Soon Ok Lee is a former prisoner at Kaechon Prison in North Korea. She recently published her memoirs and testified about her experiences before the U.S. Congress. She also spoke with NBC News about her time at Kaechon. Below is an edited account of that discussion, in her own words. (Editor’s note: Soon’s descriptions are graphic and may not be suitable reading for all.)
I was imprisoned for seven years at the political brainwashing camp Kaechon in Pyungbuk province.… I was in prison from 1987 till January 1993. I was imprisoned at the age of 39.
I worked at the chief product supply office, I was the general manager of the product supply office, in North Korea we were supplying food and materials to people. And I was imprisoned because the North Korean economy was in recession and the supply of materials was not in good condition, that’s why I was imprisoned.
In Kaechon Prison, there were more than 6,000 prisoners. All of them were political prisoners, and they were treated just like beasts.
And the guards of the prison told the prisoners, “You are not human beings. You must think that you are beasts; otherwise you will not survive.”
Not all the prisoners were ideologically against the government — they were just miserable because of the lack of food, and when they uttered one word of complaint, they were considered to have a problem ideologically.
Among 7,000 prisoners there were about 2,000 housewives who had children at home, and after one month of my life in prison, I saw them publicly executed.
I was crying out, calling my children’s name. And I saw one young housewife who had children age 5 and 7. I saw she was forced to come to the prison, and she shouted “I have children but I’ve been imprisoned, and my husband was imprisoned, and now the children will starve at home.” And I saw her executed, in public, in front of 6,000 prisoners.
When I was in prison I was treated with no regard to my motherhood. Under the regime of Kim Jong Il’s dictatorship. I was fastened to an iron pole, fastened at my bosom and stomach and legs.
There were six executioners with three bullets each. They would shoot a total of 18 shots to the heart. That is inhuman. I was so sad, and I was so stunned to see that young woman executed although we are not war prisoners and we are not enemies, but they executed a mother of children, just like that.
In the prison there were many Christians. And since the Korean War — in Korea they call it June 25 War — the No. 1 enemy is God. Kim II Sung hated God most.
Between 1956 and ’63 many Christians were imprisoned, and the rest of their families were imprisoned in another separate prison for families.
In the Kaechon Prison, I believed in God, and I was kicked by the guards, and I had to work in the ironworks factory.
That type of work is done under a high temperature, and my spine started to shrink. And my height became 120-130 centimeters. And I was treated just like an animal. My back became curved like a soccer ball, and the distance between my heart and stomach narrowed, and my shoulders, the bones stuck out. And I looked like a strange animal.
I felt like I had two heads because my shoulder bone protruded so much. I felt I had become an alien, not a human being in this world. I was just like a beast. I was treated just like an animal, just like a slave.
I was beaten with a leather strap 10 centimeters wide and 1.5 meters long. And I was kicked with boots. And I became just like a strange animal in shape.
I experienced this atrocity during my prisoner’s life, for seven years I got only 100 grams of corn for every meal. I had no other food. Not even once. The corn cake, 100 grams, that is the size of one choco-pie. And they gave me one small cup of saltwater. If someone does not fulfill his daily duty, then the portion will be only half — 50 grams.
I was merely a prisoner under the dictatorship. Under this dictatorship we cannot say anything and we cannot smile, and we cannot show tears, we cannot walk freely, and we were forced to go to the toilet only three times a day.
I cannot believe I could survive under such tight control, even controlling my physical functions and under the pressure of rifles and knives.
During my stay in Kaechon Prison most of the 6,000 prisoners were struggling to survive, and they were not political prisoners. They uttered a word, like this: “Why do we have to starve? If Kim Jong Il, the leader, is there, why do we have to starve?” Such a complaining word made us get put in prison.
I witnessed public executions. I felt that this is not a country to live in; it is a human being’s hell on earth.
And I was really shocked when Kim II Sung was alive, he tried to manufacture biochemical weapons and testing not on animals but with human beings because our enemy is not an animal, but a human being.
This was Kim Jong Il’s instruction. And they tested them on the prisoners instead of animals. I saw so many poor victims. Hundreds of people became victims of biochemical testing.
I was imprisoned in 1987, and during the years of 1988 through ’93, when I was released, I saw the research supervisors — they were enjoying the effect of biochemical weapons, effective beyond their expectations — they were saying they were successful.
Recalling that scene, I still cannot rid myself of nightmares. You can see my face shrank like this, and I’m really so sad. My face shrank, and I was tortured on account of what I have not done. And the left side of my face is like this.… The left side of my face is deformed like this and cannot recover.
In this prison there were 6,000 prisoners, and there are a total of 200,000 political prisoners in North Korea (starts to cry). How can there can be so many political prisoners under a regime where we cannot express our own thoughts? So it is nonsense. It is nonsense to have so many political prisoners. So I would appreciate it if you understand that there are so many political prisoners in North Korea. Living on this side, I see many people are happy and free and free to take care of their children as they like, give them clothes and food
In the meantime when I recall my prisoner’s life in the north, there were over 2,000 housewives and pregnant women. And there is a law for the political prisoners not to continue generations, for three generations. To stop the generations. So they were forced to abort their children. They put salty water into the pregnant women’s womb with a large syringe, in order to kill the baby, even when the woman was eight months or nine months pregnant (crying). And then, from time to time there a living infant is delivered, and then if someone delivers a live infant, then the guards kick the bloody baby and kill it (crying). And I saw an infant who was crying with pain (crying).
I have to express this in words that I witnessed such an inhumane hell (crying). I was captured in October ’86, and I was imprisoned in ’87 and in May 1988. I cannot forget about this. The guards kicked me with their boots, and I was forced to do work that I never had done before.
