Sorrowful Reunion with Seven Refugees by Kim Eun-Cheol


The Seven Men from Russia
My journey to Yoduk started on November 10 1999 when some Russian border guards arrested me. Seven defectors including myself had crossed the Sino-Russian border with the help of a South Korean guide in China, but were caught. The Russian authorities were happy to send us to North Korea or China, but China did not want us.

However, after a while we received refugee status from the UN and were told we could go to South Korea. We were overjoyed. However, the joy did not last long, as we were then forced to meet with the North Korean ambassador. The Russians told us to do so, and although we vehemently objected and even wrote a joint statement saying ‘If we meet with the ambassador we might be forced to go back to North Korea, so we will not meet him,’ the interview went ahead. The ambassador told us we would be sent to North Korea but might be pardoned “depending on the crime.” At the time we were confident that we would not actually be sent to North Korea, since the UN had accepted us as refugees. We were wrong.

On December 30, 1999, Russia sent us back to China. I remember that there was conflict between China and Russia; neither one wanted to play the bad guy by sending us to North Korea. Russia said that because we had come from China, we had to return to China, while China argued that Russia should return us to North Korea.

In the end we were repatriated to China; but on our way to interrogation we all escaped. Later, I found out that the other six were all arrested within three or four hours, but I was fortunate enough to get to Yanji. However, because I was scared of the police, I made the mistake of deciding to return to North Korea. We had escaped so the Chinese authorities were chasing us, and as they closed in, I decided it would be better to hide in North Korea than get arrested in China. I thought hiding in North Korea would be safer.


From Ku-Ryu-Jang to Yoduk
On January 13, 2000, I entered North Korea. I did not dare to go to my house, so I stayed at a friend’s place. After three days I left his home; I was going back to China, but desperately wanted to visit my own house for the last time. I could not resist it. As I arrived, the Social Safety Agency officers hiding in an alley arrested me; I was beaten black and blue, tied up and taken to a Ku-Ryu-jang (Ku-Ryu-Jang is an interrogation facility where a suspect is investigated and the gravity of the crime is determined.) I was 18 years old.

I suffered unbearable torture during the interrogation at the Ku-Ryu-Jang. I was made to kneel on a hot plate for hours; the scars are still visible. The food my family sent to me was confiscated and fed to other inmates. It was psychological torture to see others eat my food while I was kneeling down. They also forced my head into the toilet, calling it punishment for giving my food to other inmates. When the interrogation was over in late June, I was transferred to Yoduk.

The day I was transferred, I thought I was going to be killed. At around 3AM, they woke me and another inmate to give us food. They fed us well, so I thought I was going to be executed. It was so delicious that I perceived it as my last meal. Then we were handcuffed and taken to what I eventually realized was a train station. Ironically, since our hands and feet were cuffed we could not walk fast, and so ended up missing the train. Annoyed, the officers took us by car to Cholsan, but we missed the train again. This time they beat us for failing to walk fast enough. It hurt, but I was still happy that we were not going to die. The next morning, we took a train to Yoduk.

The train stopped at Gwanpyong3 Station. We were transferred to the camp guards at a Cho-Dae-So there, and then, blindfolded, moved for four and a half hours by van to Yoduk proper. After passing through the front gate and three more checkpoints, the blindfolds and handcuffs were taken off. We had arrived at Seorimchon, the Yoduk Revolutionizing Zone.


Life at Seorimchon(The Revolutionization Zone of Yoduk Camp)
When we arrived, the other inmates were heading home, so it had to be around seven or eight in the evening. I did not know then how long I would need to serve, but did at least feel lucky to have some clothing and utensils from home.

Newcomers were stationed in the ‘newcomers’ ward,’ which existed because a newly arrived inmate’s health condition tended to be poor due to following months of torture. Newcomers normally stayed there for ten to thirty days to recuperate, and although they still had to work, it was a little bit easier than the normal workload.

However, I spent six months there. I was 18, and the youngest. When youths are imprisoned, the NSA officers get nervous, because young people tend to try to escape or cause trouble. For this reason, they tend to treat young prisoners better. That was why I stayed there so long. After six months, I was dispatched to a construction platoon, and worked there until I was released in July 2003.

Seorimchon contained two companies. The first was agricultural, and contained four male-only platoons. The second had three platoons; a female platoon, a vegetable platoon and a construction platoon. There were also independent platoons working the chicken farm, pigpen, cattle shed, meeting place, fish farm, threshing floor and granary. The sewing room was under the immediate direction of the management office. Female prisoners worked on the chicken farm and in the sewing room. Because male prisoners tended to try and escape, they were made to do hard labor, while women worked the marginally easier jobs. There were sixteen prisoners in the female platoon, and in my platoon there were twenty or so. The total number was about two hundred and fifty.

