Kang Chol-hwan was 15 years old the first time he saw one of his friends murdered. “Until then I was too young and I was not allowed to watch the executions,” he says, in a matter-of-fact way. Kang was forced to gather with thousands of other inmates of the camp on a muddy parade ground beside a frozen stream while guards tied the condemned man to a white wooden pole with three strips of cloth.
The commandant read out the list of crimes for which he had been sentenced to death – principally, attempting to escape. Then three guards fired three volleys of rifle shots into his eyes, his chest and his legs.
They bundled the body in sacking, threw it into the back of a truck, and drove away. His family was not allowed to bury him. Kang suspects he was dumped on the mountainside and left for bears and wolves to eat.
It sounds like a scene from another world, an earlier, more awful half of the century. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s chilling account of Stalin’s Siberian Gulag. Or Japanese atrocities on the Burma railway death march.
In fact it happened just 10 years ago and not 300 km from the gleaming skyscrapers of Seoul, capital of Asia’s newest democracy. It is happening today, behind the barbed wire of the most malignant regime on earth.
Kang Chol-hwan is a witness to this. He is the man they couldn’t kill, one of only a handful of people known to have survived the death camps of North Korea – and to have escaped to tell the tale of what really goes on inside the world’s last Stalinist dictatorship, the “workers’ paradise on earth” of Kim Il-sung.
“That first time I saw a man killed, I was terrified,” says Kang, sitting tensely in an office in downtown Seoul. Even now, six months after his escape, his cheeks are hollow, his body gaunt inside his padded jacket. “But after that there were many more. You just become numb – when you are starving to death, you have no room for anything else.”
Outside, the rush hour traffic clogs 12 lanes of the superhighway leading up to the Blue House where lights burn late as South Korea’s new civilian President, another Kim, christened Young-sam, wonders what to do about the nuclear threat to the north.
It is hard to focus on what Kang is saying as he talks, in a flat unemotional way, of years of unrelenting death and degradation, a Hogarthian portrait of people so hungry they eat undigested corn kernels picked from cowpats, so desperate they commit suicide by drinking caustic soda.
This is 1993? This is Korea?
Working from the testimony of refugees such as Kang, no international agency has ever been allowed anywhere near the North Korean gulag – the human rights organisation Asia Watch calculates that between 300,000 and 400,000 people are held in prison in a country with a population not much bigger than Australia’s.
If this is anywhere near accurate (and some believe it is an underestimate), it means that the 81-year-old Great Leader, as Kim Il-sung is worshipped, has managed to stay in power for 45 years only by locking up or killing one person in 50, a feat surpassed in peace- time only by Pol Pot’s Cambodian holocaust.
Kang was just nine years old when the soldiers came to take him away. For the next 11 years of his life he was to live like an animal on the fringes of existence in a concentration camp near the town of Yodok, high in an icy mountain range near the centre of North Korea. It is the town that never was -a city the size of Goulburn that is not marked on any map and officially does not exist.
Kang still doesn’t know what his family’s “crime” was, but suspects someone may have been overheard complain- ing about conditions in the capital of Pyongyang, where they were fortunate enough to live. Kim’s secret police are everywhere and such subversive remarks are more than enough for a citizen to be arrested, interrogated, and eliminated.
The Kang family went to North Korea from Japan in 1961. They were among nearly 100,000 ethnic Koreans (and their Japanese wives) who migrated there after the war believing Kim’s propaganda – Kang’s grandfather, Kang Tae-hu, was chairman of the pro-communist Korean Residents’ Association in Kyoto and believed he was going to a “workers’ paradise”.
The family – grandparents, four sons, two daughters – was feted when they arrived on the good ship Man Gyung Bong (named after Kim Il- sung’s alleged birthplace) and given a nice apartment. By Korean standards they were wealthy: they had brought with them television sets, bolts of cloth, a sewing machine. Even, unheard-of luxury, a car.
“Things were quite good for a while,” says Kang, although even as a schoolboy he was somewhat in awe of Kim Il-sung. Before every meal they had to pray to him. Each morning, the statue of the Great Leader, in front of the primary school, had to be swept and polished.”We thought he was some sort of god,” Kang says.
Then, one scalding summer’s day in 1977, the soldiers came and took Kang’s grandfather away. He was then aged 65. No-one ever saw him again. He just disappeared. In North Korea, you don’t even ask about these things, for fear it will be your turn next.
A month later Kang was playing down by the river when a friend told him he had better run home – there was trouble. He arrived to find soldiers ransacking the apartment. “You are criminals and we are going to confiscate all your goods,” they said, herding the family into one room and stripping everything of value.
