Lee Kwang Baek (Lee): I’m here with Pak Joo Yong, who was born in the Pukchang Concentration Camp (political prison camp) and did not escape until he was almost 23. We will hear about his experiences of life in a political prison camp.
Pak Joo Yong (Pak): Good afternoon Mr. Pak. Could you tell us where you were born?
I was born in Camp 21 and was moved to Camp 18 (Pukchang Political Prison Camp) when I was around a year old, apparently due to some crime committed by my uncle.
Lee: And how long were you imprisoned in the Pukchang Political Prison Camp?
Pak: I escaped from the camp just before turning 23.
Lee: While Camp 18 is for so-called political prisoners, there are still some distinctions between the types of prisoners. When did you become a “released” prisoner?
Pak: From around 1997, they began to focus heavily on separating the different groups of prisoners. I became classified as “released” around 2003.
Lee: The truth is though that no matter whether you are considered “released” or “settled,” you are still kept within the confines of the prison. Is that correct? So while you officially belonged to Camp 18 before 2003 when you were about 17, were you still kept in Camp 18 as a “released” prisoner thereafter?
Pak: That’s right. Although I received the somewhat honorable title of “released” in places like school, the truth is that nothing had changed.
Lee: What kinds of people were in the camp with you at the time?
Pak: For the most part it was people like me, with some twice removed family members who supposedly committed some political crime and had their entire extended family imprisoned as a result.
Lee: Can you tell us about your experiences as a witness of public executions in these prison camps?
Pak: Well first, it wasn’t just one or two executions. The compulsory attendance of public executions was a frequent occurrence. Before an execution, the authorities would post a picture on the walls of our homes with the prisoner’s name, age, height, date and time of the execution, and other details. Everyone would be required to attend, with only those who had work assignments at the given time permitted to be absent.
Our mother of course wanted to protect us from witnessing such horrors and so she tried to hide us away in the house during these times. The inminban (people’s unit) leader (also a prisoner) found us during their inspection once, so our mother tried to then hide us in the space below the house. I remember it smelling of coal briquettes down there, and how we would just wait there without knowing why, and never go out until our mother came back out of fear of getting in trouble.
Though still quite young, I remember eventually being there to witness the executions, starting from around 9 or 10 years of age. They made the youngest ones go to the very front, sorting people from youngest at the front to the oldest at the back. The prisoner was then taken up to the wooden platform, hands tied, and their situation was explained to the crowd. At one of these, the prisoner was said to have attempted to escape from his section of the very large camp, but would not admit his crime and was sentenced to death for disobeying the word of the Supreme Leader. But we were first made to hurl rocks at the man and beat him with the driftwood from the riverside. I remember it was monsoon season at the time.
I mean it was just horrible for me, but I recall its effect and that it made me believe that if I were to commit any crime, I would meet the same fate. Probably the worst part was how they made the man’s own family throw the first stones. Only after the person was beaten nearly to death would a guard finally kill the man with a gun. We were supposed to fully internalize the idea that if someone goes against the leader, they are no longer a human.
Lee: Though people may have had different reactions, what was the general reaction among the people attending these executions?
We were taught to refer to Kim Jong Il as our father, and that if you went against the word of your father, you had to die. There were definitely many people there who supported this idea – maybe 80 or 90%. Those like me who were born in the camp and knew no other kind of life also thought this way, but others like my parents who had experienced the outside world must have had other thoughts.
But still, us innocent children – “like blooming flowers” in the words of our “father” – were forced to watch such gruesome events. I could not come to terms with this contradiction.
Lee: How many people were usually in attendance at these public executions?
It’s difficult to say for sure. A lot of other parents also tried to hide their kids from attending, and then there were the excused workers and others too weak or too old to come out to the site. Even considering all of this, however, I would say there could be about 1,000 people in attendance. It was always extremely crowded, with the entire street filled with people.
From the front, people were made to begin throwing stones at the accused, and the crowd would rotate forward as people threw their stone and moved to the back. It would of course depend on the power of each person’s throw, but little by little, the person’s life would slip away as they were hit with hundreds or thousands of rocks. Sometimes the sharp rocks would get lodged in the person’s body. As the guards made the crowd continue to throw the rocks until the person was just barely breathing, sometimes the person would be killed before the guards had a chance to shoot them.
Lee: Were people punished if they were found to have skipped the execution without a proper excuse?
Pak: Of course they were punished. It was the responsibility of the inminban leader to keep track of our attendance. If they found out someone was skipping, they would inform the officials responsible for the district, who would then inform state security, whereupon the accused would receive their punishment.
