Former guard recounts the total hopelessness of prisoners in total control zones

[As Heard in North Korea]
Unification Media Group  |  2017-12-27 11:39

Daily NK and Unification Media Group will be interviewing victims of abuses and broadcasting excerpts of the recorded testimonies to listeners in North Korea as part of broader efforts to support the Center for Investigation & Documentation on Human Rights in North Korea (established in November 2016 pursuant to South Korea's North Korean Human Rights Act). It is hoped that this will raise awareness among the North Korean population that the outside world stands in solidarity against their oppression, as well as serve as a warning to the perpetrators that they will one day be held accountable.

Unification Media Group (UMG): Hello and welcome. This is your host, Lee Kwang Baek. In 2015, the UN established a human rights office in Seoul to monitor human rights in North Korea and record the testimonies of victims of human rights violations. The South Korean government has also undertaken efforts to record the testimonies of defectors since late 2016. These records will be used as evidence to prosecute perpetrators of human rights violations following unification. Today we will hear some first-hand accounts from the victims themselves, and discuss the extent of human rights violations occurring in the North. 
 
Those tuning in from North Korea refer to their countrys political prisons as kwanliso. There are 15 political prison camp sites known to the outside world. Pressure from the international community has resulted in just five of the fifteen prison camps remaining in operation. We estimate that there are between 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners being held in these remaining camps. While the existence of the camps was first revealed in testimonies by former prisoners, few victims can provide us with first-hand testimonies about the total control zones inside the camps. Today we have invited Ahn Myung Chul, a former prison camp guard, to share his accounts of the total control zone. 
 
Ahn Myung Chul (Ahn): We understand that you worked as a security guard in a North Korean political prison camp. Which camp were you stationed at? 
 
Im originally from Hongwon County in North Hamgyong Province, and I was assigned to Department 7 of the Ministry of State Security (MSS) in 1987. I didnt realize what kind of place North Korea was at the time, and was assigned to a political prison camp as a guard. Political prison camps were kept completely secret. I received my training at Camp 11 in Kyungsung, North Hamgyong Province, where I trained for the first six months as a new recruit. I was then assigned to my first post, Camp 13 in Onsung County, North Hamgyong Province. I was posted there for three years before I was reassigned to Camp 26 in Pyongyang. I was stationed there for six months before moving to Camp 22 in Hoeryong, where I stayed for 4 years. In total, I was a guard for about eight years. 
 
UMG: So you spent the majority of your 20s as a political prison guard?

Ahn: I was drafted into the army when I was 19. In North Korea, military service normally begins at 17, but I attended university first, so I began my service at 19 at a political prison camp. I was a camp guard right until I arrived in South Korea at the age of 26. 

UMG: North Koreas political prison camps are known to feature two main areas. The revolutionary zone and the total control zone. Can you tell us more about them? 
 
Ahn: The only camp where there was both a revolutionary zone and a total control zone was Camp 15 in Yodok. The rest were completely total control zones, and Ive only worked in total control zones. Prison terms for Yodok prison camp were between three to 10 years, before they were shortened to three years in 1988. Many people in the revolutionary zone were freed during that time. However, Kim Jong Un closed down the last revolutionary zone in 2012 as he rose to power. All political prison camps in North Korea are now total control zones. 
 
UMG: Approximately how many prisoners were held in the camps you worked at? 
 
Ahn: I dont know the total number, but at the time there were approximately 15,000 people in Camp 11, 130,000 people in Camp 13 (which is now closed), 5,000 people in Hwachon prison camp in Pyongyang (Camp 26), and 50,000 people in Camp 22 (Hoeryong prison camp). The geographical size of Camp 22 is about the size of Seoul, and around 2,000 staff operate the camp. 

UMG: The prisons are larger and there are more people incarcerated than most would expect. 
 
Ahn: Every prison camp is built to take advantage of the surrounding geographical terrain and features. Hoeryong is near a basin surrounded by high mountains, while Camp 22 is like the Kaema Plateau, on a plain surrounded by high mountains. The number of prisoners differs quite significantly according to the size of each camp. 
 
