And the Photo Demolished My Path

Kim Kwang-Il (Yoduk Camp, 1999~2002)


Contact with the Outside World through Trade with China

I went to Yoduk in December 1999 at the age of 35, because they found out what I did in China. I had gone to work in China because my family background was so bad that it was difficult to find a decent job in North Korea. In North Korea, family background is tremendously important, and my family’s was among the worst. Former landowners, capitalists, Christians and people with ties to others who ran to South Korea during the Korean War are all classified as having a bad background, and my grandfather had escaped to South Korea during the war. Worse still, my uncles fought on the South Korean side.

When I was young, I did not know that my family background was that bad. The first time I was discriminated against for having a bad background was at college entrance time. Teachers do not know much about their students’ backgrounds, only the police know. I had good grades, so I was recommended for the college entrance exam by my teacher. However, I was not accepted, and did not know why. I also could not become a party member or get a good job. As a result, I started going to China in 1983. I was not interested in defecting; I only wanted to trade with Chinese merchants. I had to do this illegally because visiting China required official permission, and I couldn’t get it.

While I was there, I met South Korean and American missionaries. I did not take back the photo I took with one of the missionaries, but I did take a copy of the Bible. I knew that taking a Bible into North Korea was not allowed, but the story was fun and I thought it was an interesting item since it was from South Korea. It only told people to behave well anyway, so I was curious as to why North Korea prohibited people from reading it.

I took back a radio too, and listened to it in secret. I heard South Korean broadcasts on it; radio dramas and South Korean news. I also brought back an action movie on video. A member of the security forces was later detained for watching the video, because in North Korea even husbands and wives have to watch each other, and the wife reported her husband. However, the husband had a good background, so he was demoted rather than being sent to a political prisoner camp. The authorities overlook minor crimes committed by people with good backgrounds, because if such people become political prisoners then their family members must be dealt with too, due to the guilt by association system. Conversely, I did not have a good background, so the photo incident hurt me more.


Photo with American Missionary Leaked
I became a political prisoner not because of the South Korean broadcasts, the video or even the Bible. It was because compelling evidence of my contact with a church was handed to the National Security Agency. In the past, my grandmother living in the United States had sent a letter calling on me to believe in God. The NSA pointed to this, but any letter from overseas is checked in Pyongyang prior to delivery, so I complained that the authorities must have accepted the letter in the first place. However, the photo I took with the missionary in China was critical. North Koreans living in China report on the behavior of other North Koreans to the NSA, and it was one of these people who passed the photo to the NSA. I was sent to an NSA Ku-Ryu-Jang (Ku-Ryu-Jang are an interrogation facility where a suspect is investigated and the gravity of the crime is determined.) in April 1999.



Painful Eight Months in an NSA Ku-Ryu-Jang
The next eight months in an NSA Ku-Ryu-Jang were dreadful. They asked me what espionage activities I had done for the South Koreans. At that time, every South Korean in China was seen as a spy. The North Korean authorities thought the South Koreans were there to give espionage missions to North Koreans. The investigation focused on whether I had received such a mission. The NSA was keen to investigate it, since it would be good for them if I were found to be a spy.

The prison cell was tiny. There was a small window, but no other way to know what was going on outside. I had to kneel silently for hours, putting my hands on my legs. I woke at 5AM and stayed still during the entire day, except fifteen minutes for breakfast and fifteen minutes for exercise. There was neither a blanket nor a mattress, so kneeling was very painful. Perhaps fortunately, I became accustomed to kneeling down. We got just three spoons of corn and vegetable soup each day, which was not enough for my starving stomach. I would have eaten weeds, but inside a cell that was not even possible.

The torture was severe and ongoing. They not only beat me, but also tied my neck and hands, which made my hands blue. If I slept where I stood, they would throw cold water over me. April in North Korea is still winter, but they did not heat the room; instead, they opened the window. My clothes were very thin. Sometimes I was forced to lie on the wet floor. I withstood it for six months, but my uncles had fought for the South Koreans during the war so my background was bad and there was no room for mercy. In the end, I signed a false confession. There was no trial. Having admitted to something I did not do, I was sent to Yoduk on December 5, 1999.


Imprisonment at Yoduk

I could see the outside world from the vehicle, but there were just mountains in view, so I only realized I was in Yoduk when I got out. I was sent to live in the Seorimchon area of the camp. I hear that the Revolutionizing Zone used to be at Daesuk-ri, but Seorimchon was added in 1999 and imprisonment there started at around the time I was incarcerated. I did not know that it was a Revolutionizing Zone and they did not tell me how many years I would have to serve, so I thought I was going to be in a Total Control Zone for life.

There were about fifteen inmates in the room already, and new ones arrived every month. I was the weakest of the newcomers. My clothes and shoes had been taken when I was in the Ku-Ryu-Jang, so I did not have any protection against the cold weather. I had not been fed well, had taken beatings for eight straight months, felt extremely depressed and wanted to die.

As a result, I did not eat well. For the first twenty-two days I drank only water and gave my food to the other inmates. The guy to whom I gave much of it came from Pyongyang; he had studied in China. Although his father was a vice-minister, he was still sent to Yoduk after having a meal with South Korean students in China. I ate the candies he gave me, and gave my food to him. Since I was not eating my meals I became more emaciated. I declared that I could not work. The officers beat me, but I resisted. Because I did not have energy to work well, they dispatched me to work in a restaurant. The restaurant job was easier, and I became healthier as I had sources of food and started to eat more. Once my body had recovered to a point where I could resume work, they sent me to a farm. My job was to cut weeds 500m up a hill and take them back down. I had a daily quota, and if I did not meet it my rations were cut. People became thinner, as they were not fed well while working hard.



