The Crime of Working Too Well – Jang Yeong Geol

Jang Yeong Geol (Yoduk Camp, 1997~1998)

In charge of the Russian branch of the North Korean ministry of trade, I earned foreign currency for Kim Jong Il and his family. An annual goal being a million dollars, my branch had consistently exceeded the goal for 5 years till 1994. Because we regularly exceeded the target, I received a number of medals and my prospects were good. Then one day in 1994, I was ordered to go on a business trip to North Korea; since frequently dispatched to the region on official business as a manager of the Russian branch, I followed the order without any suspicion.

However, as soon as I arrived at the airport I realized that something was wrong. There was a different car waiting for me, not the Ministry of Forestry car that I was used to. When I got in the car, officer of National Security Agency(NSA) told the driver, “Take us to Island No.117.”

‘Island No.117’ turned out to be a ‘Cho-Dae-So’ run by the NSA in order to investigate people returning from overseas, but I didn’t know that at the time. In fact, I didn’t know why I was being investigated at all. Only once I had passed through both the Security Agency under the National Defense investigation and Yoduk Political prisoner camp did I finally come to understand the nature of my ‘crime’.

My crime was earning foreign currency “too well.” I did not know that the NSA had a secret rule, which was to investigate any foreign currency-earning officer that earned more than one million USD per year. The annual quota set by the state was one million USD or more, but they actually regarded its attainment as impossible. So, if an office met the quota, it was immediately suspected, then NSA investigated and tortured officials until they got confession of ‘crimes’ which they fabricated already. I found out that more than a hundred foreign currency-earning officials had been arrested, like me, for working too well. How ironic it is that a regime would arrest precisely those talented people who earn more for the government than it asks of them.

Five ‘Cho-Dae-So’, One Preliminary Investigation and Yoduk

I passed through three ‘Cho-Dae-So’ and one preliminary investigation before I even got to Yoduk, and after leaving Yoduk, I was harshly interrogated at two more Cho-Dae-So run by Security Command. I was first interrogated in 1994 at Cho-Dae-So 117 run by the NSA, and then remained in detention for most of the next five years until I was finally released from a Security Agency in November 1999.

The NSA’s Cho-Dae-So is on Island 117, hence the name. The island is in the center of the Daedong River, a very isolated place only accessible by small boat. When I arrived there, the deputy director of the NSA’s 3rd Bureau was waiting for me.

He told me, “The great General’s mercy permits me to review your ideological convictions, so now you must criticize yourself sincerely.” I was left in solitary confinement with paper, upon which I was to write absolutely everything. I wrote down every detail of my life, which took the whole day, but they were dissatisfied, so they beat me and told me to write it again. They did not provide cutlery for fear that I might commit suicide, but the food was just corn soup and salt water anyway. Every cell was for a single person, and every prisoner was addressed using his or her prisoner number so no one would know who else was there.

After eight months on Island 117, they decided that they had not obtained enough information from me, so they sent me to another Cho-Dae-So. As I was being transferred they told me, “You cooperated sincerely, so you’re going home.” However, I was actually investigated for another year at a second Cho-Dae-So in Pyongyang, and then moved to another one when there was no outcome. This one was run by the Party Affairs Office. Finally, in 1996 and after three Cho-Dae-So, I was transferred to an NSA preliminary investigation office.

It was a place of death. The cells were free-hanging birdcages, so when the prisoner moved, the cell moved as well. Prisoners were confined alone. There was a surveillance camera that was monitoring every cell and there were microphones under each cell, so every move and sound could be checked. The fronts and sides of the cages were constructed with a ‘wall’, but in the back there were bars; when a prisoner moved or made a sound, he or she was beaten through the bars. There was no soap, and no washing. The prisoners smelled so appalling that even the guards did their interrogation from a distance.

Preliminary investigations normally lasted for three months, but most people could not even stand that. The maximum record had been eight months, until I withstood it for a year. When a prisoner died during investigation, their confession was fabricated and they were officially recorded as a political prisoner. This gave me the will to survive. I was subjected to four investigations over the course of a year, but they did not find a scrap of evidence of wrongdoing, so I was finally sentenced to a period of ‘revolutionizing labor.’ I had not committed any crime, but was told that I had not lived up to “the standard.” It was illegal, but words were sufficient justification. This was not a judgment by trial, everything was decided by the director and some other officials. Courts in the preliminary investigation office are not places for trials; they just hand down pre-ordained verdicts. Death sentences, which are supposed to be carried out by shooting, are carried out by hanging instead. This is in order to save bullets.

Thus, I was sent to Yoduk Political prisoner camp in 1997.