At 4 am the following day, four of the family – Kang, his grandmother, father, and younger sister – were herded into a truck and driven away. His mother was ordered to remain behind; she was later forced to divorce his father to avoid going to the concentration camp herself.
As brutal as the regime was at Yodok camp, surrounded by its three fences of electrified barbed wire and its guards with Alsation dogs and machine-gun posts, it was the banal agony of hunger and disease that tortured the inmates most.
There were around 50,000 prisoners in Yodok, the second largest of North Korea’s 12 known concentration camps, and the daily ration was just 550 grams of a mush made from maize, a pinch of salt, and – if inmates were lucky – a teaspoon of ground acorn. In winter they would scrabble through the deep snow, blackening and sometimes breaking their teeth as they tried to gnaw on frozen acorns.
The greatest treat of the year, looked forward to for weeks by the starving inmates, was a feast at New Year when they were fed “head sausage” made of withered fish-heads, dried radish leaves and maize. The only other protein they received was a rat or an occasional frog caught in the spring and wolfed down raw.
“One day when I was 13 years old, I found a rat hole,” says Kang. “It was like finding a goldmine. I dug down and found four fat rats, along with a little store of corn they had collected. That night I roasted them and ate them … it was the only time in 11 years that I was not hungry.”
The prisoners all suffered from a chronic nutritional deficiency and were ravaged by hepatitis and alive with fleas and lice. “Most of the time we were just staggering around hardly able to walk,” says Kang, “There was hardly any day where someone didn’t die.”
The prisoners were sentenced to this medieval chamber of horrors for a variety of “crimes” and sometimes for no crime at all. Kang knew prisoners whose only offence was to listen to South Korean radio or they’d been found with a South Korean flag in their house or had criticised living conditions in the North.
The Seoul-based Institute for South-North Korea Studies has documented cases of women being jailed for life for socialising with westerners, a diplomat sentenced for disco-dancing, the sculptor Choe Jok-hwan locked up for”making a mistake” while carving a statue of Kim Il-sung.
The Yodok camp has also held a number of high-ranking North Koreans, purged during Kim’s endless, psychopathic persecutions of his real and imagined enemies, along with their entire families.
Bang Chol-kap, an admiral in the North Korean navy, disappeared into the gulag with seven members of his family in 1984; Kim Kyong-ryon, a former defence chief, was jailed with eight members of his family on suspicion of planning to defect.
But whether they came from high in the North Korean politburo or from a humble flat in Pyongyang, life in the gulag was a daily struggle to stay alive.
The inmates slept four and six to a room in dirt-walled huts with leaky shingle roofs, broiling in summer and freezing in winter (when the temperature drops to minus 20 C in the mountains). Clothing was issued every three years -shoes soled with bark and ragged trousers held up by vines – and when someone died, fights broke out over who would get their filthy rags.
From reveille at five in the morning until eight at night, the inmates worked as slave labourers, their toil broken only by a compulsory two hours’daily “indoctrination lesson” when they learnt by heart the sayings of the Great Leader. The ragged horde was forced to stand to attention and sing “Hail to Kim Il-sung, Fellow of Friendship”, the theme tune from a movie extolling his life.
The prisoners were put to work on farms inside the camp perimeter growing maize and soybeans, or sent down a derelict goldmine, abandoned many years before as unsafe and unproductive, where scores were killed by cave-ins.
Hundreds of prisoners were assigned to the forest-clad mountainsides, where they slaved with handsaws and axes to fell a type of oak tree on what were known as “hard currency” work details. The logs are exported through the port of Hu
y ngnam to Japan, which, according to Japanese trade statistics, imports $A2 million a year of plywood, parquetry and building timber, much of it produced by concentration-camp labour.
The work was especially primitive and extremely dangerous. “Conditions were so bad that many people decided they would rather die running than sitting still,” says Kang. Their chances of making it through the electrified fences, past the armed guards, to freedom were next to zero, and 10 or 15 times a year the inmates were lined up to witness another execution.
The worst, says Kang, was when two jailed guards from the National Security Ministry made a run for it, one getting almost to the Chinese border before they were captured. They were tied to two poles, their crimes read out, then, for a diversion, the camp commandant said they would not have the pleasure of a quick death.
The assembled inmates were ordered to pick up rocks and throw them at the pair. Terrified of being beaten or killed themselves, the prisoners began to pelt them, and were not allowed to stop until the men were dead and bloody lumps of flesh began to fall from their bodies.
