North Korean Prisoner Kim Hye-sook Describes NK Government GulagsFor three decades the diminutive 50-year-old endured life in a North Korean gulag. She gives Jerome Taylor a rare insight into a world of beatings, starvation and brutal executions.
Jul. 17, 2011
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Kim Hye-sook reaches for a wooden coffee stirrer on the table in front of her to illustrate how public executions were carried out in the North Korean labour camp that was her home for nearly three decades.
"A day before the executions, prison guards would put huge banners to tell everyone what was going to happen, and on the day everyone would be ordered to attend," the diminutive 50-year-old explains. "They would take the prisoner to a stake, tie them up and blindfold them. The firing squad would let off 30 or 40 shots until the prisoner's body had turned to honeycomb. Every time the bullets hit, the stake would crack backwards."
Obtaining testimony about North Korea's gulag system is notoriously difficult. Once inside a labour camp few political prisoners are ever granted their freedom and even fewer ever make it over the border to describe their ordeal to the outside world. Mrs Kim is one of the most recent defectors to find safety and – in her first interview with a Western newspaper – she describes a penal system that is shocking in its outright barbarity as North Korea continues to defy the international community with a human rights record that echoes the worst excesses of Stalin's Soviet Union.
Mrs Kim's only crime was what Kim Jong-il's regime calls yeon-jwa-je – guilt by association. In the early 1970s her grandfather defected to South Korea and under North Korea's system of collective punishment for political crimes, the entire family was rounded up. "We were living in Pyongyang," she explains, referring to North Korea's capital. "I was just 13 at the time and the whole family had been classified by the state as a 'dangerous element'."
Ordered to leave her home by armed guards, she would not see the outside of a labour camp for the next 28 years. Mrs Kim was taken to Bukchang, a gulag run directly by the interior ministry, which refers to it by its bland official title: Kwan-li-so (penal-labour colony) No 18. A sprawling complex that straddles the Taedong river, it houses an estimated 10,000 inmates, the vast majority of whom are political prisoners serving life sentences in a country where life really does mean life.