Death, Terror In N. Korea Gulag
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DEATH, TERROR IN N. KOREA GULAG
By Robert Windrem
Lisa Myers, Rich Gardella and Judy Augsberger of NBC News and Michael Moran
of MSNBC.com contributed to this report.
January 15, 2003
In the far north of North Korea, in remote locations not far from the
borders with China and Russia, a gulag not unlike the worst labor camps
built by Mao and Stalin in the last century holds some 200,000 men, women
and children accused of political crimes. A month-long investigation by NBC
News, including interviews with former prisoners, guards and U.S. and South
Korean officials, revealed the horrifying conditions these people must
endure -- conditions that shock even those North Koreans accustomed to the
near-famine conditions of Kim Jong Il's realm.
"It's one of the worst, if not the worst situation -- human rights abuse
situation -- in the world today," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who held
hearings on the camps last year. "There are very few places that could
compete with the level of depravity, the harshness of this regime in North
Korea toward its own people."
Satellite photos provided by DigitalGlobe confirm the existence of the
camps, and interviews with those who have been there and with U.S. officials
who study the North suggest Brownback's assessment may be conservative.
Among NBC News' findings:
- At one camp, Camp 22 in Haengyong, some 50,000 prisoners toil each day in
conditions that U.S. officials and former inmates say results in the death
of 20 percent to 25 percent of the prison population every year.
- Products made by prison laborers may wind up on U.S. store shelves, having
been "washed" first through Chinese companies that serve as intermediaries.
Entire families, including grandchildren, are incarcerated for even the most
bland political statements.
- Forced abortions are carried out on pregnant women so that another
generation of political dissidents will be "eradicated."
- Inmates are used as human guinea pigs for testing biological and chemical
agents, according to both former inmates and U.S. officials.
Efforts by MSNBC.com to reach North Korean officials were unsuccessful.
Messages left at the office of North Korea's permanent representative to the
United Nations went unanswered.
Eung Soo Han, a press officer at South Korea's U.N. consulate, said: "It is
a very unfortunate situation, and our hearts go out to those who suffer. We
hope North Korea will open up its country, and become more actively involved
with the international community in order for the North Korean people to be
lifted out of their difficult situation."
LABOR, DEATH, ABUSE
NBC's investigation revealed that North Korea's State Security Agency
maintains a dozen political prisons and about 30 forced labor and labor
education camps, mainly in remote areas. The worst are in the country's far
Northeast. Some of them are gargantuan: At least two of the camps, Haengyong
and Huaong, are larger in area than the District of Columbia, with Huaong
being three times the size of the U.S. capital district.
Satellite photos provided by DigitalGlobe show several of the camps,
including the notorious Haengyong, for the first time outside official
circles. Plainly visible are acres upon acres of barracks, laid out in
regimented military style. Surrounding each of them is 10-foot-high
barbed-wire fencing along with land mines and man traps. There is even a
battery of anti-aircraft guns to prevent a liberation by airborne troops.
Ahn Myong Chol, a guard at the camp (which is sometimes known as Hoeryong)
from 1987 through 1994, examined the satellite photos of Camp 22 for NBC
News. They were taken in April, eight years after he left. But he says
little has changed. He was able to pick out the family quarters for
prisoners, the work areas, the propaganda buildings.
Looking at the imagery, Ahn noted what happened in each building:
"This is the detention center," he said. "If someone goes inside this
building, in three months he will be dead or disabled for life. In this
corner they decided about the executions, who to execute and whether to make
"This is the Kim Il Sung institute, a movie house for officers. Here is
watchdog training. And guard training ground."
Pointing to another spot, he said: "This is the garbage pond where the two
kids were killed when guard kicked them in pond."
Another satellite photo shows a coal mine at the Chungbong camp where
prisoners are worked to exhaustion in a giant pit.
All of North Korea is a gulag," said one senior U.S. official, noting that
as many as 2 million people have died of starvation while Kim has amassed
the world's largest collection of Daffy Duck cartoons. "It's just that these
people [in the camps] are treated the worst. No one knows for sure how many
people are in the camps, but 200,000 is consistent with our best guess.
