Two survivors of North Korean prison camps recently spoke of their experiences at the United Nation's Commission of Human Rights in an effort to increaser pressure on North Korea to improve its human rights record. 

Both jailed in the Yodok Political Prison Camp, 49-year-old Kim Tae Jin and 67-year-old Kim Young Soon - both Christians - were among the estimated 100,000 people being held in prison camps in North Korea.

Here, in a testimony provided to Sight by human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Kim Tae Jin tells of his experiences...

KIM TAE JIN, 49, initially defected to China in 1986 to escape North Korea. While in China he became a Christian, an act attracting severe penalties in North Korea. After 16 months he was repatriated by the Chinese authorities and a Bible was discovered in his belongings. He suffered severe torture and interrogation in the eight months following his return, to the extent that he swallowed a nail, preferring to undergo an operation than stay in the cell. He was subsequently imprisoned without trial in Yodok Political Prison Camp (No 15) where he experienced barbarous treatment, including being beaten with burning wood. He was forced to carry out hard labour on minimal food intake and beaten unconscious when too weak to carry out his tasks. He survived the imprisonment and eventually defected again, arriving in South Korea in June 2001. He is now Director of Missionary Works at NKGulag and Chairman of the Special Committee for North Korean Gulag Dismantlement. He is also currently studying at Chongshin University, a theological school in South Korea. His story follows... 


I was born in North Korea in 1956 and lived there until 1986, when I defected to China. Sixteen months later, in 1987, I was arrested and sent back to North Korea, via a bridge between Samhap in China and Hyoeryung in North Korea.

The reason I defected from North Korea was that people were not treated fairly there. In North Korea, not a single crime or accident is publicized. Although it is advertised that “people” are the owners of the country, there is absolutely no freedom in North Korea. I defected because I no longer wanted to live in such a place.

KimTaeJin

"I confessed that I obtained the Bible in order to read it because I wanted to know more about God. They interrogated me severely to find out where I had heard about God. They sent me to Yodok Political Prison Camp under the charges of disturbing Party policy, committing 'national treason' by illegally crossing the border, and anti-revolutionary activity."

My faith in God started in April, 1987 through a Christian church in Rodugu-jin, Yongjung City, China. I had only heard about God but did not have detailed knowledge about Jesus or Christianity. I did not even have a chance to read the Bible. At that time, I was working in a mine. I started to read the Bible, but was not able to understand much. Around that time, I was arrested by the Chinese police. I later found out that, when I was sent back to North Korea, the Chinese police packed my things and sent the Bible as well. When I was first questioned about the Bible during interrogation, I denied any knowledge of it. The interrogator said that I may not have known, but his boss would not accept my answer, and demanded that I tell the truth. 

I confessed that I obtained the Bible in order to read it because I wanted to know more about God. They interrogated me severely to find out where I had heard about God. They sent me to Yodok Political Prison Camp under the charges of disturbing Party policy, committing “national treason” by illegally crossing the border, and anti-revolutionary activity. 

I survived severe torture and interrogation for the eight months following repatriation. I was imprisoned without trial in No.15 Political Prison Camp in Yodok, South Hamgyong Province, North Korea, in March 1988.

During interrogation I endured what is known as “motionless sitting” torture. Anyone who moved, however slightly, was handcuffed and chained to high grids with his arms spread wide. In this position, you were then beaten. They used an iron rod, ordinarily used for cleaning guns, to hit detainees’ bones. They targeted sensitive areas such as the wrists, knees, or ankles, in order to inflict extreme pain with little effort.

Detainees were often denied sleep and were kept naked when it was very cold. Room temperatures were extremely low, and using the toilet was very painful as everything around the toilet was frozen.

The sanitation level of cells in the detention facility was horrendous. When detainees were forced to sit still, lice crawled on their faces. Detainees were not able to wash their faces until they were sent to the main prison camp or released. If two people talked, they were ordered to stand facing each other and forced to slap each other’s face. As interrogation was such a painful process, I swallowed a nail in the hope that I would be sent to a hospital for surgery. However, I failed in that attempt, as the nail came out in my stool. (The painful stay in the cell made me think that the pain from a surgical operation would be nothing, if only I could stay away from the cell, even for a few days).

