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NORTH KOREA SURVIVORS' TALES:
TRANSCRIPTS OF TERROR
January 15, 2003
Soon Ok Lee:
Soon Ok Lee is a former prisoner at Kaechon Prison in North Korea. She
recently published her memoirs and testified about her experiences before
the U.S. Congress. She also spoke with NBC News about her time at Kaechon.
Below is an edited account of that discussion, in her own words. (Editor's
note: Soon's descriptions are graphic and may not be suitable reading for
I was imprisoned for seven years at the political brainwashing camp Kaechon
in Pyungbuk province. I was in prison from 1987 till January 1993. I was
imprisoned at the age of 39.
I worked at the chief product supply office, I was the general manager of
the product supply office, in North Korea we were supplying food and
materials to people. And I was imprisoned because the North Korean economy
was in recession and the supply of materials was not in good condition,
that's why I was imprisoned.
In Kaechon Prison, there were more than 6,000 prisoners. All of them were
political prisoners, and they were treated just like beasts.
And the guards of the prison told the prisoners, "You are not human beings.
You must think that you are beasts; otherwise you will not survive."
Not all the prisoners were ideologically against the government they were
just miserable because of the lack of food, and when they uttered one word
of complaint, they were considered to have a problem ideologically.
Among 7,000 prisoners there were about 2,000 housewives who had children at
home, and after one month of my life in prison, I saw them publicly
I was crying out, calling my children's name. And I saw one young housewife
who had children age 5 and 7. I saw she was forced to come to the prison,
and she shouted "I have children but I've been imprisoned, and my husband
was imprisoned, and now the children will starve at home." And I saw her
executed, in public, in front of 6,000 prisoners.
When I was in prison I was treated with no regard to my motherhood. Under
the regime of Kim Jong Il's dictatorship. I was fastened to an iron pole,
fastened at my bosom and stomach and legs.
There were six executioners with three bullets each. They would shoot a
total of 18 shots to the heart. That is inhuman. I was so sad, and I was so
stunned to see that young woman executed although we are not war prisoners
and we are not enemies, but they executed a mother of children, just like
In the prison there were many Christians. And since the Korean War in
Korea they call it June 25 War the No. 1 enemy is God. Kim II Sung hated
Between 1956 and '63 many Christians were imprisoned, and the rest of their
families were imprisoned in another separate prison for families.
In the Kaechon Prison, I believed in God, and I was kicked by the guards,
and I had to work in the ironworks factory.
That type of work is done under a high temperature, and my spine started to
shrink. And my height became 120-130 centimeters. And I was treated just
like an animal. My back became curved like a soccer ball, and the distance
between my heart and stomach narrowed, and my shoulders, the bones stuck
out. And I looked like a strange animal.
I felt like I had two heads because my shoulder bone protruded so much. I
felt I had become an alien, not a human being in this world. I was just like
a beast. I was treated just like an animal, just like a slave.
I was beaten with a leather strap 10 centimeters wide and 1.5 meters long.
And I was kicked with boots. And I became just like a strange animal in
I experienced this atrocity during my prisoner's life, for seven years I got
only 100 grams of corn for every meal. I had no other food. Not even once.
The corn cake, 100 grams, that is the size of one choco-pie. And they gave
me one small cup of saltwater. If someone does not fulfill his daily duty,
then the portion will be only half 50 grams.
I was merely a prisoner under the dictatorship. Under this dictatorship we
cannot say anything and we cannot smile, and we cannot show tears, we cannot
walk freely, and we were forced to go to the toilet only three times a day.
I cannot believe I could survive under such tight control, even controlling
my physical functions and under the pressure of rifles and knives.
During my stay in Kaechon Prison most of the 6,000 prisoners were struggling
to survive, and they were not political prisoners. They uttered a word, like
this: "Why do we have to starve? If Kim Jong Il, the leader, is there, why
do we have to starve?" Such a complaining word made us get put in prison.
I witnessed public executions. I felt that this is not a country to live in;
it is a human being's hell on earth.
And I was really shocked when Kim II Sung was alive, he tried to manufacture
biochemical weapons and testing not on animals but with human beings because
our enemy is not an animal, but a human being.
This was Kim Jong Il's instruction. And they tested them on the prisoners
instead of animals. I saw so many poor victims. Hundreds of people became
victims of biochemical testing.
