As the New York Times and others have reported, North Korea sentenced two American journalists to 12 years of hard labor. While little is known about them, the North Korean labor camps are notorious for their brutal conditions.
One of the few first-hand accounts of the North Korean camps is Kim Yong’s recently published Long Road Home: Testimony of a North Korean Camp Survivor.
Kim Yong is one of the few people to have ever escaped from the North Korean gulag. In addition to recounting his incredible escape to the United States via China, Mongolia, and South Korea, Kim also describes his life before he was sent to the camps when he was a lieutenant colonel in the Army and enjoyed unprecedented privileges as a member of North Korea’s elite.
However, at the heart of his book are his detailed descriptions of life in North Korea’s labor camps. Kim recounts his six-year ordeal of living in the labor camps, the inhumane working conditions, the subhuman prison guards, and a famine which killed millions.
The quote of this post (see above) comes from an excerpt that we’ve posted on our site, in which Kim describes Camp No. 14, possibly the worst of all camps. Here are the opening paragraphs to the excerpt:
In North Korea, everyone knows that a labor camp is a place where life is suspended. One does not live there, one slowly dies there. I was simply another dead soul in Camp No. 14.
At 5:00 a.m. everyone was awakened. By 6:00 a.m. the prisoners had finished their meager breakfast and marched toward the workplace. Since the mine shafts were hidden in deep valleys, nobody could see the sun light. At 7:00 we were already busy at work. Between 12:30 and 1:00 p.m., we had a quick lunch underground in the mine shaft. In order to go to the toilet, the prisoners had to wait to form groups because there was little light and they had to share one bulb to move around. One person had to carry the lamp and lead the way. Then we came out of the shaft around 11:30 p.m. and ate supper outside in darkness. According to the rules, the work was supposed to end by 8:00 p.m., or by 9:00 p.m. at the latest. However, no guard bothered to enforce this. The only real rules in Camp No. 14 were the guards’ decisions. After work, we marched back to our barracks and stayed up another hour for political struggle consisting of mutual and self criticism. At 1:00 a.m., three hours later than the camp regulations, everyone went to sleep. Before my arrest, I used to sleep eight hours a night, on the average. At the camp, that was cut in half.
Even by notoriously subhuman North Korean camp standards, No. 14 was the worst of them all. To my knowledge, no human being had escaped it alive. Prisoners were beyond the point of feeling hungry, so they felt constantly delirious. But what was really killing us was psychological and emotional torture. No family members were allowed to stay together. Upon arrival at the camp, husbands and wives were separated. Children were allowed to stay with their mother until they turned twelve; then they were segregated according to sex and kept in separate barracks. Once families were separated, there was no way of knowing whether other members were dead or alive. The only chance they might have to see each other was during the public executions when all prisoners were gathered in the courtyard. Other prisoners told me that the conditions in Camp No. 14 were so ghastly that in 1990, about three years before my arrival, the inmates had rebelled, killing half a dozen guards. In retaliation, jailors crammed 1,500 prisoners into an empty mine shaft and massacred them with multiple explosives. After this, the guards became even more iron-fisted, but at the same time, public executions decreased in number, replaced by secret murders. When the guards came and took away some prisoners, experienced ones knew that it might be the last time they saw those fellows. Often they did not return, and that meant that they were no longer in this hell with us.
Sixty people slept in our room, which was about 10 by 6 yards and was lit by only a couple of light bulbs. There was no furniture in the room. Even if there had been books, I doubt anyone would have had the strength to read them. When the prisoners returned from work, they simply wished they were dead. At 1:00 a.m., the guards would count the prisoners and lock them in. I can still vividly hear the squeaky sound of the rusty lock behind the closed doors. When that metallic scratching signaled the end of the day, my heart bled as if the metal lock had penetrated straight into my body. As soon as the guards closed the door, the prisoners fell to the ground and immediately went to sleep. Since there were way too many people crammed into one room, one had to lie down as fast as possible in order to secure floor space. Everyone breathed heavily, as their lungs were filled with coal dust and ash. We slept on the cement floor without any bedding, but since we were in a mining camp, there was enough coal to burn all year round, so heating was not a big problem even in midwinter. However, in the summertime, the cool cement floor was unbearably hard on the back. Prisoners were supposed to stand guard in turns and the transfer of duty to a new vigil took place every hour. It was really impossible to have a minute of privacy in Camp No. 14. In the room there was an indoor toilet made of a large metal bucket. For the first three months, I slept right next to that toilet, as did every newcomer according to the rules among prisoners. It was never completely dark after the doors were locked, as the light bulbs shone dimly. However, there were times when some prisoners slightly missed the mark and splashed shit on my hair and face.