did the smell make it difficult to swallow the bills again, but the idea that these bills passed through so many hands. Swallowing the bills took me about one hour. My uterus also began to ache. In spite of those troubles, I protected the money that I had.”
Additionally, and in horrific cases, the concentration camp would rob women of their maternal instincts, driving them through starvation to eat their children. Even after returning to the confines of the concentration camp, Kim was able to escape and cross over to China again. However, what awaited her there was the unbelievable fate of being sold for KRW 2,500.
“The Han Chinese think that they can do whatever they want with you since they paid money. In spite of being born as a human being, North Korean woman are sold from one person to another. The pain that results from being sold in this manner is one that is difficult to express. The women who were not obedient had no choice to but adapt, since after being sold, they could be thrown out or left to die. You came to China because living in your motherland was no longer an option, but you still were on the receiving end of this kind of scorn and contempt. The health of these women was of no concern as they were kept up all night satisfying the sexual desires of these men.”
In this desperate struggle, the trip to South Korea required going to third-party countries like Laos or Thailand.
“Riding a raft from Laos, the woman beside me was caught by an alligator, which moved so fast that it was difficult to even see the reptile. In order to live, I vowed to defect again and return to China. However, to get to South Korea after China, you had to deal with narrow cliffs, mountain roads where even finding bodies was a difficult task, desert roads where losing your way was regular, and roads that were swarming with crocodiles.”
To those North Koreans whose lives are spelt out in this book, such concepts as “universal human rights” or “intervention” are out of the question when it comes to dealing with these human rights violations. This book reminds us of a truth that is beyond just being tragic; a truth that is faced by a woman who was sentenced to 28 years at a concentration camp for a crime that her grandfather, whose face she does not remember, committed and who was sold for a few thousand Korean Won for no other reason than being a North Korean woman.
Moreover, this book broaches the issue of political prisoner concentration camps in North Korea and how they warrant exhaustive investigation. The human rights violations associated to East-West Germany during the Cold War resulted in thorough inquiry, which resulted in expanding the overall legitimacy of their following unification. The attention that its human rights violations attracted was one of the components that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In that vein, this memoir is pertinent and explicit evidence of the suppression of human rights by the government of North Korea and thereby contributes to the status of human rights in the DPRK.