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Life in a North Korean Labor Camp: 'No Thinking ... Just Fear'

Image: A North Korean soldier stands in front of a window.

A North Korean soldier stands in front of a window along the banks of Yalu River near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong, June 24, 2013. JACKY CHEN / Reuters, file

SEOUL, South Korea -- An orphan who was caught trying to escape from North Korea told NBC News how he was "treated like an animal" in one of the country's notorious labor camps.

The head of a United Nations panel on Monday said atrocities committed by North Korea against its own people were "strikingly similar" to those perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II and released a 400-page report which shed new light on the camps. American missionary Kenneth Bae is currently imprisoned in North Korea after being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor on charges of trying to overthrow the state. The conditions he is being held in remain unclear.

The U.N. report came as no shock for Hyuk Kim, who was a homeless 16-year-old when he was arrested by state security in 1998 trying to cross the border into China in search of food. He was sent to North Korea's Jungeori Labor Camp after being ordered jailed for three years.

“At Jungeori, there was no sense of being human, if you thought you were a human being, you couldn't live there,” said Kim, who is now aged 33. “You were like an animal. You do the hard labor you were ordered to do, that’s it. No thinking. No free will. Just fear.”

Hyuk Kim was arrested at the age of 16 when he tried to cross the border into China.
Hyuk Kim was arrested at the age of 16 when he tried to cross the border into China.Courtesy Hyuk Kim

As his 4-foot, 9-inch frame withered away, Kim became obsessed with just one thing: food.

“Because you were so hungry, you thought about food and how to get more of it all the time,” Kim recalled. “Sometimes you got lucky and you were able to catch a rat or two as a snack, which you'd skin, dry the meat out and eat, usually raw. If you tried to cook the rats, the guards would smell the meat or fire, catch you and beat you mercilessly.”

In Jungeori, breakfast was served at 7 a.m. and consisted usually of a handful of cornmeal and 50-90 soya beans.

Inmates would toil until noon, when they were given lunch of more soya beans and cornmeal, before working again until 6 p.m. or 7p.m. However, some teams would be expected to work as late as 9 p.m. each day.

Dinner was typically served at 7:30 p.m. and the rest of the evening would then be dedicated to what qualified as the only entertainment available to prisoners: learning and memorizing the rules and regulations of the camp.

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“If one prisoner got one word wrong, the entire team had to stay up until everybody got it all correct,” Kim said. If night study went well, prisoners would go to sleep each night at 10 p.m.

Conditions were horrific with as many as 50 people crammed into one room, each one having just enough space to lie huddled together, person-to-person inside.

One way to secure extra food was through barter. Cigarettes in Jungeori were the most valuable item to trade, with prisoners scrapping them together by surreptitiously lifting half-smoked butts belonging to the prison guards off the ground and consolidating the remaining tobacco into new cigarettes.

The trade was fraught with risk though, as being caught making or smoking these contraband cigarettes would also lead to severe beatings from the guards.

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Kim recalled he did not dare to look ahead to a day when he would walk free from the camp. To think that far ahead was to invite death.

“If you thought about when you'd leave the camp each day, you were usually among the first to die,” Kim said. “Psychologically, you cannot fully adapt to camp life if your thoughts are stuck only on your release.

Jobs at the labor camp were assigned by the prison guards based off of an opaque rubric that included your hometown, physical health, occupation outside of the camp and whatever influential connections you may have outside the camp.

Truckers and drivers in the real world were assigned to the auto mechanic team, builders would be assigned to construction units inside the camp, while stout men from mountain regions were assigned to logging units. Farmers would be sent to till the harsh soil of nearby fields while others like Kim were assigned to a unit that moved packages and supplies to and from the Jungeori railway station to the prison.

The lucky few managed to find their way onto kitchen duty, where they could sneak in extra bits of food during their shifts.

During his time at Jungeori, Kim and his fellow prisoners watched three men be executed for attempting to escape camp and a fourth shot for being caught eating stolen food. Others simply succumbed to wounds suffered from beatings by the guards.

Kim, who was eventually released after around eight months, arrived in South Korea in September 2001. In recent years, he has served as a lecturer for a local Unification Education Committee in the country’s southern province of Chungnam. Kim is one of the few defectors who will speak publicly about their experience in the camps.

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Although Kim's stint at Jungeori was over a decade ago, recent defectors who’ve left similar labor camps have told him that conditions have only worsened. One female defector who arrived in South Korea in 2010 told Kim that the number of soya beans rationed out each day at her camp has dropped below the paltry amount he received.

Recent images of Bae, who has been held by North Korean authorities since November 2012 after being found guilty of “hostile acts” against the state, also provide hints of conditions inside the camps.

The Choson Sinbo, a North Korea-friendly newspaper, released photos showing Bae’s daily routine, which starts every morning at 6 a.m. and consists of eight hours of “work” broken up with half-hour “rest” periods. According to the schedule, work ends for Bae at 6 p.m., allowing him two hours at night for “cultural rest” before lights out at 10 p.m.

Previous video disseminated out by Choson Sinbo – a publication put out by a North Korean Residents Association in Japan – shows a solitary Bae at work hoeing farmland and conducting interviews from a windowed room with heating and a fan – comforts that seem at odds with the tough conditions described by Bae and North Korean camp escapees.

Image: Kenneth Bae
Kenneth Bae, an American Christian missionary who has been detained in North Korea for more than a year, meets with journalists in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Jan. 20. KYODO / Reuters file

“There are many types of labor and prison camps in North Korea, but I’ve never heard of any that looked as idyllic as this one,” says Barbara Demick, an American journalist based in Beijing and author of "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea." “For most people, time at a North Korean labor camp is like a death sentence because of low food rations and extremely harsh working conditions.”

Demick added: “I spoke to a North Korean defector just last month who came out of a labor camp and she said her sleeping conditions were so narrow she couldn’t stretch out her legs. She was imprisoned for the fairly minor offense of crossing the border into China, not the much more serious charges laid against Bae.”

Amnesty International late last year released satellite imagery that showed expanded labor camps in North Korea in which an escapee claimed prisoners were forced to dig their own graves before being killed by guards.

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It is likely that Bae is being held under special conditions as a result of his American nationality. In a video released last week, Bae notes that he had been treated “fairly” by his guards and had been granted time to watch television each night at the labor camp, though its antenna had been broken for a few weeks.

The free time has also given the devout Christian “more time with the Lord, with the Bible.”

Until now, American officials have been flummoxed in their attempts to free Bae. A reported second scheduled trip last week by Ambassador Robert King to secure Bae’s release was scuttled by North Korea after it refused to issue a visa. At the request of Bae’s family, Reverend Jesse Jackson has also offered to travel to North Korea to secure his release.

Ed Flanagan reported from Beijing.