Running from the regime
North Korea | North Korean escapees tell stories of brainwashing, abuse, and survival
by Daniel James Devine & Sophia Lee
Posted 3/17/14, 10:08 am
Today a United Nations commission will formally present a 372-page report to the Human Rights Council documenting abuses in North Korea. As we reported in the March 22 issue of WORLD, UN investigators have spent the past year probing eyewitness claims of atrocities committed by Kim Jong Un’s regime, interviewing former North Korean citizens, prison camp inmates, and military officials. What follows are graphic accounts given during UN hearings.
‘Just like animals’
The Tumen River felt icy as Kim Song Ju waded through it in March 2006. He was 32 years old, had sold his house and goods for food, and was desperate to escape poverty and starvation in his homeland of North Korea. On the river’s far side was China, where he’d already sent his mother to live with relatives. By crossing the Tumen without permission, he was breaking laws in both nations.
Kim was one of thousands who have fled North Korea in recent years. Food rationing, political and religious suppression, and severe abuse in prison camps make the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea one of the cruelest places on earth.
Like many defectors, Kim’s first trip to China was brief. Chinese authorities soon discovered and deported him. During a truck ride to a North Korean detention center, guards made Kim and other detainees sing.
At the detention center, detainees had to crawl through an entrance about 20 inches high. Guards crammed up to 50 of them into a single cell, where they could barely move. “The North Korean prison guards were telling us that once you get to this prison … you’re not human, you’re just like animals,” Kim said. They ate watery soup made of powdered corn and corn husk.
Once, a guard caught a fellow prisoner talking without permission: He ordered the prisoner to put his hand through a tight metal grid opening, then hit it about 30 times with a gun cleaning rod. Afterward, the prisoner’s hand was so swollen he couldn’t pull it back through the grid.
Interrogators beat Kim, hoping he would confess to ties with religious groups or South Korea. They ultimately sent him to a prison camp to serve a one-month sentence cutting lumber. After contracting a fever and being sent to a doctor, he escaped from the hospital, and soon made another crossing into China.
Chinese officials were ever ready to deport him again. In all, Kim escaped from North Korea four times—the last by jumping out of a moving train while his guard ogled an attractive woman. Missionaries ultimately helped Kim, now 40, reach the United Kingdom, where he lives today.—Daniel James Devine
Strong as steel
Beginning in kindergarten, Park Jihyun grew up learning the history of the Kim family—North Korea’s ruling dynasty. Her third grade class rose at 4:30 a.m. to study and work until 8 p.m. Besides bookwork, they cleaned the schoolhouse, collected twigs for firewood, and labored on local farms.
In 1997, her family troubles began. Her mother left for China on business, her father had a brain aneurysm, and military officials beat her brother severely for alleged involvement in a gold scheme. After the brother escaped from guards, government agents began watching the family home.
From China, her mother sent word urging the family to leave North Korea. Park’s father was too sick to travel, but as he was dying said, “Please save your brother.” Park left the sick man with a bowl of rice, and escaped to China with her brother and sister.
Once across the river, however, Park’s situation only got worse. She was sold in marriage—with her mother’s cooperation, she believes—to a Chinese man. In her new husband’s village, she lived in a mud and straw hut. Her husband and his family told Park she was their property: They would turn her in to police if she tried to escape.
When she became pregnant, she rejected a neighbor’s advice to abort, and hid the pregnancy early on by tying a tight cloth around her waist. She finally gave birth to a boy. “I wished him to become really strong like hard steel, so I named him Steel.”
When her son was about 4 years old, Chinese authorities found Park, and sent her back to North Korea as an illegal immigrant. Her son stayed with his grandmother.
In a North Korean prison, Park was strip-searched. Along with other female prisoners, she was deprived even of menstrual pads, except for a single rag. When Park tried to wash hers, a guard made her wear it on her head as punishment.She raised corn and vegetables during a one-month labor sentence. While pushing a heavy cart in bare feet, she cut herself, causing an infection that spread to her leg and nearly resulted in amputation.
After her release, a broker helped Park return to China. Once there, she decided to take her son, then 5, and seek freedom in South Korea. They traveled to the border of Mongolia, a popular crossing point for North Korean migrants.
