09-05-2011 17:12
¡¯NK gulags hellish for detainees¡¯

Jung Gwang-il, left, a former inmate in North Korea¡¯s political prisoner system who later defected to the South, talks about his experiences at a press conference in Seoul, Monday. Next to him is Kim Tae-jin, a North Korean defector and director of Free the NK Gulag, organizer of the event.
/ Korea Times

By Kim Young-jin

Among the many forms of punishment reported in North Korea¡¯s political prisoner system, Jung Gwang-il says he is still haunted by one in particular, called ¡°pigeon torture.¡±

The former prisoner who later defected to the South says he suffered from this brand of torture in 1999, when he arrived at the notorious Yodok prison camp on charges of espionage. In an underground cell, interrogators tried to starve and beat a confession out of Jung.

Finally, they bound his hands to a pillar behind his back so he could neither stand up nor sit down for days.

¡°After a day, my whole body was paralyzed,¡± recalled Jung, who spent three years at Yodok, where tens of thousands are thought to remain. ¡°Even if I screamed in the underground cell, people on the ground could not hear me. I soiled myself because they wouldn¡¯t let me use the toilet.¡±

The punishment was one of many tactics used in the gulag system, according to Jung and three other detainees who testified about their experiences Monday at a press conference organized by rights group, Free the NK Gulag.

The North is believed to operate six labor camps where an estimated 200,000 are subject to extensive labor, torture and malnutrition. Pyongyang doesn¡¯t acknowledge the system, but it is thought to have operated it for up to sixty years.

Human rights activists say most are imprisoned not for committing a crime, but because a relative had been detained. Those who attempt to flee the communist country are also sent there.

Detainees are said to be subjected to hard labor from predawn until late in the evenings, producing such items as soy bean paste, candy and coal among others. Those who do not complete their work are reportedly not given food.

Kim Hye-suk said she was arrested at the age of 13 because her grandfather had defected. She spent nearly three decades in the prison system.

¡°I lost my grandparents, mother, brother, father and even my husband,¡± she said. ¡°They said we were criminals. But they never treated us like humans. They treated us like animals.¡±

Kim Yung-soon said she was sent to Yodok for a ¡°slip of the tongue,¡± and the problem that consumed her existence was trying to find enough to eat.

¡°Rations consisted of a tiny amount of canned corn and field mice. You knew you were best off to catch whatever you could find,¡± she said. Reports say prisoners eat grass and other vegetation to survive.

Representatives of Free the NK Gulag urged the international community to advocate the prisoners¡¯ human rights, calling for U.N. inspections of the camps, and for the North to produce a list of those being held.

The issue has come back into the spotlight in recent months on the back of a grassroots campaign to help Oh Kil-nam, a South Korean who moved to the North in the 1980s. He eventually escaped when the North sent him to Germany to lure more like him, but his wife and daughters are thought to be at Yodok.

Oh attended the press conference and reiterated his call for help in reuniting him with his loved ones.

Amnesty International says that only three inmates are known to have escaped the political prisoner system and that 40 percent of inmates die of malnutrition.