Kang Chol Hwan is a former child prisoner at Yeoduk Prison in North Korea. He currently works as a newspaper reporter in Seoul, South Korea, for Chosun Daily. He recently published his memoirs and testified about his experiences before the U.S. Congress. He also spoke with NBC News about his time at Yeoduk. Below is an edited account of that discussion, in his own words. (Editor’s note: Kang’s descriptions are graphic and may not be suitable reading for all.)
I was in a political prison in Yeoduk-gun, Hankyongnamto province. Officially the disguising name is DPRK guard division No. 15.
I became a prisoner in August ’77 because suddenly my grandfather disappeared. And later he was tried, and he was a traitor of the people.
I was 10 years old at the time.
At the time I was 10, and my younger brother was 7. The reason why we were imprisoned was my grandfather and grandmother were residents in Japan. And then they went to go to North Korea because they were officers in the pro-North Korean association in Japan. And they were treated nicely at the beginning of their living in Pyongyang, and they were offered good apartment. And my grandfather was purged politically and disappeared. And because of my grandfather, all the family members were forced to go to the prisoners camp.
In North Korea, the prisoners camps are divided into two parts, economic prisoners camp and political prisoners camp. Also they are divided into two types. One is camps, the other is prison. The prisoners with light crimes are in the camps. And prison is for the serious criminals, because they cannot put all of them into prisons, because there are numerous people. Hundred of thousands of people do forced labor just like the camp in Russia before.
Among the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il instructions, I heard of it from Ahn Myong Chol that political prisoners should have three generations eradicated. This is in order to eradicate the seed of revolt. And the political prisoners, they should give up hope of being treated as human beings.
There are camps for the light criminals. In this case there’s the hope to be set free. I was among them. And I was set free. The other part of the district, once they are imprisoned, they have no hope to be set free, ever.
The national security and defense division officers and soldiers when they call the prisoners they don’t call them by name, but insulting words like “you son of a bitch.”
When I was 10 years old, we were put to work digging clay and constructing a building. And there were dozens of kids, and while digging the ground, it collapsed, and they died. And the bodies were crushed flat. And they buried the kids secretly, without showing their parents, even though the parents came. They shouldn’t force the children to work again, but they did. Even though at that moment they could notice the bleeding and dead kids. The kids were crying. It was the first atrocity I witnessed.
And most of the people died because of malnutrition. I saw such cases many times, malnutrition. It was really a miserable scene. And once I saw a public execution by rifle.
Once there were two soldiers who were successful in escaping, and one person was captured by the Chinese security and one person captured while running. They were hanged. And thousands of prisoners were made to form one line and passed by the hanged person and threw stones at the dead body, shouting, “Let’s get rid of the people’s traitor.” And because of throwing so many stones by thousands of prisoners, the faces and muscles were all torn up.
Some women with weak heart, they didn’t obey and didn’t throw the stone. Then the officers condemned them, saying your ideology is doubtful. And beat them. Those were the most miserable images.
Normally there are cases of execution in public, several times a year. Before the execution they were tortured. They were not given food, and the joints of bones are separated, and the bones are exposed, sticking out of skin. And they become light enough to carry by hand after torture and starvation.
Sometimes in North Korea they pull out the teeth and put the stone inside the mouth. And the prisoner took out the stone, saying, “God damn!” and the security officer, they put stone inside the mouth again.
The most unforgettable images I have is when one of my close friend’s sister died in the wintertime. It was very cold, and we couldn’t dig the ground deeply, because it was frozen, and bury her. When spring came, the ground thawed, and the dead body floated up. I cannot forget that miserable scene. And the other one is when I watched a very close friend starve to death.
I had to work even though I was malnourished. Because I could eat only corn and salt, I had no strength and I suffered diarrhea, and I was almost incapable of working. And they beat me. It is a terrible memory. But I could overcome it by making incredible efforts to survive.
Because of the malnutrition, I had to catch rats and snakes to survive. I couldn’t do the work properly, so I had a hard time.
Before I didn’t know about the North Korean system. When I was imprisoned, I learned why Kim Jong Il dictatorship system is the worse one.
Others in the camp have scars and physical problems, but fortunately I was young and came to the south while I was young. I have no particular wounds on my body. And I was also fortunate in the prison camp not to be beaten severely. Therefore, I have no particular scars. Some of my friends, their height is under 60 centimeters, but I was fortunate, I was imprisoned at age 10 and set free at 20, and after getting out of the prison camp, I grew about 10 centimeters annually.
So far I don’t feel anything bad physically. Although sometimes I feel tired, because if someone is faced with the extreme circumstance, one can be adapted to the surroundings, just like Robinson Crusoe.
The first time when I came to South Korea, I was so skinny, but 10 years went by in South Korea, I became normal.
It is unbelievable fact that the Jews camps in the era of Nazis and the camps under Stalin regime and I could watch the film “Papillon.” And when I tell the story to the people, then they say there’s no evidence. This is comparable to the facts that German soldiers under the Nazi regime they said there is no evidence. It’s the same thing.
If all of the prisoners in the prisoners camp were killed, then they will realize it, and Kim Jong Il regime there is little hope to set the prisoners free. And I have impression that Kim Jong Il will kill all the prisoners for the fear of exposure of his crime.
These phenomena are inhuman. It’s like they experience in Kosovo. But those became international issues. But North Korea’s prisoners camps was not exposed as an international issue so far. The reason why is they don’t know, because the society is closed tightly, and there is no hope. And this issue should be exposed internationally. The international society should counter this matter seriously.
The North Korean regime can be maintained because of the existence of prisoners camps. With a policy of horror, they can maintain the system.
Suddenly some of my friends disappeared, and they were imprisoned in prisoners camp. All the people know this fact. Once they are imprisoned, they know they can be killed. So I believe if the prisoners camps disappear in North Korea, it means the North Korean regime will change. I believe opening Shineuiju district will not really change the regime, but closing all the prisoners camps will be a sign of change.
If you ask 100 people in North Korea if they know of existence of prisoners camp, all of them, they will say yes. That’s why they are afraid of it and this open fact. In North Korea, they cannot say freely — they should refrain from speaking out.
Kim Il Song was born in the year of mouse. And one person said mouse can bring food from outside. And then it was called disgracing the great leader. And if someone treats the Kim Il Song portrait not properly, it is also subject to punishment. And listening to South Korean broadcasting or defecting — that is also subject to punishment.
In North Korea there are hundreds of thousands of prisoners, and they are doing forced labor, and using this labor power they manufacture goods to export and to maintain the national security division. So it means killing two birds with one stone — make money and keep the regime. So maintaining the prisoners camp is the best and only way to keep the regime. I believe the system keeps the regime alive.