Kim Hye-Sook, imprisoned in a North Korean prison camp at age 13, spoke at a United Nations conference Thursday night. “I was taken to Prison Camp 18, and I was imprisoned there for 28 years, living in a life that is unimaginable, a life that is worse than a dog's, living a life like a slave.”
North Korea operates by a “guilt-by-association” system in which family members, even up to three generations, are punished for the alleged crimes of their relatives. This was the case for Hye-Sook, who was arrested and imprisoned for her grandfather's defection, a man she never knew.
She described how inmates were forced to work in dangerous coal mines for 16 to 20 hours a day, and given only one meal of porridge. Many succumbed to sickness and malnutrition.
She also spoke of how inmates, including family members, were forced to turn on one another. “In this prison we were divided into three per group, and we were supposed to monitor each other and write up a detailed report of what the other person has done for the instructor.”
She continued, “If we were not able to do that for different reasons, whether sick or unable to write because we had injured our hands, then they would tear our mouth with plyers or handcuff us until we lost circulation. We were beaten, we were tortured.”
Those who questioned their captors were shot on the spot. “If you asked questions about why you were there, you were immediately executed publicly. I have seen and was a witness to multiple executions in this prison. And after Kim II Sung died, and Kim Jong-Il came to power, there was an incident [when the government] sent people who were loyal to Kim Il Sung to prison camps. They were high level officials asking why they were taken to prison camps; if they asked, they were executed immediately.”
Hye-Sook was released from the camp, escaped to China, but was caught and returned to the same prison camp six years later. The situation had so deteriorated that cannibalism was being practiced. “[P]eople were eating other people.”
Acquiring information about the country's gulags is extremely difficult, as the Stalinist government keeps vigilant watch over any data released about their concentration camps. But it's believed to house at least 200,000 prisoners. Most never exit the camps except by death.
North Korea detains more political and religious prisoners than any other country in the world.