"We don't have a breakdown, but there are large numbers of both women and
BEYOND THE PALE
It is the widespread jailing of political prisoners' families that makes
North Korea unique, according to human rights advocates.
Under a directive issued by Kim's father, North Korea's founder, Kim Il
Sung, three generations of a dissident's family can be jailed simply on the
basis of a denunciation.
NBC News interviewed two former prisoners and a former guard about
conditions in the camps. The three spent their time at different camps.
Their litany of camp brutalities is unmatched anywhere in the world, say
human rights activists.
"Listening to their stories, it's horrific," said David Hawk, a veteran
human rights campaigner and a consultant for the U.S. Committee for Human
Rights in North Korea. Hawk has interviewed many former prisoners in Seoul.
"It's hard to do more than one or two a day because they're just so painful
to hear: horrific mistreatment -- all sorts of suffering, beatings to death,
Kang Chol-Hwan is now a journalist with Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's most
important newspaper. His recent book, "The Aquariums of Pyongyang," is the
first memoir of a North Korean political prisoner. For nearly a decade, he
was imprisoned because his grandfather had made complimentary statements
about Japanese capitalism. He was a 9-year-old when he arrived at the Yodok
camp. His grandfather was never seen again, and prison conditions killed his
"When I was 10 years old," Kang recalled, "We were put to work digging clay
and constructing a building. And there were dozens of kids, and while
digging the ground, it collapsed. And they died. And the bodies were crushed
flat. And they buried the kids secretly, without showing their parents, even
though the parents came."
The system appears to draw no distinction between those accused of the crime
and their family members.
Soon Ok Lee, imprisoned for seven years at a camp near Kaechon in Pyungbuk
province, described how the female relatives of male prisoners were treated.
"I was in prison from 1987 till January 1993," she told NBC News in Seoul,
where she now lives. "[The women] 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 8 months or 9 months
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. And I saw an infant who was crying with pain. I have to express
this in words, that I witnessed such an inhumane hell."
TESTING ON HUMANS
Soon also spoke about the use of prisoners as guinea pigs, which a senior
U.S. official describes as "very plausible. We have heard similar reports."
"I saw so many poor victims," she said. "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."
She tearfully described how in one instance about 50 inmates were taken to
an auditorium and given a piece of boiled cabbage to eat. Within a half
hour, they began vomiting blood and quickly 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."
Prison guard Ahn's memories are, like the others', nothing short of
gruesome. Every day, he said there were beatings and deaths.
"I heard many times that eyeballs were taken out by beating," he recalled.
"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 paralyzed."
Moreover, said Ahn, beating and killing prisoners was not only tolerated, it
was encouraged and even rewarded.
"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,"
Ahn said. "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
President Bush told author and Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob
Woodward last year that he was well aware of the camps and the atrocities.
That, officials say, partly explains why Bush insisted on North Korea's
inclusion in the "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address.
"I loathe Kim Jong Il," Bush told Woodward during an interview for the
author's book "Bush at War." "I've got a visceral reaction to this guy
because he is starving his people. And I have seen intelligence of these
prison camps -- they're huge -- that he uses to break up families and to
Brownback, a senator with a reputation as a human rights advocate, thinks
that the prison camps and abuses have for too long taken a back seat to
nuclear arms and other Korean issues.
"It seems that what happened is that there got to be a complex set of
issues, and people said, 'Well OK, it's about our relationship with China,
it's about the Korean Peninsula, it's about this militaristic regime in
North Korea that we don't want to press too much because they may march
across the border into South Korea."
Brownback says the North's nuclear program, its missile tests and generally
unpredictable behavior has blurred a critical issue:
"I think people just got paralyzed to really put a focus on the human face
of this suffering," he said.
TRANSCRIPTS OF TERROR
Soon Ok Lee:
Kang Chol Hwan:
Ahn Myong Chol:
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