I was imprisoned in 1987, and during the years of 1988 through '93, when I
was released, I saw the research supervisors they were enjoying the effect
of biochemical weapons, effective beyond their expectations they were
saying they were successful.
Recalling that scene, I still cannot rid myself of nightmares. You can see
my face shrank like this, and I'm really so sad. My face shrank, and I was
tortured on account of what I have not done. And the left side of my face is
like this. The left side of my face is deformed like this and cannot
In this prison there were 6,000 prisoners, and there are a total of 200,000
political prisoners in North Korea (starts to cry). How can there can be so
many political prisoners under a regime where we cannot express our own
thoughts? So it is nonsense. It is nonsense to have so many political
prisoners. So I would appreciate it if you understand that there are so many
political prisoners in North Korea. Living on this side, I see many people
are happy and free and free to take care of their children as they like,
give them clothes and food
In the meantime when I recall my prisoner's life in the north, there were
over 2,000 housewives and pregnant women. And there is a law for the
political prisoners not to continue generations, for three generations. To
stop the generations. So they were forced to abort their children. They put
salty water into the pregnant women's womb with a large syringe, in order to
kill the baby, even when the woman was eight months or nine months pregnant
(crying). And then, from time to time there a living infant is delivered,
and then if someone delivers a live infant, then the guards kick the bloody
baby and kill it (crying). And I saw an infant who was crying with pain
I have to express this in words that I witnessed such an inhumane hell
(crying). I was captured in October '86, and I was imprisoned in '87 and in
May 1988. I cannot forget about this. The guards kicked me with their boots,
and I was forced to do work that I never had done before.
Once they picked out 50 persons from our group, and they put them in the
auditorium and gave them a piece of boiled Korean cabbage, and then as soon
as they ate it, blood came out from their mouth and anus. And they died. I
saw that in 20 or 30 minutes they died like this in that place.
Looking at that scene, I lost my mind. Was this reality or a nightmare? And
then I screamed and was sent out of the auditorium. It was biochemical
testing, using just a bit, the substance just 1/10,000. I cannot forget that
image. I wonder how a human being can kill another healthy human being like
During 1990, '91, '92, they treated the Christians more strictly. They were
moved to a separate working place. At that time, 30 prisoners were kicked to
death by the guards' boots. Two guards did it. And when they cried to the
Lord, "My Lord, my Lord," then those people had boiling water poured on
them. And they became carbons. There is no other hell like North Korea.
We experienced malnutrition, and when we reached the third degree of
malnutrition, the worst condition, when we drank water or ate bread, it came
out through the anus immediately.
In the prison there were rats, they are manufacturing leather goods and
leatherwear, so there are many rats. When we could catch rats, we thought it
was a fortunate day.
If we were found catching rats, we were put in a separate solitary cell.
When we caught a rat, we didn't cook it. We just ate it.
When we eat one piece of bread and cup of salty water and pass one year like
this, the human loses the sense of taste, whether it is salty or fishy or
whatever. So we can could eat live rats. Without having any taste.
I have headaches from time to time because I was kicked in the head. And my
eyesight still hasn't recovered. And my shoulder is curved. Both sides of
shoulders are not even.
And I was tortured with water. And I was in water, and I had to drink water.
I had to lie down and drink water, then when my stomach was full of water
they stamped down on my stomach making the water level and my body level
even and then the water came out of my mouth and anus. And they tramped
until the water level and my body level was even.
And my breastbone, backbone and my legs are not in normal condition.
Physical side effects after the torture in North Korea was too much until
now. In the south I could get a stomach operation but still I am suffering
from pains, because of the water torture.
When they do the water torture, they use a specially designed 10-liter
kettle. They put the mouth of the kettle into the prisoner's mouth, then
automatically the throat is opened. At that time I had a scar here on my
face, by that tenure. Still you can see a bit here. And they hung me from
the ceiling, two hands together and then beat me. Because of the heavy
weight of my body, when I was hung, I have a wound on my wrists and the
flesh removed, because of the handcuffs
The left side of my shoulder protrudes in a lump, the bone protrudes upward.
And this side is hollowed because they tramped on me here.
He most painful moment for me at the time was the torture. I was captured by
them in my office, without knowing the reason. They told me I was
responsible for the non-supply of food to the people, although it was not my
responsibility but the responsibility of the leader.
