The wail of a siren spread throughout the prison. Prisoners and guards all prick up their ears and listened out for instructions.
“Someone must have tried to escape!”
“Stop your work! Everyone, stop what you’re doing and return to the prison immediately! Hurry!”
Security officials and sentries yelled at the prisoners cutting down trees to hurry up. Finally, all 38 prisoners gathered and headed down the mountain. We were locked in the cell after a quick roll call.
Whenever someone attempted to run away, all the prisoners were locked in their cells until that person was caught. There wasn’t even any labor at those times.
The prisoners, who had been locked up for three straight days, assembled in the yard. The authorities had put up a post on the empty lot in front of the rest room for weaker inmates. A half dead runaway was tied to it.
“Keep quiet!” It was security department head Nam Byung Shik speaking, so everyone fell silent. Nam continued, “Open your eyes and watch closely! Look what happens to a deserter! Start now!”
After his speech, the reeducation director stepped forward, unfurled a judgment and started reading it solemnly.
“The deserter, when he was still a citizen, pursued his own comfort and profit and embezzled the precious property of the state. For that, he was sentenced to six years reeducation and admitted to Jeongeo-ri No.12 Reeducation Camp in 1999. Having committed an indelible sin against the country and its people, it is only right for the prisoner to admit his offense and take on the reeducating labor faithfully.
However, this person challenged the generous legal punishment, filled his stomach through larceny, neglected his duties and finally betrayed the kind mother country that gave him a chance to repent and ran away. He was, however, detected by the self-conscious people of Jeongeo-ri village and got caught. Therefore, following the decision of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s Central Reeducation Department, we sentence him to death!”
You could hear a pin drop.
“Shooters! Step forward!”
According to the security commander’s order, 4 gunmen shouldered their automatic rifles and lined up 5m from the post where the deserter was tied up.
The sounds of the security sentries’ footsteps were all that could be heard in the prison yard.
“Bang! Bang! Bang!”
Gunshots rang out. The 1st made a hole in the prisoner’s forehead and smashed his jawbone. The 2nd caused blood to splash on his chest and stomach. The 3rd broke his thigh and knee joints. His knees went weak, and this somehow put him in a kneeling position. His head was down on the ground already. I could not bear to watch any more.
“Watch the final fate of a deserter!”
Security officials made the prisoners stand in a line and pass the dead body. An indescribable fear spread over my whole body. The flesh and blood that was splashed across the ground made our eyes hurt. Everyone went back to the cells, but no one spoke. No one was able to calm down. Finally the cell head took on the challenge of changing the morbid atmosphere.
“Why is everyone so quiet? A dead person is a dead person. We’re still alive. We ought to live, right? Everyone, don’t get so tense about it. Those who want to go to the bathroom, you may go. Those who want to sleep, go to bed now!”
But it was in vain, because before he finished speaking, we heard a forehead’s voice through the window.
“Everyone to the assembly hall! Security department director’s orders!”
The security department director’s lecture, which was absolutely not worth hearing, was about to start. I, along with my section’s members, went to the assembly hall to suffer his latest work, ‘Deserting is self-destruction!” The title was no surprise.
He began, “Our great leader Kim Jong Il taught us the following. Labor, to those prisoners who have sinned in front of the country and the people and are now repenting, is….” It continued for two and a half hours. The longer his speech got, the more severe our pains became. There was a severe pain in our backs, and our buttocks hurt so much that we were already sweating. Breaking this silence, the reeducation director started to curse at us.
He made a prisoner who had fallen asleep stand, and cursed him viciously, “You think he’s having this talk because he likes it? Son of a bitch!”
That day, which started with a gunshot, turned into a long, long day. We sat in the assembly hall the whole afternoon and had another session of ‘ideology studies’ right after a quick dinner. Back then I was a new prisoner who had been with the Logging section for only 3 months, so I had to shout out loud Kim Jong Il’s ‘sage remarks’ during those study periods. Senior prisoners only pretended that they were doing so. I, too, after becoming the foreman, did the same.
Staring at the instruction board on the wall of the cell, I pretended to speak. But I was completely captivated by the execution I had witnessed early in the morning. Even when I went to bed, I could not sleep. All I could think of was, “I will never run away but stay alive and get released.” I promised myself that I would get out alive and meet my mother again.
No matter how they executed people or how often they made speeches, at least two or three people attempted to run away every year. Eventually, they stopped executing people. Instead, a deserter’s term was increased by 15 years, in addition to the remaining terms they had to serve.
I only learned about it later, but the end of the death penalty was all thanks to Lee In Mo, a political prisoner who was sent back to North Korea in 1993. I think South Koreans know him as well. After serving 34 years in a South Korean prison, he was repatriated. After looking around a few reeducation camps, he apparently reported to Central Committee, ‘a person like me wouldn’t last three years in such conditions, let alone 34 years.’ Because of his report, no more deserters were killed at Jeongeo-ri Reeducation Camp.
Nevertheless, Lee’s words only prove how cruel the reality of North Korean prisons is. Reeducation camps Lee visited must have been showpieces to some extent, but even they were a big shock to a man who had served 34 years in South Korean prison. North Korean prisons, that feed human beings like rats, make them work like cows and regard them as of less value than animals, definitely deserve the criticism of anyone who supports ideas of freedom and human rights.