13-year-old Boy Escapes NK Prison, Relates His Story

Translation of Letter from Young Refugee

The following letter was sent to us by human rights activist Sin-U Nam, who received it by email. He says:


I read a terrible story on the Korean websites last night. This is a story of a boy from North Korea, now hiding inside China somewhere. I have read many stories of the NK refugees, but this may be the worst. It made me physically sick.

Sin-U Nam

[WARNING: This letter contains extremely graphic descriptions of the brutal treatment that this boy and his family experienced. If you find such descriptions disturbing, you may wish to stop reading now.]

To All South Koreans:

I ran away from North Korea, and am writing this petition somewhere in China.

I was born in Pyongyang. My father was a professor of politics at Kim Il-sung University, and my mother taught at the Foreign Language Department of Kim Hyong-jik (Kim Il-sung’s father) University. My elder sister was a student at the Instrumental Music Department of Pyongyang Music and Dance University. We lived in the Dong-dae-won District in Pyongyang.

When I became a 7th grade student, my family was taken to the political prison camp. We had been living happily in Pyongyang.

My father drank too much one day, and said something against the Labor Party. He was accused of crime committed against the Party and against the Revolution. We were all taken to the political prison camp at Myong-chun County in Hamkyong-Bukdo Province. One night while we were all sleeping, there were loud shouts and knocks at the door.

My father went out to open the door. There were four people outside the door, all wearing dark glasses. They punched my father in the stomach, two of them took my father forcefully by the arms, and the other two came into our house and started to search for something. They broke everything in the house. They smashed all the dishes. They ordered my mother and my sister to kneel down on the floor, and asked them if my father ever said anything against the Revolution, if he ever contacted bad people, if he ever listened to radio, and many other things.

They confiscated the Party ID card of my father and four photographs my father framed which he took at different times of his life. They warned my mother and my sister to be ready for self-evaluation, and locked the door from outside. My mother was not well, and she fainted as soon as they left. My sister and I cried, and tried to bring my mother back to her senses. My mother finally came to at dawn, and cried with us.

At 9 o’clock in the morning, a Russian made truck came and loaded all of our belongings into the truck. My mother, my sister, and I were forced into a Jeep, and taken to the National Security Agency. We spent two nights there. I was left alone in the cell, but my mother and my sister were taken out and interrogated many times.

They took our forefinger imprint (for signature) several times. On the third day in the prison, we were taken to an armored vehicle. Inside the vehicle, there was nothing but four soldiers with their rifles on their shoulder. We were being taken along with three young men and two women. They were all handcuffed and shackled, but we were not.

They drove quite a while. They told my family to get out of the vehicle and urinate, but the other people had to do it inside the car into a bucket. They told us to get back into the car, and then left one door open. They sat on the ground, and started to eat. One of them with a star on his shoulder yelled at us, “You guys are hungry, are you not? You should not have gone against the Party! You are worse than animals.” Then, he yelled at me, “You, little SOB, come here! Your father and mother are traitors, and that is why you have to suffer!” He gave me two pieces of wheat bread and a spoonful of salted cucumber, and ordered me to eat them outside the car. I ate only the cucumbers. I pretended to eat the bread, but did not. I squeezed the pieces of bread into small balls. I thanked the man, and went back to the car. I shoved one of the balls of bread into my mother’s mouth and the other into my sister¨s. My mother did not say anything, but cried holding my hands and looking at me.

We arrived at the political prison camp (Kwan-lee-soh) at 2 o¨clock in the morning, and there were many people at the entrance waiting for us.

(NOTE: The political prison camp this family went to was No. 16 Kwan-lee-soh at Hwasung City in Hamkyong-Bukdo Province. This camp originally was for political prisoners who committed serious crimes such as anti-Revolution and anti-Party activities. Prisoners like Kim Chang-bong and Huh Bong-hak who were detained at the Kwan-mo Prison camp were transferred to Hwasung Prison Camp later.

The Kwan-mo Prison Camp was dismantled when the military set up the headquarters of the 6th Army here after they disbanded the 6th Army. The political prison camp at Chong-sung-ku in On-sung County was also dismantled when they converted the area into a tobacco farm. All serious political prisoners were transferred to Hwasung Political Prison Camp at that time.

At the end of the 6th Army incident, the officers who were involved with the incident were sent to Hwasung Prison Camp. The driver who transported the prisoners at the time was a blood relative of mine.

Hwasung Political Prison Camp became a big place at the time, and was known to outside of its existence.)

They shouted at us loudly, told us to bow our heads, and put our hands behind our heads. We were taken to the so-called Welcome House, but those who were in shackles were taken somewhere else. We were told to kneel down, and they started to ask questions and wrote down something in their notebooks.