And they tortured me in order to get a "yes" from me, that it is my
responsibility. While they were torturing me, sometimes for a couple of
days, I lost consciousness, and when I came to, I saw I had a wound on my
back and the large flies defecated on the bloody part and then sometimes
My heart was breaking because my only son and my beloved husband, they have
no relationship to my imprisonment, but they had to go to a forced labor
camp. And this type of system exists only in North Korea, nowhere else in
At the time my only child was a university student, at Kim Il Sung
University. And my husband was a school principal. And they had to work in
the forced labor camp, and still I feel very bad because I was born in North
Korea, and my husband passed away under such circumstances.
My father was in a high-ranking position in North Korea, and myself I was
graduate of the university, and I was a member of the labor party, and I
didn't suffer from anything before. That's why I was not strong enough to
have patience to experience severe pain. So in the prison I had to
experience such pain, and it is just a miracle that I was freed from such
Now it has changed, totally changed 180 degrees. Right now I feel that I
don't have to worry. I feel like I died and was reborn.
Right now I hope the day comes sooner when the 23 million North Koreans can
be set free. I feel a physical threat from North Korea.
Kim Jong Il is an inhuman person. And I experience such atrocities, and I
make it public, so Kim Jong Il may wish to kill me hundreds of times.
Therefore I feel threatened. At the cost of my life I don't worry. That's
why I have such courage.
I think the rest of the world's people should know about such atrocities in
North Korea. Where there are no human rights this exists only in North
So far almost no one has survived of those who were imprisoned there. There
were a couple of them who survived from the family prison. But in the prison
like mine, I'm the only person who survived. It is a secret.
And the facts should be known by the United States Congress and the
government, and the United Nations, they should make Kim Jong Il set the
prisoners free. By all the people's voice as one, I sincerely request this.
When I was there, there were 24 prison camps. After that, myself, my son and
Kang Chol Van and Ahn Hyol and Ahn Nyung Chol and some other people made the
facts known to the public, including the U.N., and I think Kim Jong Il took
it seriously, and now the number is reduced to half. However, the number of
prisoners are 200,000-plus, and other types of prisons 200,000 total
400,000 prisoners are in the prisons.
Now I don't know how many persons are put into the prisons and how many
prisoners are killed at this moment. But North Korea, they have a plan to
put people into prison, the schedule the number of prisoners every year.
That is not because they are guilty but because they need the manufacture of
products by the prisoners.
All the North Koreans know there are prisons, and even 3-year-old kids know
there are prisons, and when they cry, if they are told, "You will be sent to
a prison camp," then they stop crying.
They are always very cautious to express their opinion, even one word
because they don't know when they will be captured and imprisoned if they
say the wrong thing.
I have a scar on the left corner of my eye because of the torture, and my
teeth were broken. This left side of my face is paralyzed.
They tramped on me so strongly that my teeth were broken and my eyeball came
out. And I put it back in the socket again and massaged it by hand for a
couple of days. And it was swollen. And see this dent I find it after
recovering consciousness so I don't know what happened, but I must have been
poked or stabbed with something.
Ahn Myong Chol:
Ahn Myong Chol is a former prison guard at Hoeryong-Area prison in North
Korea. He worked at four different camps and discussed with NBC News what he
saw -- and committed -- at those camps. Below is an edited account of that
time, in his own words. (Editor's note: Ahn's descriptions are graphic and
may not be suitable reading for all.)
I was A driver at the Hoeryong Prison No. 22 national security defense
division for eight years.
The name of the prison: No. 22 Hoeryong prison. Official name No. 2 district
company prison, called National Security Defense Division No. 22 Hoeryong
I worked at four places. Three of them have closed. One still exists. I
worked No. 22 Hoeryong Prison starting from May '87 until September '94. I
started to work the age of 19. I was late two years because I engaged in the
army service after college. Normally we join the army at the age of 17.
Officially it's not a soldier, not military, it's national guard. But the
training is the same as the military.
At first, for three years, I was in charge of watching the barbed wire
fences, often at nighttime. Sometimes like an ambush, to keep the prisoners
from escaping. After that I became a driver, and I delivered foodstuffs to
the guard post.
At first I felt it was a movie film studio for the propaganda of North
Korea, speaking ill of South Korean government. But actually the officer who
brought me to the prison instructed me not to speak and not to smile. I was
instructed if there is a prisoner who tries to escape or fight me, then I
was allowed to kill him.
