Ahn Myong Chol is a former prison guard at Hoeryong-Area prison in North Korea. He worked at four different camps and discussed with NBC News what he saw — and committed — at those camps. Below is an edited account of that time, in his own words. (Editor’s note: Ahn’s descriptions are graphic and may not be suitable reading for all.)
I was a driver at the Hoeryong Prison No. 22 national security defense division for eight years.
The name of the prison: No. 22 Hoeryong prison. Official name No. 2 district company prison, called National Security Defense Division No. 22 Hoeryong Prison.
I worked at four places. Three of them have closed. One still exists. I worked No. 22 Hoeryong Prison starting from May ’87 until September ’94. I started to work the age of 19. I was late two years because I engaged in the army service after college. Normally we join the army at the age of 17.
Officially it’s not a soldier, not military, it’s national guard. But the training is the same as the military.
At first, for three years, I was in charge of watching the barbed wire fences, often at nighttime. Sometimes like an ambush, to keep the prisoners from escaping. After that I became a driver, and I delivered foodstuffs to the guard post.
At first I felt it was a movie film studio for the propaganda of North Korea, speaking ill of South Korean government. But actually the officer who brought me to the prison instructed me not to speak and not to smile. I was instructed if there is a prisoner who tries to escape or fight me, then I was allowed to kill him.
They call prisoners “re-settlers.” They called the prison the managing office for the “re-settlers,” and they call the prisoners non-guilty persons.
At first, in 1959, this camp was inaugurated by the doctrine of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, and expulsion, escaping and riot happened in this camp. Once someone is imprisoned here, it is so horrible that might think he is already dead if he is not loyal to Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.
They trained me not to treat the prisoners as human beings. If someone is against socialism, if someone tries to escape from prison, then kill him. If there’s a record of killing any escapee, then the guard will be entitled to study in the college. Because of that, some guards kill innocent people. Beating and killing is an everyday affair.
They are not treated as human beings; they are just like dogs or pigs.
There is no instruction how to beat them, but the officers tell us to beat or kill the re-settlers without responsibility. Therefore, when someone is working in the field, the guard tells the prisoner to come over here, if the prisoner comes slowly, then it can be a cause of beating.
In the training, such as tae kwan do, and when someone is working in the field, we call the prisoner under the pretext of actual war training. And I have beaten one humpback person. This is usual to beat prisoners.
The guard system is so strict there are few escapees, and sometimes we need to find out a way to be, get away from our guard’s life in the prison. And we try to find a pretext in order to go to college. One of my colleagues tried to make a prisoner escape by climbing the barbed wire fence, and then he shot him, and he went to college.
There is detention center inside the prison camp. That is for the people who cannot fulfill his job during the day. At first stage, they don’t give him food. If he repeats it three times, he’ll be punished, to go to the detention center. In three months he will of course die. The work is divided into morning job and afternoon job.
There’s wooden poles, square pole, and they twist the legs under the knee with the squared wooden pole, and then if this continues for three months, the blood doesn’t circulate. And if someone destroys fixtures or furniture, then he’ll be punished.
Or another — one team is composed of five persons, and they go to the coal mine or field to work, and if any one person of them is late or escapes from the group, they’ll all be punished. There are two watchmen/supervisors, and if watchman fears someone would like to escape or if there’s anything abnormal, then the prisoner will be punished.
I saw numerous prisoners killed, especially by beating. I saw one person age between 40 and 50 — he’s old enough because the average age of prisoner is between 40-50 — he was working in brick factory. And as he was older he was moving slowly, he was not working well. And the team master tramped on his loin, and the bone was broken. He was hit by an iron rod that is used to start vehicle engines, and I heard the next day he died.
Sometimes I used to drink alcohol together and chat together with the people in the division of torture, and when the officer in the division is in a good mood, the prisoners will be treated mildly. And when he had an argument with his wife at home, then the torture will be severe. And I heard many times that eyeballs were taken out by beating. And I saw that by beating the person, the muscle was damaged and the bone was exposed, outside, and they put salt on the wounded part. At the beginning I was frightened when I witnessed it, but it was repeated again and again, so my feelings were paralyzed.
As a human it was really heartbreaking. After the Gulf War, there were tunnels digging nationwide. This prison was engaged in tunnel digging. And I was in charge of the pig farm.
At that time the tunnel was passing near the pig pen of the camp, and about 500 political prisoners were participating and there was one female named Han Jin Duk, 26 years old. I was in charge of giving food to the pigs. And my supervisor, when he saw the woman, she was beautiful. And he raped her, and he was found by the watchman officer. And he was investigated. My superior, his rank was reduced and the woman was sent to the detention center And then I didn’t see her for one year.
One day I was going to the place to load the coal, I met her. And I noticed she was exactly that woman, and I asked her, how you could survive. And she told me, that yes, I survived. But she showed me her body, and it was all burned by fire.
