Grim tales from North Korea's gulags
By Donald Kirk
SEOUL - No one should imagine that American missionary Robert Park is getting
the same relatively benign treatment at the hands of his North Korean "hosts"
as the two American women who were held in the North for 140 days last year.
Euna Lee and Laura Ling of Al Gore's Current TV network sojourned in a state
guest house near Pyongyang for most of the time, but Park is presumably being
held in total isolation, most likely in a remote mountain prison. That's the
grim view of high-profile North Korean defectors who provided an insiders'
perspective on the horrors of life in North Korean gulags, the
prison network that typically holds 200,000 political prisoners at any time.
The 28-year-old Park, who walked across the frozen Tumen River border from
Chinese to North Korean soil on Christmas Eve bearing a letter of "peace and
goodwill" for Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, is believed to be quarantined like the
carrier of a deadly disease.
"Robert Park will be isolated from the general public," said Kim Tae-jin,
co-director of the Democracy Network Against the North Korean Gulag, who fled
from North Korea more than a decade ago after having been imprisoned in the
infamous Yodok Camp for more than four years. "He will not be mixed with North
Korean citizens in prison. The guards will know. They will give a gag order
about his detention."
It is a measure of North Korea's fear of Park's evangelical message that there
has been no word about his whereabouts or the charges against him. That
response contrasts with the visits that the Swedish ambassador to North Korea,
representing US diplomatic interests in the absence of relations between
Washington and Pyongyang, paid on Lee and Ling before former US president Bill
Clinton swooped down in a chartered jet in early August, saw Kim Jong-il for
three hours and flew the pair back to freedom in the US.
Kim Tae-jin talked about Robert Park's case in the midst of a campaign to get
the United Nations and the International Criminal Court in the Hague to
consider criminal charges against Kim Jong-il for the "torture, assault, rape,
infanticides, forced detention and public executions" that are commonplace
throughout the North Korean prison system. (North Korea on Thursday said it was
holding another American who had crossed "illegally" from China but did not
identify him or explain the circumstances of his entry.)
Kim and other defectors, talking at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club on
Tuesday, supported their demand by releasing the names of 254 prisoners they
know are now held in the Yodok Camp's "revolution zone", a special section
reserved for relatives of the elite who have managed to incur the wrath of the
authorities but may eventually be freed as a "blessing of Kim Jong-il".
Recounting his moods of terror and despair before his release from Yodok, Kim
believes Park's Christian beliefs make it too dangerous for him to stay in
Yodok or any other well-known gulag where eventually his presence might become
known. "There are some detention centers in the mountain areas," said Kim. "He
could be kept there where people do not know about him."
Christian worship, mere possession of a bible or a prayer book, is a crime
punishable by death in North Korea. The fear of Christianity harks back to the
years before the Korean War in the early 1950s when Christianity, spread by
missionaries, was widespread and Pyongyang was known as a "city of churches".
Today, two churches exist in the North Korean capital as showpieces to persuade
impressionable foreigners that actually North Koreans are free to worship under
the North's constitution.
"One of the biggest reasons Park should be isolated is his evangelism," said
Kim. "Security guards should know his mission is to spread God's word. They
should make certain it does not happen."
One of the most famous people ever held in the "revolution zone" of Yodok,
74-year-old Kim Yong-seung, talked about the suffering inflicted on her for the
crime of having been a classmate in school and college of Kim Jong-il's
long-time mistress, Song Hae-rim, an actress who starred in North Korean films.
"I never knew the charge," said Kim Yong-seung, held for nine years in Yodok
before her release in 1979.
"Even the beasts would be ashamed to be there," she said, describing an
existence in which prisoners had to get up at 3:30am, get to work in fields or
forests or mines by 4:30 am and keep working until nightfall. "Parents and
children die there," she said. "We don't have a coffin for the body."
Kim Yong-seung came to know, during months of interrogation before her
imprisonment, that her offense was that she had been "a friend of the second
wife of Kim Jong-il, and I knew about his private life", but she never faced a
court. The need to prevent the slightest knowledge of the Dear Leader's private
life was so intense that her closest relatives were also imprisoned. During her
years in Yodok she saw both her parents starve to death, one of her sons drown
and another son shot while trying to escape. Her husband "disappeared".
Reasons for sending even highly connected people to Yodok show the extreme
sensitivity - and insecurity - of a dictatorial regime that needs total control
to survive. It was a crime, for instance, to say that the Dear Leader's father,
Great Leader Kim Il-sung, "has a lump in his throat", said Kim Yong-seung.
"Someone who broke a plaster statue of Kim Il-sung, someone who eavesdropped on
South Korean broadcasting, someone who watched South Korean video, would be
Equally culpable, she said, would be "someone who knew the private life of Kim
Jong-il". In the course of interrogating her, security agents told her that her
school friend, Song Hae-rim, and her son, Kim Jong-nam (Kim Jong-il's oldest
son), no longer existed, had disappeared, were never to be mentioned. Kim
Jong-nam is now 38.
Kim Yong-seung's story provides a remarkable insight into the life of Kim
Jong-il, who even then, so many years ago, was plotting to dispose of Song
Hae-rim in favor of his third consort, Ko Young-hee, a dancer and mother of
sons number two and three - the latter the heir-apparent, Kim Jong-un, still in
"They wanted to wipe out the record for the sake of the succession issue," said
Kim Yong-seung, but could Song have come to her rescue when she heard she was
"She was a kind and good person," said Kim Yong-seung. "She never knew what
happened to me. She was isolated in house number five, for members of Kim
Jong-il's family. She was in her own prison."
The tragic tale ended when Song died in Moscow in 2002, a year after Kim
Yong-seung, having been freed from Yodok, had escaped to China. From there,
Yong-seung made her way with the aid of missionaries to Vietnam and eventually
started a new life in South Korea. As for Ko Young-hee, she died of breast
cancer two years later.
The pain of existence in Yodok - even the "revolutionization" unit from which
release is possible - never goes away.
"The worst nightmare that haunts me is first of all hunger," said Jung
Gyoung-il, secretary general of the Democracy Network Against North Korean
Gulag. "They give us 200 grams of corn a day and hard labor. A lot of people
die - 80% of the deaths are due to malnutrition."
Jung spent three years in Yodok on a charge of spying while working for a state
trading corporation that did business with China and fled to China 12 days
after his release in 2003. Since getting to South Korea, he said, "I cannot
sleep without drinking" and "I am taking psychological treatment because of
insomnia and drinking".
Kim Tae-jin feels a different pain. "It was 20 years ago in 1992 that I was
released," he said. "I still feel the pain, a sore in my back, when I sit on a
metal chair. In the subway, I cannot stand the wind from the fan." And he also
suffers from agoraphobia, the fear of meeting people. "I have nightmares about
it in the middle of the night," he said. "I have to struggle to get up in the
morning. It's a psychological problem I have to deal with."