Once they picked out 50 persons from our group, and they put them in the auditorium and gave them a piece of boiled Korean cabbage, and then as soon as they ate it, blood came out from their mouth and anus. And they died. I saw that in 20 or 30 minutes they died like this in that place.
Looking at that scene, I lost my mind. Was this reality or a nightmare? And then I screamed and was sent out of the auditorium. It was biochemical testing, using just a bit, the substance just 1/10,000. I cannot forget that image. I wonder how a human being can kill another healthy human being like that.
During 1990, ’91, ’92, they treated the Christians more strictly. They were moved to a separate working place. At that time, 30 prisoners were kicked to death by the guards’ boots. Two guards did it. And when they cried to the Lord, “My Lord, my Lord,” then those people had boiling water poured on them. And they became carbons. There is no other hell like North Korea.
We experienced malnutrition, and when we reached the third degree of malnutrition, the worst condition, when we drank water or ate bread, it came out through the anus immediately.
In the prison there were rats, they are manufacturing leather goods and leatherwear, so there are many rats. When we could catch rats, we thought it was a fortunate day.
If we were found catching rats, we were put in a separate solitary cell. When we caught a rat, we didn’t cook it. We just ate it.
When we eat one piece of bread and cup of salty water and pass one year like this, the human loses the sense of taste, whether it is salty or fishy or whatever. So we can … could eat live rats. Without having any taste.
I have headaches from time to time because I was kicked in the head. And my eyesight still hasn’t recovered. And my shoulder is curved. Both sides of shoulders are not even.
And I was tortured with water. And I was in water, and I had to drink water. I had to lie down and drink water, then when my stomach was full of water they stamped down on my stomach making the water level and my body level even and then the water came out of my mouth and anus. And they tramped until the water level and my body level was even.
And my breastbone, backbone and my legs are not in normal condition. Physical side effects after the torture in North Korea was too much until now. In the south I could get a stomach operation but still I am suffering from pains, because of the water torture.
When they do the water torture, they use a specially designed 10-liter kettle. They put the mouth of the kettle into the prisoner’s mouth, then automatically the throat is opened. At that time I had a scar here on my face, by that tenure. Still you can see a bit here. And they hung me from the ceiling, two hands together and then beat me. Because of the heavy weight of my body, when I was hung, I have a wound on my wrists and the flesh removed, because of the handcuffs
The left side of my shoulder protrudes in a lump, the bone protrudes upward. And this side is hollowed because they tramped on me here.
He most painful moment for me at the time was the torture. I was captured by them in my office, without knowing the reason. They told me I was responsible for the non-supply of food to the people, although it was not my responsibility but the responsibility of the leader.
And they tortured me in order to get a “yes” from me, that it is my responsibility. While they were torturing me, sometimes for a couple of days, I lost consciousness, and when I came to, I saw I had a wound on my back and the large flies defecated on the bloody part and then sometimes maggots.
My heart was breaking because my only son and my beloved husband, they have no relationship to my imprisonment, but they had to go to a forced labor camp. And this type of system exists only in North Korea, nowhere else in the world.
At the time my only child was a university student, at Kim Il Sung University. And my husband was a school principal. And they had to work in the forced labor camp, and still I feel very bad because I was born in North Korea, and my husband passed away under such circumstances.
My father was in a high-ranking position in North Korea, and myself I was graduate of the university, and I was a member of the labor party, and I didn’t suffer from anything before. That’s why I was not strong enough to have patience to experience severe pain. So in the prison I had to experience such pain, and it is just a miracle that I was freed from such circumstances.
Now it has changed, totally changed 180 degrees. Right now I feel that I don’t have to worry. I feel like I died and was reborn.
Right now I hope the day comes sooner when the 23 million North Koreans can be set free. I feel a physical threat from North Korea.
Kim Jong Il is an inhuman person. And I experience such atrocities, and I make it public, so Kim Jong Il may wish to kill me hundreds of times. Therefore I feel threatened. At the cost of my life I don’t worry. That’s why I have such courage.
I think the rest of the world’s people should know about such atrocities in North Korea. Where there are no human rights — this exists only in North Korea.
So far almost no one has survived of those who were imprisoned there. There were a couple of them who survived from the family prison. But in the prison like mine, I’m the only person who survived. It is a secret.
And the facts should be known by the United States Congress and the government, and the United Nations, they should make Kim Jong Il set the prisoners free. By all the people’s voice as one, I sincerely request this.
When I was there, there were 24 prison camps. After that, myself, my son and Kang Chol Van and Ahn Hyol and Ahn Nyung Chol and some other people made the facts known to the public, including the U.N., and I think Kim Jong Il took it seriously, and now the number is reduced to half. However, the number of prisoners are 200,000-plus, and other types of prisons 200,000 — total 400,000 prisoners are in the prisons.
Now I don’t know how many persons are put into the prisons and how many prisoners are killed at this moment. But North Korea, they have a plan to put people into prison, the schedule the number of prisoners every year. That is not because they are guilty but because they need the manufacture of products by the prisoners.
All the North Koreans know there are prisons, and even 3-year-old kids know there are prisons, and when they cry, if they are told, “You will be sent to a prison camp,” then they stop crying.
They are always very cautious to express their opinion, even one word because they don’t know when they will be captured and imprisoned if they say the wrong thing.
I have a scar on the left corner of my eye because of the torture, and my teeth were broken. This left side of my face is paralyzed.
They tramped on me so strongly that my teeth were broken and my eyeball came out. And I put it back in the socket again and massaged it by hand for a couple of days. And it was swollen. And see this dent — I find it after recovering consciousness so I don’t know what happened, but I must have been poked or stabbed with something.