Increasing international attention is turning towards those responsible for the systematic human rights violations occurring in North Korea. The United Nations has established a field office in Seoul to document the events occurring in North Korea and record victim’s testimonies. The South Korean government has also created a documentation center to establish a legal basis for the eventual prosecution of those in the North Korean leadership responsible for human rights violations. We now turn to an individual with firsthand experience of the systematic abuses occurring in North Korea.
Today’s guest is Kim Chan Mi, who was forcibly repatriated from China back to North Korea and detained in 2007. Thanks for coming and speaking with us today. Where is your hometown?
I come from Saebyul, North Hamgyong Province.
How long have you been in South Korea?
I arrived in June of 2012.
Did you come to South Korea with your family?
I am the fourth child from a family of five siblings. My parents and two of my siblings passed away. I only have one little brother and one older sister left, but they are still in North Korea. I came here alone.
You’ve come here to give your testimony about human rights abuses that you suffered while detained in a re-education camp. Can you start by telling us how you ended up in the detention facility?
It would be difficult to recount all of the abuse that I suffered there within a short period of time. Just speaking about the place gives me anxiety. Detainees at the camp are tied at the knees and told not to move. Those who moved were punished. They were either struck on the hands with an iron hook or beaten with a rod. The head of security alerted us when it was time to sleep. Until that time, we were forced to sit still. The only exceptions were going to the bathroom and eating. But we weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom freely, we were only permitted to go two or three times per day.
What happened to detainees who broke that rule?
They were hit on the palm 50 times with an iron hook. When this happens, the skin bursts and your hands become covered in blood. However, this form of punishment was actually comparatively light. They used to strike prisoners on the back of the hand, but that resulted in too many broken bones, so they switched to the palm.
We’ve been told that the reason you ended up detained was because you tried to flee the country and go to South Korea. How did they catch you?
When I first went to China, it wasn’t to escape. I simply had no food and I went there to earn some money. But I ended up being a victim of human trafficking. I couldn’t live comfortably in China so I resolved to go to South Korea. But I was caught in the border area of China in July 2007.
I think we got caught because someone in our group was an informer. I was in a group of seven people. We were near the Mongolian border when we were caught. First, we were sent to a Chinese detention center. I was treated pretty horribly there. They hit me with a leather belt and my eye was badly bruised. It was a severe beating. They also used an electrified bat, which inflicts a form of electric shock torture. I never suspected that I’d be on the receiving end of a torture device.
Although I appear calm as I tell this to you now, I was literally crying tears of blood while I was in that detention center for three months. That’s when I felt a new resolve. I became determined not to get caught again. I also became quite depressed at that time. If we were just able to live a decent life in North Korea then we would never have to risk our lives to make such a desperate escape. I felt miserable because I was a person without a country to call home, and because I was forced to turn my back on the place where I grew up.
What happened when you were transferred to the holding center? Were you given enough to eat?
If I received three spoonfuls, I was thankful. That was a comparatively large amount. And it was really unpleasant. Even a dog or a pig would turn away from the food we got. Mostly it consisted of corn. But not much of what we’d consider edible – it also contained the husks. We usually got a couple of soybeans in there. We were given cabbage and dried radish leaf soup as well, but it never tasted pleasant.
How about bathing?
We were permitted to bathe once every ten days in front of the guards.
And how long were you there for?
About three months.
Were you awaiting trial there?
Yes, it was ruled that I had broken Article 233. This means illegally traveling into a different territory. You can get imprisoned for life on that charge. I was ordered to serve three years before I was moved into the re-education camp. Those who are linked to South Korea are given stricter punishments.
What was it like when you were being moved to the detention center?
First, I was tortured by the State Security Department for more than 3 weeks in Onsong. When we were caught at the Mongolian border, it was already known that we were heading to South Korea. That’s why I was interrogated and tortured for so long. When I went to the interrogation room, I walked, but I wasn’t able to return on my own strength. I was covered in blood. They wanted me to quickly confess that I was attempting to escape to South Korea. That’s why they used such intense torture.
I was then handed over to state security in my hometown, where I was held for 15 days. I was charged with an economic crime – meaning I crossed the border because I was hungry. So I got moved again to a different holding center. I was there for about 40 days.
Can you tell us about your experience being interrogated by the State Security Department?