Though I was not able to keep myself steady due to malnutrition, I was forced to do hard labour. In April, I was ordered to carry humus soil down a mountain, using an A-frame carrier. As I was weak, I put less soil on the A-frame than other prisoners. Seeing this, a head prisoner kicked me hard, making me roll down the mountain. Since I cursed at him, I was dragged to the guards’ quarter, where I was severely beaten by prison guards wielding oak woods. I was knocked unconscious due to the brutal beating and was brought back to my cell later by fellow prisoners.

It was August 1989. I was carrying something heavy in an A-frame, and as I was trying to balance the weight I naturally stooped a little. As a result, I failed to notice a passing patrol guard. He asked me to come out in the evening so that he could punish me for not bowing to him. He and seven or eight of his colleagues beat me brutally. After the beating, they stripped me naked, handcuffed me, and stood me in the middle of the courtyard. Although it was August, it was extremely cold late at night. It was more painful than being beaten. I woke the following morning with a head prisoner kicking me, telling me I should go to work. At that time, we were building bulletproof walls for security guards. 

When they handcuffed me, they tightened the handcuffs by stepping on the hands, cutting off the circulation until the hands turned black. 

They also forced me to sit on top of quicklime while it was raining. Due to a chemical reaction, when water is added to quicklime, it becomes very hot, over 100 degrees centigrade and emits gas. My buttocks were burning, but the guard forced me to sit there. Because of the burns on my buttocks, I was not able to lie on my back for about a month and suffered severe pain when I tried to sit. I could not wear trousers for a while. A watery discharge from the sore stuck to my trousers and gave me excruciating pain.

"In a political prison camp in North Korea, one must forget that he or she is a human being. I had to do many things to survive. I carefully watched a dog so that I could steal its food. I ate snakes, frogs, rats, and anything that could be a source of nutrition."

In the fall of 1990, I was caught by a prison guard named Yang Soo Chul. I had been baking corn while on duty guarding a cornfield. He relentlessly beat me on the legs with a piece of burning wood. The burn marks on my legs still give me shivers, even today.

In a political prison camp in North Korea, one must forget that he or she is a human being. I had to do many things to survive. I carefully watched a dog so that I could steal its food. I ate snakes, frogs, rats, and anything that could be a source of nutrition.

I met many people in the prison camp. There were people who cut off their own finger or pretended to be insane, because the brutality of forced labour was unbearable. Someone was beaten with a shovel and later had to have one of his arms cut off because it had grown rotten with toxin due to tetanus. There were numerous people who spent 20 to 30 years in the prison camp simply because of some ludicrous crime their grandfather allegedly committed.

I was sent to a confinement centre in the camp as well. If a prisoner commits a crime in the prison camp, he or she is sent to the confinement centre for about a month. If you take out the brutality in the prison camp, it functions like a village. There I met a woman, we were romantically involved and she became pregnant. She had to undergo a forced abortion and I was sent to the confinement centre. I had to stay in the camp an additional year because of that.

The prison cell was extremely cold. I would sit holding my legs in my arms, because this position made the cold more bearable. But a warden stripped me, and kicked me in the face for sitting like that. I was very dizzy due to severe bleeding from my nose. That same warden put me in a room which had a lot of fleas. Today, when I recall the pain of being in that room it makes me shudder. I begged to be moved to a room without fleas. The warden came back with a bucket of water, and poured it over my body. My entire body began to freeze, the pain was overwhelming. Even today, whenever a cold wind hits me, causing me to sneeze and my nose to run, the memory of that freezing cold haunts me.

I survived this living hell until 1992, with the help of God. I defected from North Korea again in 1997, through Hyesan. Although there was a constant fear of being caught, I was very happy there. I was able to worship God and read the Bible as much as I wanted. In June 2001, I came to South Korea through Mongolia. Under the protection of God, I am now studying at Chongshin University, a theological school.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide is a human rights charity working on behalf of those persecuted for their Christian beliefs. For more information on their work, visit www.csw.org.uk.