This is a story about a North Korean defector’s inhuman experiences in North Korea’s labor camp and how he escaped the regime.
I was born in China, but my home town is in Eundeok County in North Hamgyeong province in North Korea. My parents, carrying me on their back, moved there when I was only a few months old. China’s cultural revolution was underway and they wanted to escape.
I was bullied at school simply because I had been born in China. They called me “Chinese girl”. After high school I was unable to join the army or the Workers’ Party of Korea because of where I had been born.
Instead, I was assigned to a job at a gold mine in Hwadae County. Eventually I left the gold mine to go back to my home town. I began working at a factory which manufactured sniper weapons and explosives for artillery and tanks.
In 1994 I decided to leave North Korea for China. There were two reasons: food rations were decreasing and my private business had become the target security agent crackdown. I had to go.
I travelled to Namyang and crossed the Tumen river into China. For the first month I stayed with relatives, then they found me a job at a house in the countryside.
I worked there for a year but I was never paid. I moved to Yanji, where I worked in a mine and then as a security guard for a restaurant. I also worked for the forestry bureau. Then I found work decorating jobs and selling kimchi, but in 2004 I was reported and sent back to North Korea.
Back in North Korea
When I first entered the ministry of state security in Onsong in North Korea the corridor was packed full of people, there was no space to move. During my first interrogation, I did not admit that I had been in China for 10 years.
Every night I was beaten until I passed out. I woke up feeling cold to find freezing water being poured on my face. I was extremely stressed. After a week, I was moved to a different detention facility where I was put to work shovelling sand and demolishing buildings.
One time I felt so exhausted that I gave some money to a guard so that he would let me stay inside. Another time, a guard gave us some time to go to the river and wash ourselves. Two men, a heavily pregnant woman and I went to the river. The men asked me not to go too far.
Then I heard the woman scream. What was happening was something out of a nightmare. In fact, it was too terrible to be a nightmare.
The two men had forced the pregnant woman to the ground and were pushing down on her stomach. The two men beat her to stop her from her screaming and begging for mercy. I was furious but couldn’t do anything. What actions could I take? Could I beat up the men and run away? Suddenly I heard the cries of a baby.
Something inhuman was happening: they were killing the baby in front of its mother. The mother was pleading for the baby’s life and the baby was struggling. The image of the scene is burned into my mind. The memory as vivid as if it were yesterday. I still cannot forgive myself for not taking action.
An agent came to take me to the ministry of state security in Eundeok. By train it takes three hours but we had to walk, which took two days. I was marched through the streets handcuffed in front of many people. It is difficult to put into words how humiliated I felt.
After we arrived my lie about living in China had been uncovered. The supervising committee had all the records. An enforcer from the department told me that I would be sent to a camp for political prisoners.
I would have rather died than go to that place, so I used my money as a bribe and had all my records destroyed. I was tried and sentenced to six months in a labour camp.
Life in the labour camp
My job was to climb up to the top of the mountain, cut down trees and bring the wood back down. It was hard, the trees had a circumference greater than a human’s arm span.
We had to get up dawn and work before breakfast. Every day, we survived on corn and chestnuts and bland salt soup. Some people died of starvation and some women stopped menstruating. The living dead were everywhere.
After six months I was released, I really didn’t know how I would make a living so I decided to escape again. It was all or nothing.
The authorities knew that I had been born in China and I was under strict surveillance. If I got caught again I would be sent back to a camp or shot to set an example. The surveillance level was extremely high at that time.
My younger siblings tried to persuade me to stay and live with them. As my parents had passed away, I was responsible for them. But I couldn’t stay any longer. How would I make a living?
I thought that if I lived in China I would be able to help my siblings, so I escaped.