Meals in the Camp

The food was mostly corn and beans. The crops we farmed were sent to the outside world, and we received grain from the outside. There was very little, but we received no additional rations except for a piece of thin meat on important holidays. They believed that the way to revolutionize inmates was to starve them. People could best be revolutionized when hungry. I ate weeds and rotten potatoes from the mountains, as well as frogs, rats, snakes and grasshoppers. I even ate dragonflies and mantises. I know it sounds funny, but rat and snakes were very popular. It was even common for people to eat beans out of cow dung. Some people died after eating poisonous weeds.

Many of the people who had held high office and eaten good food whilst out in society could not adapt to the prison camp, so many died of malnourishment and diarrhea. A total of around eighty people died during my three years in the camp.



Death, So Common

Because so many people died, dying ceased to be special. There were no real funerals. If a person we had worked with yesterday were to die today, we would bury the body without sadness. There was a public graveyard near Seorimchon, so we did our work in the day and buried bodies at night. We could not dig deep, since all of us were malnourished and in winter the ground was frozen. So, we set a fire to melt the ground a little, then buried the bodies and covered them with dirt. Naturally, the dirt melted and moved in spring and the bodies were exposed. It was better to cover them with rocks.



Basic Structure of Seorimchon Area
In the revolutionizing district there were two companies, each of which was comprised of several platoons. Each of the platoons contained seven or eight men, although the women were all in a single platoon of more than twenty. Other than the companies, there was also the Management Office, a construction squad and a “vegetable team” who only grew small vegetable that consisted of old or weak people. The entire area of the Revolutionizing Zone housed two hundred and fifty people, all of whom worked on farm, rather than producing industrial goods.

There were no family-level members. If a husband or wife became a political prisoner, the couple forcibly divorced. Even in the event that both the husband and wife were imprisoned, they were immediately separated and dispatched to different platoons. When there were education sessions, at which everyone gathered, husbands and wives were not permitted to greet one another.

I met some couples who had been arrested for attending underground churches, but there were no children. There were only adults, with men and women living in different quarters. Contact between genders was prohibited. The revolutionizing district was supposed to release its inmates after a certain period of time, so in order to maintain order husbands and wives were not allowed to meet and children were banned. Women who became pregnant in China had their babies forcibly aborted by certain medicine. The youngest person I knew was a sixteen-year old who had attempted to escape to South Korea while studying in China. There were three other young inmates; they did better than adults because they had more energy, but I felt sorry for those of young teens.

Surveillance continued even in the living quarters. The dormitories were delineated by company, and each platoon lived in a single room. People even had to go to the bathroom in groups of three to forestall escape.

Communication with people in the Total Control Zone was unthinkable. I saw the houses and the mine in the Total Control Zone, but it wasn’t possible to talk with the prisoners in there. There was a village in each valley with barracks, houses and officers’ homes. Yoduk has deep valleys, and each valley is like a single district. It was completely isolated from the outside world.



A Day in Prison
In summertime, prisoners woke at 5AM, cleaned their barracks and worked on the farm from 8AM to 8PM. At 9:30PM there was a ‘work review’ session, and once a week there was ‘life review.’ Work review included ideological education, singing propaganda songs and memorizing the “Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Single Ideology”. All inmates gathered together on Kim Jong Il’s birthday and other big holidays, and on Kim’s birthday each platoon had to prepare a celebration of performance. Whenever a Central Party official visited the prison, we also received a lecture called ‘Repent Your Sins’. However, we did not know what crimes we were supposed to repent, and in any case it was ridiculous to force starving people to repent their sins.


Yoduk: The Place of No Escape
The prison camp was ringed with electrified barbed wire, so escape was all-but impossible. The barbed wire lay on sand three meters wide so traces would remain, and the sound of the electric fence could be heard from far away. There were also booby traps, and even if somebody did manage to escape, the geography was so complicated that he or she would just wander around and, eventually, get caught.

Nonetheless, some inmates did try to escape. One day after work, NSA officers took roll call and found one inmate missing. If a person went missing for 24 hours, a nationwide search followed. At that stage, all officers were mobilized and the platoon leader and officer responsible for the missing person were punished.

The missing inmate was caught after three days. He said he had hidden to eat some corn he had stolen because he was so hungry. He knew that if he showed up late he would be beaten for failing to appear on time, so he just kept hiding. After a while the entire camp was put on alert, so he figured he had no choice but to run. He did not even reach the barbed wire. He was later gagged and summarily executed; shot three times each in the head, chest and belly. The body was wrapped in rags and taken somewhere. Yoduk was a place where the outcome of starvation was brutal death.



Wash that Guy’s Face!
The NSA officers liked to force inmates to beat each other, rather than do the beating themselves. When they told you to “Wash that guy’s face,” it meant that you had to beat the person. When an inmate broke the rules, the entire platoon was punished so that those who had broken the rule would then be bullied. One inmate was even beaten to death by his fellow inmates. The inmate had broken the rules several times and the platoon had been punished accordingly, so other inmates just beat him. Since inmates were weak, they could die from pretty minor injuries.



Release from Prison; Two Defections, One Successful
After three years in the camp, I was released. It was December, 2002. Soon after that I tried to defect. It was broad daylight, but I knew some border guards so I figured that I could bribe them. However, shortly after I crossed the border, somebody in a restaurant reported me. If I had been healthy I could have run, but I had only just left the camp so I could not. I decided it would be better to allow myself to be arrested in North Korea rather than in China, so I re-crossed the Tumen and was promptly arrested by North Korean soldiers. They were surprised to see a person crossing the river at 4PM. The soldiers and NSA officers all took pity on me, so I was only sent to a labor-training corps for a year. Normally I would have gone back to the camp.