UMG: People say its impossible to get out alive once you are imprisoned in a total control zone. Surveillance and control must be extremely tight. What kind of methods are used to control the prisoners? 
 
Ahn: The level of surveillance is the same for both the revolutionary zone and the total control zone. Prisoners sent to the revolutionary zone were originally sent in with their families before 1988, and prisoners were incarcerated without other family members after 1988. The rest, meaning the total control zones, are family prisons under the guilt-by-association system. Villages form inside the camps due to the number of people. Surveillance and security differ from department to department, such as the security and management departments. 
 
The guards secure the outskirts of the prison camp. We installed electric wire fences 2 metres high and 50 centimetres wide, and dug traps 3 metres deep filled with bamboo spears and large nails to prevent inmates from escaping. We had everything except land mines. There are temporary sentry posts every 1-2 km called Mang-ru, and they are mounted with machine guns. The guards are responsible for external security while other departments are responsible for internal surveillance of various areas. The mining area has its own security unit, and each area has their own surveillance system and guard posts. 
 
Prisoners must be issued a travel pass to move from one village to another. Travel passes are issued by the MSS management office by a confirmer. Prisoners must also travel within an allocated time, with the allotted time based on travel distance. The confirmer writes down the prisoners departure time in a notebook. The prisoners travel in groups of five, and are virtually never permitted to travel by themselves. Three of the five are MSS spies placed to monitor each other. If the departure time is 7am and the arrival time is set at 9am and they arrive early or on time, there is no problem. But if you are even 10-20 minutes late, youre interrogated. Moving anywhere on your own is out of the question, and you are constantly being watched by the other travelers. 
 
The surveillance system inside a total control zone makes it impossible to escape. Inmates monitor each other, and of course theres the SSD personnel. There are hidden guard posts in every village. Guards dig underground tunnels to access these posts and they watch over the village from 8pm until 5am. The system is foolproof. As far as I know, no one has successfully escaped from a total control zone. 

UMG: Have people tried to escape? 
 
Ahn: On several occasions. I was sent to Camp 13 in October 1987, and there was an escape attempt just before I arrived. A prisoner who performed repairs on the camp commanders car attempted to escape with his car. The car started moving and the guards just assumed the commander was inside the vehicle heading out somewhere. The prisoner made it to the  Tumen river, and he left the car behind and escaped to China. But the prisoner was brought back to the prison camp after a joint Chinese police and North Korean operation captured him, and he was publicly executed. An entire family also tried to escape during my time there. They didnt know the local geography and went hiding deep in the mountains, but they never made it to the Tumen River and were tracked down by military dogs. 
 
UMG: What is the punishment for attempting to escape?
 
Ahn: Punishment for trying to escape is always public execution. There are two types of executions inside prison camps, public and secret. Those who attempt to escape are publicly executed. You can also be publicly executed for attempting to kill a security agent or prison guard, damaging prison camp equipment, being responsible for the death of a cow due to mismanagement, or any other reason needed to send a warning to the prisoners. Prisoners are either shot with an AK rifle or hung. 
 
I participated in 20 public executions over eight years. I never executed anyone, but as a driver, I had to transport the soldiers to the execution site. The goal of public executions is to drill fear into everyone so they wont even dare to consider escaping. 
 
Most secret executions are carried out for corruption or rape. A state security agent who rapes and impregnates a prisoner cant be executed, simply because he is a state security agent. Its impossible to know how many secret executions of prisoners have taken place. 
 
Each village inside a prison camp is divided into labor groups, and two state security agents are assigned to each group. One agent is from a security department and the other from management, and they each have their own office. Prisoners take turns cleaning and managing these offices. These prisoners are always female and end up becoming sexual playthings for the state security agents. Despite this, prisoners compete with each other for the position because they are usually sent to an easier workplace if they do well. But it becomes a major issue if they get pregnant. 
 
UMG: Can state security agents be executed on charges of corruption? 