On another occasion, a group of pris-oners suspected of some misdeed was driven in a truck to the mountainside and told they could go free. It was an exercise for the troops: the prisoners were hunt- ed down and killed with clubs and knives. None of them were seen again.
Even for those in the third circle of Hell, there is somewhere worse. For the inmates of Yodok, this was the “maximum security” section of the prison where those beyond the redemption of Kim Il-sung were left to rot.
Creeping up to the barbed wire one day, Kang had a whispered talk with a decrepit, bearded ruin of a man, dressed in rags. He was told that in the maximum security section there was not even a food ration – prisoners lived on what they could forage with their hands – and they slept in holes in the ground.
Fifteen thousand people were subsisting at Yodok during Kang’s imprisonment, according to South Korean sources, almost all women, children and old men. “As soon as you turn 15, you are sent away to die on some project like the tunnels,” says Kang, referring to the series of tunnels Kim ordered dug under the Demilitarised Zone in a mad plan to invade and conquer the South.
Suddenly, one day in 1987, Kang – now a man of 20 – and his family were told they had been pardoned in honour of the birthday of Kim Jong-il, son and heir of the old dictator. They were taken to the main gate, and after they shouted “Long live Great Leader Kim Il-sung | Long live Dear Leader Kim Jong-il”, were released.
Five years later, Kang was in trouble again. This time it was serious. He got merry one night with some friends drinking home-brewed rice wine and sang the popular song Goodbye to the Port of Pusan, a sentimental little ditty, but not one on the Radio Pyongyang playlist. Kang could only have heard it on South Korean radio – and it is illegal to listen to the South. The radios sold in the North have their frequencies fixed.
Kang and what was left of his family were then living in a town not far from the prison camp. They had been banned from returning to Pyongyang and scraped out an existence on a plot of farmland and on Kang’s pitiful wages at a local footwear factory.
His grandmother had died not long after her release from the camp, having never seen her husband again, and his father was also dead from stomach ulcers, brought about, Kang believes, by the appalling privations of the camp
Kang was tipped off by a guard he knew that he had been accused of”subversive activities” and was about to be arrested. He decided to try to make a run for it – “death … anything was better than going back there”.
Using hard currency smuggled in from relatives in Japan, Kang obtained commodities most prized in destitute North Korea – pieces of cloth, Japanese-brand cigarettes and Chinese wine with snakes in the bottle. He headed north to the Chinese border, bribing police as he went.
“I wanted to go to South Korea, but you would have no chance of crossing the border,” says Kang. A million and a half armed men face each other along the heavily-fortified DMZ that cuts across the middle of Korea in the Cold War’s last and most dangerous frontier.
Last spring, Kang and a friend who had decided to defect with him, crossed the Abrok River into China. They spent the next five months creeping along ditches by night and hiding from patrolling troops (who would have sent them back to North Korea if they had caught them) by day before stowing away on a Honduran-registered ship.
With an even greater stroke of luck, there was a Korean-speaker on board, and when they gave themselves up and asked for political asylum, the captain agreed to put them ashore at the South Korean port of Inchon.
Kang still has scars from his ordeal, but no regrets, even though he will never see the two remaining members of his family – his sister and his mother- again, this side of reunification of the Korean peninsula.
“I just want people in the outside world – even in Australia – to know the truth about what is going on in the North,” says Kang, now studying at Han Yang University to be a stockbroker. “They don’t have a government there -they are just a bunch of gangsters.”
Nor is he afraid of being hunted down and killed by the North Korean secret service for speaking out.
“After what I went through in that camp, what could I fear now?” he says. “I am already dead many times. Nothing they do can hurt me now.”
Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 1 May 1993
Section: Good Weekend
Word count: 2841
Keywords: Political prisoners North Korea
1. Symbols of Kim Il-sung and his Stalinist revolution on its 40th anniversary in 1988. By Gamma/Picture Media
2. Kang Chol-hwan: ‘I am already dead many times. Nothing they can do can hurt me now.’ By Sygma/Austral
3. Kim Il-sung, whose dictatorial paranoia led to the extermination of countless innocent people. By Camerapress/austral
4. A new statue of ‘The Great Leader’ unveiled in Pyongyang in 1988. By Sygma/Austral
5. On Kim Il-sung’s 80th birthday, young North Koreans were duty-bound to show their support. By Sygma/Austral
6. Kim Jong-il, left, runs the North Korean military and is political heir to his father. By Gamma/Picture Media