Unseen by the outside world, North Korea runs vast prison camps of unspeakable cruelty
As he sits in a smoky Seoul coffee shop and recounts his past, Lee, 40, can hardly believe his good fortune. Lee once worked at the heart of power in Pyongyang, a trusted agent for Kim Jong Il in the years before Kim succeeded his father, Kim Il Sung. The names "Kim Jong Il" and "Kim Il Sung" were carved on Lee's pistol; he considered it "the greatest honor" to serve in Pyongyang's security elite. Lee was isolated from his family, but he enjoyed the rare perks of good food and clothing.
It was not to last. When officials discovered that one of Lee's cousins was a driver for Kim Jong Il, he was dismissed for security reasons because of possible collusion. He returned to his hometown and became an executive in the local branch of the Communist Party. But he was shocked to see people eating grass because of crippling food shortages. He began listening to South Korean radio--a grave offense--and in 1994 decided to defect. Lee made his way into China but was tricked by North Korean agents, who smuggled him back over the border. He says that only an order from Kim Jong Il spared him from death.
Lasting scars. He was sent to the No. 15 prison camp at Yodok. A banner greeted unlucky arrivals: "You shouldn't negotiate with class enemies." Lee, like the other unfortunates, received a ration of 4.5 ounces of corn powder, a few cabbage leaves, and salt. His fellow prisoners included ex-military officers, professors, and others who fell under suspicion after living abroad. They toiled in coal mines, forests, and farm fields. Beatings were routine: Lee rolls up his pants to show the grayish-brown scars on his right leg, reminders of blows from long wooden sticks. He lost most of the sight in his right eye, his teeth were broken, and blood still oozes out of his left ear at times. Of the 1,000 people in his prison unit, he says, about 200 died every year. "It was beyond my imagination. The officers treated prisoners not even like animals but like bugs. They stepped on them," he says.
But Lee was luckier than most. He was released without explanation in 1999--his weight having fallen from 207 to 119 pounds--and returned to his home village. But he became frightened when rumors circulated that he was a South Korean agent, and he decided to flee through China again--this time successfully. Lee now runs an organic food store.
Kang Chul Hwan is also a veteran of the No. 15 camp at Yodok. Now 34, Kang had a comparatively privileged start in life. He lived in a comfortable Pyongyang apartment assigned to his grandparents, pro-regime Communists of Korean descent who had returned from Japan. In grammar school, he considered himself one of Kim Il Sung's "little soldiers," a member of the Pupils' Red Army, marching with fake machine guns. But when his grandfather came under suspicion--for reasons still unknown--Kang, along with his family, was packed off on a truck to Yodok at the age of 9. From then on, he says, "I can't believe what happened to me."