From Gulag to Getaway: North Korean refugees tell their story in Parliament

Jung Guang-il, left, and Lee Ok-suk. Photo Chris Harris / The Times. Click on image for full size version on Times website
Jung Guang-il, left, and Lee Ok-suk. Photo Chris Harris / The Times. Click on image for full size version on Times website

“In South Korea, we are taught English, Maths, things like that. We are taught nothing about North Korea.” I was talking to a young South Korean after a meeting of the North Korean All-Party Parliamentary Group. She was visibly shocked at what she had just heard. Two North Korean refugees – Jung Guang-il and Lee Ok-suk, both former inmates of North Korea’s notorious prison camps – had just given testimony to a group of journalists, interested parties and rather too few MPs. The North Korean All-Party Parliamentary Group, chaired on this occasion by Baroness Cox, heard these testimonies in Portcullis House on 3 November 2009.

Vitit Muntarbhorn
Vitit Muntarbhorn

Because of the excellent work of organisations such as Amnesty International, Anti-Slavery International and Christian Solidarity Worldwide (who organised the 3 Nov meeting), and the ready availability of books such as Aquariums of Pyongyang, we assume that North Korea’s appalling human rights record is all too well-known. But there are always people who have no idea, and it takes these constant reminders to keep the issue in people’s minds.

Vitit Muntarbhorn, the UN’s special rapporteur on North Korea, recently published an update on the situation [full pdf here on UNHCR website], and he pulled no punches:

The human rights situation in the country remains abysmal owing to the repressive nature of the power base: at once cloistered, controlled and callous. The array of violations cuts across civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. They are fuelled by the country’s stifling political environment and stultifying developmental process, compounded by a range of stupefying cruelties.

The language is extreme, and when presented with the testimony of survivors of the prison camp regime you know it is justified.

Jung’s crime was that, being a tradesman, he travelled to China and sometimes dealt with South Korean businessmen. He was therefore suspected of being a spy. Lee’s crime was converting to Christianity on meeting a pastor in China. On returning to North Korea, a neighbour ratted on her.

The pictures presented are consistent. Long hours of forced labour, beatings and poor standards of nutrition. Before being sent to the camps, both suffered a long period of interrogation and torture (four months for Mr Jung, twelve for Mrs Lee). Mrs Lee suffered fingernail and teeth extraction and near-suffocation by having chilli paste stuffed into her mouth and nose. Both Lee and Jung suffered the “Dove” or “Pigeon” torture, so called because of the shape of your chest during the process: hands tied behind your back, you are hung by your hands so that your feet cannot touch the ground. Mr Jung endured periods of 12 hours in such an agonising position. His weight halved during his period of interrogation.

At work in Yodok labour camp
At work in Yodok labour camp

Both lost track of time during their stay in the camps. In the labour camps, diet was a meagre ration of corn. Prisoners fought over dogshit to see if they could find any corn in it. New corpses were in plentiful supply (in one camp 30-40 people died per month), and prisoners would look in their mouths to see if they died with any food in them. The worst thing they had to endure? “We were told we weren’t human beings. Instead of doctors, what medical care we had was given by vets, because we were worse than animals.”

Typical prisoners in such camps are dangerous elements such as border-crossers, Christians, petty thieves and thought criminals (rolling a cigarette with a scrap of newspaper which has a photo of Kim Jong-il will qualify you for a labour camp).

The refugees had an arduous schedule while in London: in one afternoon, interviews with The Times and The Guardian, the Parliamentary meeting and a press conference with Chinese TV. But northing compared with what they had to endure in North Korea. Both of them left us with the message that they were providing a voice for the voiceless prisoners – over 200,000 – suffering in North Korea’s gulags.

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