28 years after entering prison camp, North Korean learned why she was there

FPI / May 21, 2019

NEW YORK — Kim Hye-Sook, who survived 28 years . . . in a North Korean prison camp, offered a detailed account of the forced labor, starvation and torture she endured . . . at the U.N.’s “Victims Voices: A Conversation on North Korean Human Rights” event. . . .

Kim Hye-Sook testifies at the UN about her years in a North Korean prison camp.

“I was taken to prison camp 18 and I was imprisoned there for 28 years, living in a life that is unimaginable, a life that is worse than a dog’s, living a life like a slave,” the North Korean defector began during the panel on human rights. More than 200,000 North Koreans, including children, are imprisoned in camps where many perish from forced labor, inadequate food, and abuse by guards, according to Human Rights Watch. The isolated, secretive nation has no media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom, and pervasive problems include arbitrary arrest, lack of due process, and torture. . . .

“In this prison camp, especially in the coal mines, you have to be absolutely submissive to [do] anything that was asked of us,” Hye-Sook continued. “If you asked questions about why you were there, you were immediately executed publicly. I have seen and was a witness to multiple executions in this prison. And after [DPRK supreme leader] Kim II Sung died, and Kim Jong-Il came to power, there was an incident [when the regime] sent people who were loyal to Kim Il Sung to prison camps. They were high level officials asking why they were taken to prison camps, if they asked, they were executed immediately.”

Hye-Sook was able to survive imprisonment by raising healthy livestock and giving the animals to guards. When she was released almost three decades later at 42-years-old, Hye-Sook finally learned the reason for her imprisonment — her grandfather had escaped to South Korea years before during the Korean War. . . .

Following her release from camp 18, Hye-Sook escaped to China, but was caught, sent back to North Korea, and returned to the very same prison camp. There, she learned that conditions had somehow worsened in her six-year absence. . . . “I found out that the situation was much worse than when I had left it in the past,” Hye-Sook said. “The situation was that people were eating other people.”

“At least I know now why I was imprisoned. However, my younger brothers are still there. [It’s been] 44 years, they don’t know why they were taken to that prison.”


FPI, Free Press International

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