The construction platoon did logging, cutting, plastering, coffin making, burials and construction. We also ran the only tractor in Seorimchon. We had to cut eleven or twelve trees to meet our daily quota of 3m2 , but carrying the wood off the mountain was very difficult. In principle, each person had to carry the wood he cut, but the agricultural platoon sometimes helped us out. Since all of us were weak, we all found it difficult.

Inside the prison camp, trees with roots that are 30cm or longer must be cut, and each piece must be longer than 3m. The daily goal of 3m2 depends on the length and diameter. Even if thirty pieces of wood are produced out of ten trees, it could not be 3m2.

Even though the conditions were bad I worked very hard, maybe because I was young. At around 4PM, the loggers got a snack. The platoon leader checked our work, and those who had cut more trees received more snacks. The daily quota was 3m2, and since I achieved the quota fastest, I received the most snacks. The snack was only soup with vegetables, but it was a huge benefit for people in a prison camp.

Each ration was 120g at the prison camp. All the agricultural products from Seorimchon went outside, and our food came in. I guess it could have come from the Total Control Zone. Since we ate little and worked a lot, many people died of malnutrition. In my three-year term, more than a hundred died; one died in an accident and two were publicly executed, while I also saw several people die following two weeks in the Ku-Ryu-Jang. It is much harder to survive in the Ku-Ryu-Jang, where inmates receive just 30g of food per meal, compared to 120g for everyone else.

Camp surveillance was unbelievably severe. They say they are trying to ‘reeducate’ people through labor and starvation, but ultimately it is just a prison. Every hour there was roll call, even at night. When we went to the toilet at night, we had to report to the guards. These guards were not officers; they were four men selected from among the prisoners. Their main job was to watch the other prisoners, and they changed shift every two hours. They slept in the security office, working on a chair at the front door of the 1st company barracks.

People did everything in groups of three. Wherever they went, all three had to go together. If they had to visit another company, they had to report to the platoon leader and then to the company leader, and could then only go with a guard. There was more freedom for housekeepers, who had to work individually.

I never saw the people in the Total Control Zone, but I could hear them talking as I climbed the mountains. I heard that although the Seorimchon area was a normal area, Total Control Zone inmates were also used to build a prison there to start receiving Revolutionizing Zone detainees from 1999. In other words, the political prisoner camp expanded. While I was in the prison, goods from other areas were supplied to Seorimchon. Kilns, ten-year-old red pepper paste and moldy rice, which were not available at the Revolutionizing Zone, were supplied. The goods were for family inmates, and there were no family inmates in Seorimchon. We suspected that the Total Control Zone moved further north, and the goods used by those people were supplied here.


The Seven Men from Russia Meet Again
Except for Kim Seung Il, who was under-age, I met the other five of the Seven Men from Russia in the revolutionizing district. I was imprisoned first, and then Kim Gwang Ho, Lee Dong Myoung, Jang Ho Young, Bang Young Sil, and Heo Young Il followed. Kim Gwang Ho, who arrived first, was transferred after two days. When I asked where he had gone, they told me that he had been sent to another area, but I was unable to establish whether it was to the Total Control Zone or to death. Lee Dong Myoung and Jang Ho Young were interrogated in Pyongyang, and then dispatched to the same construction platoon. Bang and Heo, who were husband and wife, came last. Bang was dispatched to an agricultural platoon and Heo to the vegetable platoon. However, Bang died only seven months later, whereupon Heo was transferred to the first company’s agricultural platoon.
I think both Russia and the UN were na?ve, as they trusted North Korea’s promise not to harm us. Maybe they wanted to believe it because we were also a problem for them. For them it was a minor issue, but for us it was life and death. Because of their decision, one person died and two went missing. I survived that hell and am enjoying my freedom now, so I will not demand an apology, but who is to be held responsible for their deaths?


Bang Young Sil’s Death

The love affair between Bang and Heo was heartbreaking. Bang died of lost hope. She lost the will to live having been recognized as a refugee, forcibly repatriated regardless and then subjected to severe torture. Bang refused to eat in the prison camp. She was not freed from labor, even though she was so emaciated that she had to be carried to the workplace. She just sat there like a fool, and since she did not work, her rations were reduced further. Heo took care of her; he washed her after his own work was done, and tried to give his food to her.
Given that one needs good fortune to even survive in such a place, taking care of somebody else, even your wife, while working hard like that for twelve hours a day in a malnourished state is a crazy thing to do. If a person has lost all hope and is waiting to die, then taking care of that person is unbelievable. Yet Heo did it.
We were all so moved by the two. We, the inmates, could see that no ordinary love could do such a thing. Even the officers looked at them sadly.
Bang was eventually hospitalized just fifteen days before her death. However, Heo did not give up on his wife. He came to the hospital every day after work to take care of her. The hospital did not have any medicine or medical equipment, the doctor was a veterinarian and the only prescription was porridge. The hospital was simply where patients went to wait for death, and yet Bang survived for fifteen more days thanks to her husband’s loving care.