They call prisoners "re-settlers." They called the prison the managing
office for the "re-settlers," and they call the prisoners non-guilty
At first, in 1959, this camp was inaugurated by the doctrine of Kim Jong Il
and Kim Il Sung, and expulsion, escaping and riot happened in this camp.
Once someone is imprisoned here, it is so horrible that might think he is
already dead if he is not loyal to Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.
They trained me not to treat the prisoners as human beings. If someone is
against socialism, if someone tries to escape from prison, then kill him. If
there's a record of killing any escapee, then the guard will be entitled to
study in the college. Because of that, some guards kill innocent people.
Beating and killing is an everyday affair.
They are not treated as human beings; they are just like dogs or pigs.
There is no instruction how to beat them, but the officers tell us to beat
or kill the re-settlers without responsibility. Therefore, when someone is
working in the field, the guard tells the prisoner to come over here, if the
prisoner comes slowly, then it can be a cause of beating.
In the training, such as tae kwan do, and when someone is working in the
field, we call the prisoner under the pretext of actual war training. And I
have beaten one humpback person. This is usual to beat prisoners.
The guard system is so strict there are few escapees, and sometimes we need
to find out a way to be, get away from our guard's life in the prison. And
we try to find a pretext in order to go to college. One of my colleagues
tried to make a prisoner escape by climbing the barbed wire fence, and then
he shot him, and he went to college.
There is detention center inside the prison camp. That is for the people who
cannot fulfill his job during the day. At first stage, they don't give him
food. If he repeats it three times, he'll be punished, to go to the
detention center. In three months he will of course die. The work is divided
into morning job and afternoon job.
There's wooden poles, square pole, and they twist the legs under the knee
with the squared wooden pole, and then if this continues for three months,
the blood doesn't circulate. And if someone destroys fixtures or furniture,
then he'll be punished.
Or another one team is composed of five persons, and they go to the coal
mine or field to work, and if any one person of them is late or escapes from
the group, they'll all be punished. There are two watchmen/supervisors, and
if watchman fears someone would like to escape or if there's anything
abnormal, then the prisoner will be punished.
I saw numerous prisoners killed, especially by beating. I saw one person age
between 40 and 50 he's old enough because the average age of prisoner is
between 40-50 he was working in brick factory. And as he was older he was
moving slowly, he was not working well. And the team master tramped on his
loin, and the bone was broken. He was hit by an iron rod that is used to
start vehicle engines, and I heard the next day he died.
Sometimes I used to drink alcohol together and chat together with the people
in the division of torture, and when the officer in the division is in a
good mood, the prisoners will be treated mildly. And when he had an argument
with his wife at home, then the torture will be severe. And I heard many
times that eyeballs were taken out by beating. And I saw that by beating the
person, the muscle was damaged and the bone was exposed, outside, and they
put salt on the wounded part. At the beginning I was frightened when I
witnessed it, but it was repeated again and again, so my feelings were
As a human it was really heartbreaking. After the Gulf War, there were
tunnels digging nationwide. This prison was engaged in tunnel digging. And I
was in charge of the pig farm.
At that time the tunnel was passing near the pig pen of the camp, and about
500 political prisoners were participating and there was one female named
Han Jin Duk, 26 years old. I was in charge of giving food to the pigs. And
my supervisor, when he saw the woman, she was beautiful. And he raped her,
and he was found by the watchman officer. And he was investigated. My
superior, his rank was reduced and the woman was sent to the detention
center And then I didn't see her for one year.
One day I was going to the place to load the coal, I met her. And I noticed
she was exactly that woman, and I asked her, how you could survive. And she
told me, that yes, I survived. But she showed me her body, and it was all
burned by fire.
After six months I met her at the corn storage in Kusan district and found
her putting on a used tire on her knees because her legs were cut off.
Because of a coal mine wagon ran over her knees. And all she could do now
was separate the corn grains from the cob.
The reason why she was forced to go to the prison is her father's elder
brother was purged at the Anbyon, Kanwhan Do province. She went when she was
5 years old. All of the family members were imprisoned. Her mother starved
to death, and her brother also starved to death in the prison. I met her at
age 26. So it means she was in the prison for 21 years. I think she no
longer is in the world.
A food factory produced soy sauce and cookies and bean paste. And here the
women worked between 20 and 30 years old. The women are the sexual slaves of
the security officers, they are forced to wear only white thin gowns and no
underwear, they are not given underwear. They make all the beautiful women
The prisoners go to the coal mine along this road, in carts pulled by cows.