Before the investigation began, they made me write a statement. The State Security Department officials use the statements to try to understand the truth of the situation. As for me, I had to lie in order to live. I kept writing and writing, and thankfully the officials weren’t able to make heads or tails of the statement.
While I was writing my statement, I was placed next to pieces of lumber. When the investigation began, they hit me with the lumber. I still have scars to this day from those beatings. The bone in my elbow broke through my skin and I was cut deeply on my back. I couldn’t feel it when they were striking me because I was in shock, but after the session ended and I walked out, I started to feel the pain. The scars serve as reminders, and I’ll never forget what they did to me.
Can you tell us a bit more about your time at the other holding center?
The chief inspector of the local Ministry of People’s Security Department handled my case. Prisoners were required to build houses and transport food. There was a rumor going around that this inspector sexually assaulted the female inmates. Until I actually went there, I thought that it was just a rumor.
But in the end, the inspector turned his sights on me and I was assaulted. One day, he ordered everyone to go out and attend to various tasks. He instructed me to stay and prepare food, but really he was getting rid of everyone so that he could be alone with me. He put me in another room, and then he…. it’s hard to resist against a man in that kind of situation. I tried to get away. I did what I could. It was all in vain. He raped me in that room.
That is absolutely horrible. I know this is a sensitive question, but I wonder if some of the other female prisoners also suffered that kind of sexual abuse.
Yes, they did. At the holding center, we were treated like criminals. I was dumbfounded by the inspector’s acts. I received a lot of therapy after I arrived in South Korea. I want to let people know about my story. That’s why I’ve come to speak today. The North Korean public are generally unaware of the violations that are happening in the detention centers.
If I continued to live in North Korea, I likely wouldn’t be able to tell people about my experience. I’m so very thankful that coming to South Korea has afforded me the opportunity to let people in North Korea know about these abuses. Of course, I’ve already received deep scars from the experience, but I hope to help other North Koreans avoid such traumatic experiences. If those who suffered abuse come and speak about it, it may really bring it home for the North Korean people listening to this on the radio. I believe that this type of broadcast can help focus attention on these abuses.
Other women were also sexually abused. When I was moved to the re-education enter, I met a woman who was raped by the same inspector and she was pregnant as a result. When they discovered that she was pregnant, they moved her and forced her to have an abortion. This type of story isn’t a rare occurrence. Scores of women bear deep scars from the torture and sexual abuse they’ve suffered. Most of them don’t get the help and therapy they need. Instead, they wither away in re-education camps.
So it seems that most women who become pregnant after institutional rape are forced to have an abortion. Did anything like that ever happen to you?
Yes. When I was in the holding center I began to get morning sickness. When the inspector who had raped me heard about this, he immediately sent me to the gynecologist. Without any anesthesia, I was placed on an operating table and forced to have an abortion. They sent me directly to the detention center after that.
I wasn’t given time to heal or any post operative care. I was still bleeding when they took me away. The inspector himself watched the procedure. As soon as the fetus was removed, he simply walked away.
So it seems like sexual abuse is quite a common occurrence at these station offices.
Yes, absolutely. That was not the case in China. There, all the prisoners wore shackles. In North Korea, we had no shackles, so we were forced to move around and obey the orders of the guards. The guards treated the prisoners inhumanely. They treated us like their dogs or their playthings and abused us without hesitation.
Were the guards usually the perpetrators of sexual crimes against prisoners?
Yes, but in my case it was different because it was the inspector who did it.
Did the inspector ever get punished for his crimes?
There was no punishment I was aware of. I was in the re-education camp for three years. When my time was up, I was processed through the same station and I saw him working in the same position.
How did you summon the courage to talk about such a difficult issue with us here today?
If I was the only person to ever suffer from sexual assault at the hands of the North Korean authorities, it would not be as important to get the story out. But this is an extremely commonplace event in North Korea. I want to tell people listening on the radio that this is what is happening in their country. The department inspector who raped me is not the only high ranking official to abuse prisoners. Countless people suffer from this type of mistreatment and are unable to tell even their own family members. My family members don’t know about the painful experiences that I’ve been through. I came here to tell people that this is happening. I sincerely hope that unification can come quickly and North Koreans can live peaceful lives.
Sexual assault and forced abortions cause intense physical and emotional trauma for victims of these crimes. The international community is documenting evidence of these violations and the perpetrators will be held accountable.