Path to Yoduk

Having been sentenced, I was immediately sent to the NSA 7th Bureau, where I was loaded on to a cargo truck. The truck was sealed apart from a small door used to load prisoners into the cargo hold. This door was locked from the outside. Inside there were ten other prisoners, all from different areas. We were stopped twice en route to use the bathroom. On one occasion I looked around; we were in Yangduk Pass. The pass connects Pyongyang and Yoduk, but it also connects the capital with the east coast, which is where I thought we were going. However, I was wrong; and after along journey on a bad road, the truck stopped and an officer could be heard saying,“The cargo is here.”

This was the front gate of Yoduk Political prisoner camp. The truck stopped for a spell, perhaps in order to deliver documents and check details. We passed through four more checkpoints, finally arriving in the area known as Daesuk-ri Revolutionizing Zone. After a fifth checkpoint, the door was unlocked. We were in Daesuk-ri, the Revolutionizing Zone of Yoduk.

Life in Yoduk
The first thing we did was ‘registeration’ with the Administration Office and passed through a document check. North Korea is a highly controlled society that everybody must re-register wherever they go. However, in a prison camp registration is not really like that; rather, it is the confiscation of old registration documents. Party memberships are canceled (in the case of women, Democratic Women’s League memberships), and all the documents needed by people living in North Korea, like the Youth Labor Alliance of Cho-sun Socialists membership cards and food ration cards, are taken by the office.

After ‘registration’, we were moved to the ‘Outsiders’ area.’ There were thirty or so people there, the place where all new inmates were taught about prison life for a month before being dispatched to either a ‘company’ or an ‘independent platoon.’

In 1997 when I was there, there were two companies (comprised of platoons) and three independent platoons, as well as a hospital, greenhouse, power plant and sanitarium platoon, all of which were under the direct authority of the Administration Office. All of the platoons were separate from us; we were in the companies. Chicken, sheep and cattle farms were also independent, and lived separately. The sheep farm was particularly far off in a valley, so I never saw the members of that group at all, except for the farm commander. I was dispatched to the first company electric power platoon; first company was composed of six platoons, including the electric power one and a female one.

At that time there were no family barracks, only ones for single people. According to old timers, there had been family barracks in the 70s and 80s, but by the time I got there they had all been disbanded. Two new families had come two months before I arrived, but they did not belong to any company.

Life inside the prison was regular and controlled. In the morning we woke up, washed our faces and went to work. Lunch was eaten in a mess hall inside the barracks. Guards were allowed to conduct impromptu checks at any time, so we could never rest. At night the light was left on while we slept, and guards did the rounds every fifteen minutes to check for empty spaces. Their office was right in front of the restroom, so people visiting there were checked automatically.

The food consisted of corn-rice with salted vegetable soup; that was it. If you only ate the rations, you could not avoid becoming malnourished, so everyone ate snakes, frogs and fish in secret. Also called the newcomers’ area; sometimes referred to as the new comers’ platoon, or outsiders’ ward. Until the early 1990s, when there were many family inmates, it was called work group. Since the late 90s, after it was moved to Seorimchon area, it has been reorganized into companies, like the military.

Jang Yeong Geol, Electricity Power Platoon Leader?

I was in the camp for one year, and worked for the production platoon the entire time. However, mostly we just cut down trees. After four months, the platoon leader was discharged and I took over. This was the situation until I was released in 1998. We cut trees, fixed carriages, built furniture for NSA officers, did metallurgy, lathed and made knives and axes.

It was also our platoon’s responsibility to make coffins and stakes for public executions. We built the coffins and stakes used in both the revolutionizing district and the neighboring ‘Total Control Zone.’ In the year I was in the Revolutionizing Zone, there were two public executions. However, we made a total of eleven stakes that year, so I presumed we were also making stakes for use in the Total Control Zone. The things we made most frequently were coffins. We made them almost every day. I remember that the size of the coffin depended on the size of the dead body, so I could tell whether the deceased was tall or short.

Another of our jobs was to build a wall between the Total Control Zone and our Revolutionizing Zone. There was a military-only road running alongside Daesuk-ri, and in the beginning we would see prisoners from the Total Control Zone walking along it. However, once we had built the wall we could no longer see them. We made the boards and nails for the wall ourselves.

Nameless Disappearances
The graveyard in the Revolutionizing Zone was on a steep, wooded hillside, making it hard to find and even harder to carry coffins there. The first time I visited was for the funeral of a guy who had fallen off and died in a power plant construction site accident. I will never forget the scene: there were no gravestones, and some bodies were visible above the ground. Animals had damaged many of them. It was no surprise; most of the prisoners were so malnourished that they did not have enough energy to make proper graves. Even if we had made wooden gravestones, they would have been stolen for fuel. The Management Office did not manage the graves properly; it was considered sufficient just to bury the body in an empty plot. There, the person’s life ended. Seeing so many prisoners’ lives end in such a nameless way was heartbreaking.

