Unseen by the outside world, North Korea runs vast prison camps of unspeakable cruelty
The young Kang was ensnared in a signature feature of North Korea's political prisons: guilt by family association. Kim Il Sung, say human-rights monitors and former prisoners, declared that three generations of a political enemy's family can be jailed--without trial. Political rehabilitation is possible in principle, but apparently few endure the years of harsh treatment. Kang and other camp survivors say that sexual intercourse is forbidden (though some women are forced to have sex with camp guards). Women who become pregnant would swallow poison or take falls in attempts to abort. Otherwise, the fetuses are killed--sometimes by the camp doctors, themselves prisoners. Asserts Kang, "The government's policy was to extinguish all the seeds of all the political prisoners."
Kang says he nearly died of malnutrition. Survival depended on finding food beyond the meager diet of corn and salt, so he and others laid traps for snakes, rats, and bugs--eaten cooked or raw, if need be. Hunger dictated. "I wanted to eat anything," he recounts matter of factly.
Ultimately, though, Kang was also one of the lucky ones. He says he wasn't beaten severely, and part of his sentence was served on relatively light duty at a recycling center for shoes and clothing. At age 19, he was released on Kim Jong Il's birthday. Five years later, in 1992, he escaped the country, helped by ethnic Koreans living in the borderlands of northeastern China. Now, Kang is a reporter for the Seoul newspaper Chosun Ilbo. His life experience is now his professional beat: North Korean affairs.
Another graduate of the prisons, Lee Soon Ok, had a rougher time of it. She had handled accounting and managerial work at a party distribution center. But when she rebuffed a security chief who demanded an extra jacket, Lee's fate was sealed. She was accused of embezzlement and disobeying party policy. The result: seven years at the No. 1 prison camp at Gaechun. "My family was split apart in one day," she says grimly.
At the camp, Lee was tapped to supervise production of exported goods: artificial silk flowers bound for France, handmade wool sweaters for Japan, decorative needlework for Poland. Suits and dress shirts were sold through Hong Kong, getting their origin labels there, before shipment to Europe. If quotas were missed, Lee says, she faced torture. Guards stepped on her head, knocking out teeth and skewing the left side of her face. During one beating, her left eye started to pop out of its socket. She pushed it back in with her fingers. Her arms were injured after she was hung in chains from a ceiling. Even now, she has difficulty sitting or standing for long periods.
Water torture. In interrogations aimed at forcing a confession, Lee, now 56, was also subjected to water torture. She says guards force-fed her water by pushing the spout of a canister into her mouth. They laid a wooden plank across her abdomen--and pressed down, forcing water out through her mouth, nose, and bladder. "It feels like your intestines are exploding. There's no way even to describe the pain you feel," she recalls, with no trace of emotion.