Ahn: Security agents arent subject to executions. Any prisoner privy to a charge of corruption is executed instead. If a state security agent commits a huge misdemeanor, they are dishonorably discharged. These individuals are then constantly watched after they return to civilian life. 
 
UMG: Why do they execute pregnant women instead of performing abortions? 
 
Ahn: Pregnant women are only executed if an abortion is out of the question, when they are nearly due. There was a platoon sergeant called Kim Man Chul at Camp 13. A year passed and suddenly we were told to assemble out on the training grounds in full gear. They called out for platoon sergeant Kim Man Chul, then stripped him of his badges, Party membership and rank. He was dishonorably discharged on the spot, and sent home. I asked someone why he had been sent home, and they said he did something he shouldnt have. His rank of platoon sergeant meant that he had served for 10 years, and that gives you some seniority. He was patrolling on his own when he came across a pretty female prisoner. She kept her pregnancy a secret by using a baby blanket to cover her growing bulge. The entire camp was astonished when she suddenly gave birth. 
 
There are special marriage certificates in prison camps. You must obtain a special marriage certificate in order to have permission to conceive. Normally this wouldnt be an issue, but it becomes an undesirable situation if a woman gives birth without approval. This is because prison camps are made to wipe out three generations of a family, and so a new generation being created is a problem. So they began investigating the identity of the father. The female prisoner thought he would receive less punishment because he was a security agent, so she told them the whole truth. 
 
What unfolded was truly horrific, the baby was boiled with dog food for military dogs, the mother was secretly executed, and Kim Man Chul was discharged. 

UMG: Are secret executions similar to public executions? 
  
Ahn: Prisoners are either shot in the head inside a detention room or strangled with thick wire. Its a quick death as you make small loops on both ends for handles, and then pull. 
 
UMG: Why do you think the North Korean authorities have built these prison camps to monitor and punish people? 
 
Ahn: Kim Il Sung wrote a memoir right before he died. He said, My history is the history of struggle against sectarian opportunists. This showed that Kim Il Sung harbored ill feelings towards those who opposed him throughout his life. The prison camps were made to imprison those who didnt support him, and became a crucial component in maintaining his dictatorship. The prison camps were established so that people could Taste the strong proletariat dictatorship mentality. He mercilessly purged anyone who threatened his hold on power or those that did not support him. He needed a place to isolate them, and thats one of the main reasons why the camps were built. 

UMG: That was Mr. Ahn Myung Chul, who was a guard at a number of North Korean political prison camps for over 8 years. Thank you for joining us. 
 
In 2014, the UN COI reported that the North Korean regime was systematically carrying out crimes against humanity inside its political prison camps. We are joined by  Professor Jo Jung Hyun from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Law School to hear her expert opinion on Mr Ahn Myung Chuls testimony. 

What is your opinion on the atrocities being committed inside these political prison camps? 
 
Jo Jung Hyung (Jo): As you mentioned, political prison camps are the most egregious example of the North Korean regimes crimes against humanity. Human rights violations occurring in lesser prisons like disciplinary labor centers and correctional labor camps (also known as re-education camps) are severe enough, but the seriousness of crimes being committed in political prison camps are extremely severe. 
 
That is why the North Korean regime continues to refute the very existence of the camps despite the large body of testimonies and concrete evidence including satellite images. 
 
These prisoners are not given due legal process and are held arbitrarily. Their families are also imprisoned under the guilt-by-association system, and subjected to torture, violence, sexual assault, forced labor, starvation, and summary executions. Many die from a lack of basic medical care. All prisoners are stripped of their basic freedoms and rights. I foresee political prison camps becoming the foremost issue when the time comes to seek accountability for North Koreas human rights violations. 
 
UMG:  The people of North Korea continue to suffer under the regimes systematic human rights abuses. South Korea and the international community are preparing evidence and testimonies to prosecute the perpetrators of these violations. We call upon North Korea to immediately afford basic rights to all of its citizens.

*Translated by Suki Son

 
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