Lee: Officially, from what age are children required to attend the executions?
Pak: I remember it being from the first year of school. The teachers would be informed of the upcoming execution, then gather all of the children to take them to the place of the execution.
Lee: You said that from age 17 you were reclassified as “released” and moved to a different area within the camp. Were there public executions there as well?
Pak: They executed people in a single spot in the camp, so all “settled” and “released” prisoners would simply gather in the same spot to witness the executions.
Lee: Can you recall approximately how many of these executions you were made to witness during your over 20 years in the Pukchang Political Prison Camp?
It is difficult to say how many, but I can give you an idea. If I were not able to successfully escape, I would have been executed. Typically defectors arrive in large groups of maybe 10 people, having taken the long journey together. If they were caught, they would all be executed together.
But I don’t mean all at once. They would extend the process to 10 consecutive days for the 10 different people. Things were especially chaotic around the time of the widespread famine and when Kim Jong Il came to power. In those times, there would be maybe two or three executions per day, with this pattern lasting for two or three years. So you can see how the numbers add up. People were deeply affected by the number of executions during that time.
I quickly became desensitized to the public executions, not really feeling any sort of sympathy or emotion at the sight of the executions, having seen so many since such a young age. I remember one instance about a man who originally came to the camp because he was trying to start an underground anti-state movement. He was forced to dig for coal in the camp, but one day severely injured his leg and I guess he then decided he needed to escape.
He tried at least, but was caught in the act. When the guards interrogated him, he refused to admit that he was trying to escape. He would not talk, even though he knew it meant his family in the camp would face beatings as a consequence. He was switched to the most punishing of work units and endured even worse conditions as a result.He became so malnourished and emaciated that the authorities decided to just go ahead and kill him.
When he was presented at the platform, I barely recognized him. We used to be in the same work unit, but he looked so different. The guards called out for his family to step forward, but they were nowhere to be found. So they called out for others from his same room to throw the first stones instead. The young children came up first, and the guards instructed them to do away with any sympathy for the man, for if they held back, they would face execution as well. The people took these threats seriously, and I can tell you that they did not hold back.
With each impact, his skin was bursting open and blood was flying. His fat and muscles were falling off to expose his bones. He ended up dying from these wounds.
Lee: It has now been about 5 or 6 years since you escaped the Pukchang Concentration Camp. Were public executions still being held until your last days there, and do you think they are still occurring now?
Pak: Yes there were still public executions up until the time that I escaped. I cannot say for sure about these days, but I would think they have gotten even worse. Personally, I’m not able to connect with anyone still in the country, but I have friends who still contact their family in the North. One friend told me that their older sister was executed by firing squad recently, which would suggest that the executions are still occurring. It seems that these days Kim Jong Un is trying to instill even greater fear into the people by executing people for even more trivial crimes than under Kim Jong Il.
Lee: This concludes the interview with Pak Joo Yong, whom we thank for sharing this incredible and heartbreaking testimony of the horrors of the Bukchang Concentration Camp. We now turn to Professor Cho Jung Hyun from the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Law School for analysis.
Lee: Can you please first discuss the human rights violations that are being committed through these public executions?
Cho: First of all, we know that these executions are being carried out arbitrarily, without any judicial process. This violates the person’s Right to Life as delineated in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights under the UN Human Rights Committee. North Korea is a party to this international treaty. Of course every country is entitled to its own criminal code and executions themselves do not violate this principle, but the crime of attempting to escape a prison camp, for example, would never merit execution.
These human rights violations are enshrined into the rules of these concentration camps, becoming a mandatory aspect of their very operation. When you simply say “public executions,” it leaves out the other fundamental violations that occur alongside the murder of the prisoner. Making the family members come to the front to assist with the execution by throwing stones violates Article 7 of the Covenant, which “prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.”
Finally, forcing young children to witness and even participate in these executions explicitly violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – and yes, North Korea is a signatory to this treaty as well.
Lee: What can lawfully be done to bring to justice the people that are violating these international treaties?
Cho: The international human rights movement continues to try and find a way to address the North’s violations. Many believe that the International Criminal Court or other special tribunals must be used to prosecute the violators. Despite this, the reality is that we have yet to find a way to force the North to halt their human rights violations, and they do not seem to be willing to do this voluntarily. This is why it’s so important that we continue to document the specific crimes of specific people and gather evidence for later use.
Lee: Thank you very much for speaking with us today Professor Cho.