North Korean Education Camps Revealed for the First Time

[imText1]”Even though we were labeled ‘prisoners’, we were made to endure severe injury in labor accidents, infectious diseases, violence and gunshot wounds in the North Korean re-education camp (same as prisons) as punishment for our crimes. It is a cruel spectacle that cannot be found anywhere else.”

This is an account of life in a re-education camp located in North Korea’s Jeungue-ri, relayed by Korean-Chinese defector Lee Jun Ha.

The Story of the Education Center is the first book to reveal the actual situation in North Korea’s re-education camps. After having committed an accidental crime, the author was made to serve a five-year sentence in the No. 12 Re-education Camp, located approximately 30-li from Hoiryeong in North Hamkyung Province near a small village in the vicinity of Jeungue-ri.

When picturing a prisoner Re-education Camp, readers first tend to imagine a education center like those in South Korea. However, after reading about it in North Korea, one cannot help but to be shocked by the unimaginable environment of the prison, the evildoing of the prison guards, and the hard labor forced upon detainees. The most fitting description would be “a place where they feed people like how they would feed rats, where they work them like cattle and acknowledge them as sub-human,” an image depicted by the author himself.

Even if these people had committed crimes, the crimes cannot compare to the conditions under which they are made to serve out their sentences.

A political prison where fleas, cockroaches and mosquitoes are abundant and the smell of urine is pungent, a place where prisoners have to sleep and work in the same clothes year-round, where people have to wear worn shoes that expose the toes and the back of their heels is not a place habitable to humans.

The food provided is also unspeakable. Daily provisions consist of three meals of corn rice and pungent salt soups with one or two strips of lettuce. Despite the meager provisions, education through hard labor is rigorously enforced.

In the logging department, where the author was worked, several hundred kilograms of logs and pine trees had to be felled with dull axes and hauled. The people who were unable to endure were cursed at and kicked mercilessly by the prison guards.

The prisoners often died in freak accidents resulting from unreliable equipment and facilities. During the time of the author internment, a countless number of people perished or became crippled from having to drag metal containers loaded with wood. The containers were dragged by 20 to 30 prisoners in lieu of jeeps. Many died by being crushed under the wheels or by logs falling from the carts, and many others suffered broken arms and legs.

Indeed, the prisoners referred to the metal carts as “miserable vehicles”. Nonetheless, the agents at the Re-education Camp encouraged use of the carts and considered them to be a “convenient means of transportation that doesn’t require fuel.”

Infectious diseases also drove the prisoners to death. More than once, fevers suddenly started spreading in all areas of the prison, but the Re-education Camp did nothing more than quarantine the ailing prisoners. Most of the medicine provided for the Re-education Camps had long since been diverted to army surgeons. The author attests that around 190 people died unnecessarily from infectious diseases that swept across the Re-education Camp in four separate waves.

Having only committed minor crimes, dying from infirmity or labor accidents is an unjust punishment. Worse yet, the bodies are not even returned to the families; they are disposed of in the charcoal burners at Bulmang Mountain. My teeth clenched at the author’s recollection of how the bodies were kept concealed from visiting family members and were immediately disposed of after the burning.

The author recounts serving 10 days in solitary confinement, where he was made to undergo countless acts of torture and violence, such as being forced to stand on his toes and being suspended in mid-air with both arms tied behind the back.

This must have been unimaginable torture to him, to live in a 1 by 1-meter solitary room, covered in blood. However, he endured his term in the disgraceful Re-education Camp, having resolved to not die in that place.

When reading the book, I could not help but to compare the North Korea Re-education Camps with those in South Korea. South Korean centers do serve to confine prisoners, but they also play the role of reforming the prisoners so that they can eventually be reintegrated into society.

In contrast, North Korean Re-education Camps do not help the prisoners to reflect on their crimes, but rather brutalize innocent people and make them into crafty animals. The writer said that the prisoners first learn the brutal lesson, “I have to step on you in order to survive,” since they suffer a severe food shortage no matter how hard they work.

Among the North Korean prisoners, there are those who have committed fraud, murder, rape, robbery, and petty theft, but there are also economic criminals who have stolen food, unable to endure hunger during the severe food crisis. However, considering their crimes, the costly price they pay is extremely harsh.

North Korea’s Re-education Camps, where brutality rather than reflection is learned, are places where people have to suffer hard labor on empty stomachs and where they are made to sleep in spaces inhabited by fleas and bedbugs. Even now, under the pretext of labor education, a countless number of North Korean citizens are being put to death under these conditions.

For the first time, truth behind North Korea’s Re-education Camps is being revealed to the world, through the courage of one defector who has risked his life in hiding in China to do so. Through this book, we can successively examine the human rights violations committed in North Korean Re-education Camps and see how fundamentally different they are from those in South Korea and other parts of the world.

I sincerely hope that the author’s desire is met through this article to “alert South Korean citizens and the international community helping to protect freedom and human rights in the face of all kinds of evil to the calamities that are unfolding in North Korean Re-education Camps.”

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