Most people who died did so of malnourishment. If you got diarrhea, you had no chance. In South Korea, when a person has diarrhea he is advised not to eat fatty foods, but if he were inside a prison camp he would receive more fats because diarrhea is one outcome of malnutrition.

The publicly executed died in a particularly dreadful way. The victim was carried to the execution site with hands tied and mouth filled with gravel, so he or she could barely breathe. As his or her head, chest and legs were tied to a stake (that I had made); a NSA officer read the sentence. The sentence was, of course, fake and contained unbelievable crimes. After the reading of the sentence, the execution was carried out. Three trained snipers shot each rope. They shot the head first, and then the rope broke and the body fell. If the ropes tying the legs were also hit, the body would fall on the ground, shivering as if still alive. Such victims were not buried in the public graveyard in Daesuk-ri. Instead, they were taken away. I was shocked once to see a body tied to and pulled along behind a truck.

The camp guards who were military men used to talk to us, “Do you want war with South Korea? If there is a war we will go to the front, but only after killing every single one of you, so don’t even think about it.” Nameless death; this is the fate of prisoners.


Humanity: The Reason I Survived Yoduk

It was a difficult life, but I survived thanks to the generous help of others. No one inside spoke about the difficulties, because there were spies around and mistakes were reported. NSA officers got angry whenever they found something unsatisfactory, and threw anything they held. I never complained about this, but simply said, “It is my fault. Please teach me how to do it right,” and therefore my platoon was given better conditions. I believed that prisoners needed to cooperate to survive, so I shared my food with my fellow inmates, even though I got a little. Other members of the platoon followed suit. They gave me lizards or fish that they had caught in the river. Sometimes they asked me to eat live fish, and I swallowed it to boost their morale. Such things helped us all stay alive.

Everyone in the Revolutionizing Zone needed help from our platoon. We produced every utensil and item used in the camp, and got help in return from the hospital, the power plant, the agricultural team and even the NSA officers. The power plant in Daesuk-ri used water from the reservoir, but in winter the water channels froze and it was a huge job to break the ice up. We always completed the job faster than any other platoon, and this meant we got to go into the power plant to get warm and eat some food. This technically required official approval, but our platoon had a good relationship with the power plant operators and they kept it a secret.

When a number of platoons were required to do something together, NSA officers liked to pick a few people from each to compete against one another. The ones who completed the work first would receive corn. Our platoon came first almost every time. However, we did not eat the corn by ourselves; we shared it with the platoon. Everybody was working hard, and we could not allow some to eat and others to go hungry. By doing so, we sharpened our collective will to survive.

Yoduk: Showpiece of North Korean Absurdity

The sanitarium in the Revolutionizing Zone was designed to help the weak and ill to recuperate. This was stipulated in DPRK law, but no inmate actually got to rest there. Instead, the NSA officers used it. Two female inmates worked there, and their job was to prepare showers for the officers and then entertain them. In other words, what should have been a rest place for the welfare of inmates was actually a place of prostitution. In South Korea, even criminals’ human rights are respected, but in North Korea there is no thinking about human rights. This is true not only in the prison camps, but also in North Korean society as a whole.

When I was sent to Yoduk, I did not know that it was a political prisoner camp. I only realized I was in Daesuk-ri much later on when I saw my party transfer card, and only realized that Daesuk-ri was part of No.15 Yoduk Political prisoner camp after my arrival in South Korea, because it was called 2915th Regiment on every other document. I had thought I was working on a military base. North Korea is an isolated society where access to information is heavily constrained. There are rumors but no details, and people in the Revolutionizing Zone were only released if they swore an oath not to disclose anything about the camp to anyone. Anyone who spoke of it would be incarcerated again, they said. All information shut out, and every word carefully spoken; this was the prison camp.

There were many high-ranking officials in the Revolutionizing Zone. For example Bang Chol Gap, a former head of the Korean People’s Navy, was imprisoned in the 1980s. There were also a former party secretary from Rakwon County and a former chief of the reconnaissance division of the National Defense. A guy who had been involved in the production of a famous North Korean movie called ‘Nation and Destiny’ was imprisoned there for several years. He knew Kim Jong Il but had been falsely accused. The head of the family section before I arrived was apparently a diplomat and a member of the extended Kim family. Prisoners sent to work at the power plant were highly educated people originally from the National Science Committee or the nuclear facility at Yongbyon.

North Korea is a country you are required to die for, but one where you are subjected to the harshest labor for the slightest failing or mistake.