And while they are passing through here, I was instructed to beat a disabled
person by my superior, and I had no choice but to obey.
Even in the small village there is an officers headquarters, and if any
prisoner disobeys, then he can be beaten here, and the officers were armed,
and they would kill prisoners here.
Not only here but all other places, even in the small hills they bury
bodies. And when we cut the trees down, sometimes we find a buried body. Not
only here, but all around here are buried bodies.
In the hills here, if there is some flat area, it is covered with graves.
And if people start to farm there, they find bodies or bones.
This area is where there are the most densely buried bodies. There are
graves all over here, and we can see the graves where there are no woods.
There is no particular area to bury dead bodies, but they put them all in
this general vicinity, and no one can cry. It is forbidden to cry, and there
is no funeral ceremony, and the officers say, "The anti-revolutionary person
has died, so there is no reason to cry."
I don't have any unforgettable image or memory because I was not a victim. I
was on the side of the attacker. So I don't have any nightmares. However,
before I came to the south, I thought it is not a humane thing, although I
was used to seeing such crimes.
One unforgettable image, there were two girls and they were trying to take
out a piece of noodle from one polluted water pond where they put the
garbage. And one guard kicked the kids into the small pond, and they
drowned. The pond was very deep, and I felt really sad about that.
I thought it is natural to punish or beat a guilty person. Because I was a
driver, and I was a guard. But in the course of time, I had the opportunity
to talk to the prisoners and found they are not guilty. And when I see the
senior citizen kneel down in front of young guard, and he was treated badly,
then my heart was breaking. And I thought this is not a humane thing.
Once I beat one person while training in tae kwan do. I kicked him with my
foot, but fortunately he didn't die.
I wished to get out of this guard job. In this prison, even if you die, you
cannot get out of the prison. The prisoners are imprisoned not because of
their own guilt but by distant relatives, other family members imprisoned as
This is the type of horrible politics of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. If the
people are not loyal to these father and son Kims, they have to die there.
In a brainwashing prison or police prison, people can be set free when the
prison term is finished, but in the political prison, there is no prison
term. Such a system shouldn't exist in the world. Yes, there are still such
prisons. How many exist in North Korea, I don't know. But prisons belong to
national security defense division. Once it was criticized by Amnesty
International; they criticized Pyonyang Songwori prison in 1990 or 1991.
And they merged a couple of prison camps. The first is Kaechon 14 and Hannam
15. And Hoeryong 22 and Hasung 16 and Chongjin 25. In order to merge the
prisons, the expenses are tremendous. For example, to take out barbed wire
fences and carrying prisoners it took six months in order to close one
prison. The expenses for moving materials and fixtures and furnitures and
exploding the facilities are tremendous. However, in the future no more
merging will happen. Now five prisons are left, and there is no way to close
any more prisons. Because the government authority is now (closing)
returning the prisoners to society.
The number 12, 13 and 25 those prisons were side by side. In the vicinity,
the land was very fertile. Because the prisoners cultivated it, farmed it.
But after the closing of 12 and 13, those areas became devastated.
The economic portion of the contribution Hambuk province is about 40 percent
of foodstuffs, such as corn. And they produce coal as well for the
coal-burning electricity power plant in Chongjin, and therefore if they
close more prisons the people will starve.
Most North Koreans know there are prisons like this, that's why they are
loyal to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
We had to be very careful in expressing even one word. We shouldn't be
critical, and we have the system of self-criticism or self-judgment hour.
First we read Kim Il Sung doctrine, then we criticize ourselves for the work
we've done in the past week. In this case, I have to say the "great leader
Kim Il Song" or "great leader Kim Jong Il." And if I don't say "great
leader," then I'll be punished. So I have to behave. Otherwise all of my
family numbers will be put in prison.
My way of thinking was changed. While I was starting as a driver, before I
took it as natural, and after a while I thought this is not the right way.
So I was already changed before coming to the south. I didn't change my way
of thinking here in South Korea, in order to buy people's hearts.
Because of Kim Jong Il and his subordinates and a small portion of citizens,
the total nation of 20 million people are suffering such hardships. And the
people are now changing to think that this regime is not right one. But they
cannot speak out, because of Kim Jong Il's atrocities.
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