Hoeryong: Peering Inside a Death Camp

From MSNBC.com, " Former guard: Ahn Myong Chol remembers atrocities:"

A food factory produced soy sauce and cookies and bean paste. And here the women worked between 20 and 30 years old. The women are the sexual slaves of the security officers, they are forced to wear only white thin gowns and no underwear, they are not given underwear. They make all the beautiful women work here.

The prisoners go to the coal mine along this road, in carts pulled by cows. And while they are passing through here, I was instructed to beat a disabled person by my superior, and I had no choice but to obey.

Even in the small village there is an officers headquarters, and if any prisoner disobeys, then he can be beaten here, and the officers were armed, and they would kill prisoners here.

Not only here but all other places, even in the small hills they bury bodies. And when we cut the trees down, sometimes we find a buried body. Not only here, but all around here are buried bodies.

In the hills here, if there is some flat area, it is covered with graves. And if people start to farm there, they find bodies or bones.

This area is where there are the most densely buried bodies. There are graves all over here, and we can see the graves where there are no woods. There is no particular area to bury dead bodies, but they put them all in this general vicinity, and no one can cry. It is forbidden to cry, and there is no funeral ceremony, and the officers say, “The anti-revolutionary person has died, so there is no reason to cry.”

How can these things happen?

The gulag seems like a thing of the past. It seems like knowing about these atrocities should somehow keep them from happening. Shedding light on it and exposing atrocity to the eyes of the world should prevent a repeat of history, right?

We hear about cruel things happening in areas of instability --- ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, genocide in Rwanda, and the continued chaos in Darfur. While these events are certainly terrible, they seem to have a different flavor from the concentraion camps described in the above quote. Genocide often arises in times of conflict, times when it's very hard for the rest of the world to have a sense of what's going on, where the fog of war hides the bloodshed. When the war ends, when the fog lifts, the atrocities end. Thus, we have a way of fighting war-born atrocities: end war.

Yet, the systematic killings carried out by tyrannical states exist in places not embroiled in war. Should the lessons of the past not relegate them to a dark page of human history? Have we not learned from the past? Perhaps, it's the very stability that perpetuates their existence. The gulags are isolated and protected behind the curtain of militarized government ruling over an insular society cut off from the rest of the world. As such, we have few tools to fight these atrocities, or even know that they occur. We have to rely on the tales of those that escape, on old pictures taken in secret or from a distance, and satelite imagery.

Today we look to North Korea, to a camp on its north-eastern border secluded in mountains. It is called the Hoeryong concentration camp. Because so few priosoners ever make it out alive, most of the stories we have come from former employees.


Who are The Prisoners of Hoeryong?

From The U.S. Committee on Human Rights in North Korea, The Hidden Gulag:

The most strikingly abnormal feature of the kwan-li-so system is the philosophy of “collective responsibility,” or “guilt by association” — yeon-jwa-je — whereby the mother and father, sisters and brothers, children and sometimes grandchildren of the offending political prisoner are imprisoned in a three-generation practice. Former prisoners and guards trace this practice to a 1972 statement by “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung: “Factionalists or enemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations.” According to the testimony of a former guard at Kwan-li-so No. 11 at Kyungsung, North Hamgyong Province, this slogan was carved in wood in the prison guards’ headquarters building. According to the testimony of YOON Dae Il, a former police official, the number of family members abducted and sent to the lifetime labor camps depends on the severity of the presumed political offense.

The other strikingly abnormal characteristic of the kwan-li-so system is that prisoners are not arrested, charged (that is, told of their offense), or tried in any sort judicial procedure, where they would have a chance to confront their accusers or offer a defense with or even without benefit of legal counsel. The presumed offender is simply picked up and taken to an interrogation facility and frequently tortured to “confess” before being sent to the political penal-labor colony. The family members are also just picked up and deposited at the kwan-li-so, without ever being told of the whereabouts or wrongdoings of the presumed wrongdoer.

The most salient feature of day-to-day prison-labor camp life is the combination of below-subsistence food rations and extremely hard labor. Prisoners are provided only enough food to be kept perpetually on the verge of starvation. And prisoners are compelled by their hunger to eat, if they can get away with it, the food of the labor-camp farm animals, plants, grasses, bark, rats, snakes — anything remotely edible. It should be noted that below-subsistence-level food rations preceded, by decades, the severe nationwide food shortages experienced by North Korea in the 1990s.

Are Dissidents Being Gassed in Camp 22?

Witness statements and documents disputed by the Democratic Republic of North Korea are all we have to answer this question.

Witness statements from a report by The Guardian:


I witnessed a whole family being tested on suffocating gas and dying in the gas chamber,' he said. 'The parents, son and and a daughter. The parents were vomiting and dying, but till the very last moment they tried to save kids by doing mouth-to-mouth breathing.'

Hyuk has drawn detailed diagrams of the gas chamber he saw. He said: 'The glass chamber is sealed airtight. It is 3.5 metres wide, 3m long and 2.2m high_ [There] is the injection tube going through the unit. Normally, a family sticks together and individual prisoners stand separately around the corners. Scientists observe the entire process from above, through the glass.'

He explains how he had believed this treatment was justified. 'At the time I felt that they thoroughly deserved such a death. Because all of us were led to believe that all the bad things that were happening to North Korea were their fault; that we were poor, divided and not making progress as a country.

'It would be a total lie for me to say I feel sympathetic about the children dying such a painful death. Under the society and the regime I was in at the time, I only felt that they were the enemies. So I felt no sympathy or pity for them at all.'

His testimony is backed up by Soon Ok-lee, who was imprisoned for seven years. 'An officer ordered me to select 50 healthy female prisoners,' she said. 'One of the guards handed me a basket full of soaked cabbage, told me not to eat it but to give it to the 50 women. I gave them out and heard a scream from those who had eaten them. They were all screaming and vomiting blood. All who ate the cabbage leaves started violently vomiting blood and screaming with pain. It was hell. In less than 20 minutes they were quite dead.'

So I find myself wondering if Hoeryong will someday have the same sort of name recognition of Auschwitz. Will we someday, after some sort of liberation or struggle, look into this prison and wonder: How could this have happened in our world, in this day and age? How could it have gone on this long? How could it have gotten this bad? Could we have done anything to prevent it or change it? Will it happen again?

For more Info including satelite images, witness statements, a complete copy of The Hidden Gulag and a history of North Korea's prison camps please visit:

U.S. Committee on Human Rights in North Korea

Back to May Day 2007: A Day of Remembrance

Share this