At the border, Park and her son fell behind the small group she was traveling with. But a man she’d never met risked his life by crossing over the Chinese border to help them. He hoisted the boy on his back, grabbed Park’s hand, and ran with them into Mongolia. Later, Park married him.—Daniel James Devine
Former North Korean military captain Kim Joo Il, 41, used to work near the Demilitarized Zone, the area bordering South Korea. Serving the military didn’t spare soldiers from the politically induced famine that ravaged the nation during the 1990s and killed between 600,000 and 1 million people. Kim saw a dozen soldiers or military colleagues die each month of starvation or related diseases.
During the rule of Kim Jong Il, father of current dictator Kim Jong Un, soldiers’ daily ration was about 3 cups of rice. Once cooked, it contained only 700 calories—as much as a Whopper with cheese. That was twice the amount average citizens received. In 2012, the military dropped the minimum height requirements for 18-year-old recruits to 4 feet 7 inches, due to the nation’s widespread stunted growth produced by malnourishment.
As an officer, Kim turned a blind eye to starving soldiers who looted homes or towns for food. “Their only goal was to survive and they knew that unless they stole food they would die,” he recalled.
Instead of good food, the government fed recruits a regular diet of anti-Western propaganda. Soldiers sat through two-hour sessions each day extolling the virtues of the Kim regime. Near the border, when candy floated over from South Korea on balloons, superior officers would warn them the candy was poisoned. Smart soldiers tested the claim by setting the candy near an ant nest: If the ants lived, they knew they could safely eat the treat in secret.
During a trip to round up deserters, Kim realized he was disillusioned with North Korean military life, and decided to leave. He escaped to China and eventually traveled to the United Kingdom, where he leads the North Korean Residents Society in Europe. He also founded the pro-democracy news source Free NK.
Kim believes the North Korean people might change if they heard accurate news of the outside world: “Just as [people] cannot undo the sunlight by putting their hand out over their eyes, I think that truth cannot be denied. And someday I believe that North Koreans will be able to find their human rights.”—Daniel James Devine
Jeong Jin Hwa’s testimony unearths interesting insight into the way media operates in North Korea.
In her testimony before a UN commission, Jeong described a typical day in the life of a North Korean “reporter”: Each day, Jeong’s boss would assign her articles and documents from the Labor Party to read aloud to the public. Before she went on air, she practiced reading her script out loud until she got the tone and content down perfectly. Then she read the material exactly, word for word. Making a mistake or branching off from the assigned material was a political offense that could lead to execution. Because of their public influence, reporters and broadcasters faced harsher punishment for their mistakes, Jeong said, telling commissioners, “If they slip just once, they can disappear overnight, their family can be gone overnight, and sometimes, three generations are wiped off.”
North Korean TV has programs other than news and announcements, but even music and drama offerings include propaganda themes. Satire, debate, and commentary don’t exist. Freedom of the press? No such thing in North Korea, where the regime wields the media like a puppeteer. “The underlying message is about the power of the regime, the underlying idea is the ideology of the party, the purpose of the message is to get the message across to the people,” Jeong said.
People make fun of the melodramatic, sing-songy tones North Korean TV anchors use, but there’s a reason why they talk like that: it’s mandated protocol. When broadcasters utter the names of Kim leaders, they raise their voice “one tone higher and one rhythm slower,” as if the very utterance deserves reverent awe. But when the announcers mention their enemies—namely, the United States and South Korea—they have to “put in the most hatred, the most hostility” they can muster into their words and insert emotional modifiers to convey the animosity expected from the audience.
“We have this special rhythm, so there would be different intonation for each word,” Jeong said. “We would say as if we were trying to chew each word.” She demonstrated with the phrase “These Monsters of the Anti-Revolutionary Korea and the United States” on the stand, then chuckled self-consciously, as though realizing how silly she sounds now.
Jeong was born into a good family in 1964, in the Hamhung city of North Korea’s Hamgyong Province. Growing up, Jeong had “this great trust about the Kim family.” Her grandfather fought against the Japanese occupation and later with the North Korean army during the Korean War, so she and her parents enjoyed the benefits of a national hero, though Jeong had never met her grandfather. Both her parents worked cushy public office jobs. Jeong attended a three-year college and landed a job as an announcer on state television, a prestigious job in North Korea.
Jeong believed everything she read—until the famine hit in the mid-1990s. The free education, free healthcare, and guaranteed rations disappeared. Once starvation hit during Kim Jong Il’s reign, Jeong’s illusion of the happy socialist society faded away with each person she saw die of starvation, disease, cold, or public execution. In 1999, with the help of a broker, Jeong defected to China. She found relatives there, who helped fund the money to buy her an illegal passport to South Korea. She arrived there in 2002 and now lives in Seoul.—Sophia Lee
Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.