There was heavy rain the day Bang finally died. Even the heavens seemed to be crying. I had to bury her, and was shocked by her skeletal frame. I cried a lot that day, burying her 20kg body.


Love Was a Luxury

Love affairs were strictly prohibited, but some people still had secret relationships. I was one of them. I met Ham Sun Jeong, who was three years older than me, when I was working at a cafeteria. We had a relationship until she was released. I was young, and gave everything to her. I even wrote a letter to her in blood. I felt so passionate that I left evidence of my love in a place where love was banned.
However, there was also an old man named Duk Gu. He was Korean-Japanese, over 50, and the manager of the research room. He had been a trader outside, so he also had some money. Later I learned that Sun Jeong had a relationship with him too. Former high-ranking officials or rich people did better inside because they had more things to trade for comforts, and since inmates only wanted to survive, women often tried to get close to them. The old man was rich and lived in an independent area, so he was better off. He also managed the apple orchard, so he sometimes had apples. In contrast, I could barely give her a few kernels of corn. I was incomparable to a man with such luxury items. Even love was a luxury for inmates.


People I Met at the Prison Camp

There were two public executions while I was there. Choi Gwang Ho, who was in his forties, left his line while falling asleep. He tried to escape out of fear of punishment, before being arrested after three days and summarily executed. Kim Ho Suk, who was just 29, stole potatoes and got arrested for it. He was caught by dogs, so his clothes were ruined and his head was left bleeding. After seven days in a Ku- Ryu-Jang, he was also executed. He looked skeletal as he left the truck. Gravel was in his mouth, and he was gagged. His head, chest and legs were bound to a stake, and then an officer read out his sentence. He was shot three times in the head, three in the chest and three in the legs. Ho Suk, whose only crime was hunger, was dead.

Another prisoner stole honey from NSA officers. He was an unusually fast and agile fellow, and even though the barracks were surrounded by barbed wire, he got over it. It was amazing, since even the cafeteria and toilets were within the perimeter, and we could only go beyond the fence when working.

Anyway, one night this guy jumped from the top of the toilet block over the fence, stole honey from the beehives in the orchard and came back. Nobody witnessed it, and if he had not attempted to exchange the honey for rice, he would have gotten away with it. At first, the NSA officers thought a prison guard must have stolen it because they had free access to the area. Not only was jumping over the wire fence thought to be impossible, but returning to the dormitory without being noticed was equally unthinkable. The bees had stung the guy, but it was summer so it was put down to food poisoning. However, he was eventually arrested and taken to the Ku-Ryu-Jang, and after fifteen days of interrogation he died.

Jang Myong Hwa was a female soldier imprisoned while working as a trader. The camp management officer at the time was Jung Gil Hyun, a people’s commissar from Sakju County, who had met Kim Il Sung several times. Jang and Jung had an affair, but only Jang was punished. Jung who was a former high-ranking official was a management officer in a camp, had met Kim Il Sung, so he was relatively powerful. Conversely, Jang was nothing but a female platoon member. Jang was made the scapegoat since they were not in a position to punish Jung. Jang came back from the Ku-Ryu-Jang after fifteen days. Most prisoners die right after returning but she kept going, maybe because she endured the army training. She died just over two weeks later.

Five inmates came to the prison camp because of their underground church activities in Simpo. The five, Jang Hyun Su, Jang Gang Ok, Um Young Chol, his wife and Go Un, were imprisoned at Seorimchon for reading the Bible. The people who had led the underground church must have been sent to a Total Control Zone or executed.

Then there was Cholman. He drunkenly broke a street light on the No.1 Road 5 (a private road for Kim Il Sung’s use) after breaking up with his girlfriend, and was sent to the Revolutionizing Zone as a result. One day he disappeared, so soldiers were mobilized to find him. He was finally found in a warehouse, where he had sneaked in to eat the candies that newcomers had brought. He was considered an escapee and sent to the Total Control Zone.


Leaving Hell… and Desperate Prayer

My crime was ‘treason’. I still feel angry that crossing a border to save my starving family could be considered treasonous, worthy of being sent to a political prisoner camp. Normally I would have been executed for treason. However, the Seven Defector Incident became well known in both the UN and the international community, so North Korea could not kill us. However, many innocent people are still suffering in the political prisoner camps. I would like the UN and the international community to work harder to save them from the human rights violations of the North Korean authorities.



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