After six months I met her at the corn storage in Kusan district and found her putting on a used tire on her knees because her legs were cut off. Because of a coal mine wagon ran over her knees. And all she could do now was separate the corn grains from the cob.
The reason why she was forced to go to the prison is her father’s elder brother was purged at the Anbyon, Kanwhan Do province. She went when she was 5 years old. All of the family members were imprisoned. Her mother starved to death, and her brother also starved to death in the prison. I met her at age 26. So it means she was in the prison for 21 years. I think she no longer is in the world.
A food factory produced soy sauce and cookies and bean paste. And here the women worked between 20 and 30 years old. The women are the sexual slaves of the security officers, they are forced to wear only white thin gowns and no underwear, they are not given underwear. They make all the beautiful women work here.
The prisoners go to the coal mine along this road, in carts pulled by cows. And while they are passing through here, I was instructed to beat a disabled person by my superior, and I had no choice but to obey.
Even in the small village there is an officers headquarters, and if any prisoner disobeys, then he can be beaten here, and the officers were armed, and they would kill prisoners here.
Not only here but all other places, even in the small hills they bury bodies. And when we cut the trees down, sometimes we find a buried body. Not only here, but all around here are buried bodies.
In the hills here, if there is some flat area, it is covered with graves. And if people start to farm there, they find bodies or bones.
This area is where there are the most densely buried bodies. There are graves all over here, and we can see the graves where there are no woods. There is no particular area to bury dead bodies, but they put them all in this general vicinity, and no one can cry. It is forbidden to cry, and there is no funeral ceremony, and the officers say, “The anti-revolutionary person has died, so there is no reason to cry.”
I don’t have any unforgettable image or memory because I was not a victim. I was on the side of the attacker. So I don’t have any nightmares. However, before I came to the south, I thought it is not a humane thing, although I was used to seeing such crimes.
One unforgettable image, there were two girls and they were trying to take out a piece of noodle from one polluted water pond where they put the garbage. And one guard kicked the kids into the small pond, and they drowned. The pond was very deep, and I felt really sad about that.
I thought it is natural to punish or beat a guilty person. Because I was a driver, and I was a guard. But in the course of time, I had the opportunity to talk to the prisoners and found they are not guilty. And when I see the senior citizen kneel down in front of young guard, and he was treated badly, then my heart was breaking. And I thought this is not a humane thing.
Once I beat one person while training in tae kwan do. I kicked him with my foot, but fortunately he didn’t die.
I wished to get out of this guard job. In this prison, even if you die, you cannot get out of the prison. The prisoners are imprisoned not because of their own guilt but by distant relatives, other family members imprisoned as well.
This is the type of horrible politics of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. If the people are not loyal to these father and son Kims, they have to die there.
In a brainwashing prison or police prison, people can be set free when the prison term is finished, but in the political prison, there is no prison term. Such a system shouldn’t exist in the world. Yes, there are still such prisons. How many exist in North Korea, I don’t know. But prisons belong to national security defense division. Once it was criticized by Amnesty International; they criticized Pyonyang Songwori prison in 1990 or 1991.
And they merged a couple of prison camps. The first is Kaechon 14 and Hannam 15. And Hoeryong 22 and Hasung 16 and Chongjin 25. In order to merge the prisons, the expenses are tremendous. For example, to take out barbed wire fences and carrying prisoners it took six months in order to close one prison. The expenses for moving materials and fixtures and furnitures and exploding the facilities are tremendous. However, in the future no more merging will happen. Now five prisons are left, and there is no way to close any more prisons. Because the government authority is now (closing) returning the prisoners to society.
The number 12, 13 and 25 — those prisons were side by side. In the vicinity, the land was very fertile. Because the prisoners cultivated it, farmed it. But after the closing of 12 and 13, those areas became devastated.
The economic portion of the contribution Hambuk province is about 40 percent of foodstuffs, such as corn. And they produce coal as well for the coal-burning electricity power plant in Chongjin, and therefore if they close more prisons the people will starve.
Most North Koreans know there are prisons like this, that’s why they are loyal to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
We had to be very careful in expressing even one word. We shouldn’t be critical, and we have the system of self-criticism or self-judgment hour. First we read Kim Il Sung doctrine, then we criticize ourselves for the work we’ve done in the past week. In this case, I have to say the “great leader Kim Il Song” or “great leader Kim Jong Il.” And if I don’t say “great leader,” then I’ll be punished. So I have to behave. Otherwise all of my family numbers will be put in prison.
My way of thinking was changed. While I was starting as a driver, before I took it as natural, and after a while I thought this is not the right way. So I was already changed before coming to the south. I didn’t change my way of thinking here in South Korea, in order to buy people’s hearts.
Because of Kim Jong Il and his subordinates and a small portion of citizens, the total nation of 20 million people are suffering such hardships. And the people are now changing to think that this regime is not right one. But they cannot speak out, because of Kim Jong Il’s atrocities.