Four people came and took my father and my sister first. They told the guards who transported us that they were done. They went out talking to each other. I sat on the floor and waited. One security agent came and took me to a cell. They stripped me naked and took away all my clothes. They gave me a prisoner¨s uniform, which was too big for me and had many holes in it. It was so dirty it did not look like clothes.

Inside, there were 30 boys aged from 10 to 20, and there were 6 groups like this in total. I was assigned to group No. 4. The place where I was sent is called Unit No. 3.

Early dawn, the leader of the cell yelled at us to get up and line up outside. I realized that both sides of the place were cliffs. Soldiers had heavy machine guns placed in the caves in the cliff, and guarded the prison camp. I counted the guard stations in the cliff later. There were twelve stations in total, divided into three units.

I began to learn carpentry from that day.

Our family was all separated. My father belonged to Unit No. 1, and my mother and my sister went to Unit No. 2. Unit No. 1 was for those who committed serious crimes, and there the prisoners were handcuffed and shackled all the time. At Unit No. 2, one had to bend down to get into the cell through a concrete stair, and the cells were all underground. The ceiling of these cells was covered with iron grids, and a guard was placed on the iron girds.

At Unit No. 2, prisoners were put to hard labor. Men worked at mills to make wood panels from logs, while women worked on the farms. At Unit No. 3, prisoners were composed of old people, children, and the families of prisoners in Unit Nos. 1 and 2. There was a treatment center for prisoners at Unit No. 3.

They gave us two meals a day. One meal was composed of one potato and some salt, and the other meal was composed of a handful of corn or rice, or corn stalks, or a handful of steamed wheat. I was not good at work, and the leader used to take half of my meals.

We called the guards “Teachers.” We could not complain to the Teachers no matter what. The grounds surrounding the camp were treated with chemicals, so no grass or plants could grow there. We were hungry, but there was no grass or plants to eat. Sometimes, we found some edible grasses and weeds while working. We had to watch the Teachers, and ate the grass while they were not watching us. We saved some, and ate the grass during the night. Prisoners at Unit No. 3 were good at finding mushrooms and many kinds of berries and roots, but those of us from Pyongyang did not know anything. We just worked inside the prison camp.

When we first came to the prison camp last year, we underwent interrogation periods, when we suffered much. Two or three times a week, we were called to interrogation where my father was being interrogated. The Teachers shouted that he was not answering their questions, and while we watched, they beat my father with a wooden club and with rifle straps.

Sometimes, they beat my father with the belt from a generator.

My mother fainted every time they beat my father. Every time my mother fainted, they gave me a bucket of water, and ordered me to pour the water onto my mother. I shuddered with fear, but poured the water on my mother. My father shouted back. The Teachers said, “You SOB, you have not repented yet!” They put 2×4¨s in between his joints, and pushed down. Sometimes, they hung my father upside down, and kept on with their interrogation. “We have proof of everything. How much did you get? Give us the names of the National Security agents! What is the name of your group?” They beat and beat my father. My father lost all his teeth, and his mouth was so torn he could not speak. They shaved my father¨s head, and I could see my father¨s head was full of scars and bruises. His body was full of bruises, he could not walk by himself, and the guards dragged him in and out. The Teachers beat him, and the people in uniforms beat him. They bullied my father to accept his crimes, and my father never did. Several guards ganged up and beat him and beat him.

December, last winter

Several days before the New Year, all of us were called. “We have to finish your business before the end of the year. You are a headache! You confess now, you will be okay and we will be happy!” They tied my father to the pear tree in front of the workhouse. One in a winter coat sat in front of my father, and asked the other Teacher to bring six wooden clubs. He went over to the mill and fetched 2×4¨s.

They gave me, my mother and my sister, one club each. He ordered us to hit my father three times, each time he refused to answer. I hit my father three times. I hit him nine times in total. My father still maintained his innocence, and told them he was still loyal to the Party.

The Teachers got very mad and yelled, “We have had it with you!” They undressed my mother and my sister naked. They broke the ice in the mining car, and ordered my mother and my sister to go into the freezing water. My mother and my sister cried and resisted. They forced them into the water, and held them down with their feet.

They took them out, and made them stand in front of my father. The guards said they would free them if they confessed the crime of my father. They refused. They beat them with a leather belt.

Another Teacher made my mother spread her legs open and said, “You have a nice bird¨s nest.” He pulled out the hairs from my mother. Another Teacher said to my sister, “How many times did you do it with the boys when you were at the university?” My sister trembled and said, “I’ve never done it.” He said she was lying, and ordered her to spread her legs for inspection. He made my sister lie down in the dirt, spread her legs open, and pushed his shoes into her. They put the club into her and said, “You have done it many times. You are lying!” They took out a cigarette lighter and set fire to her hairs, “You must be punished for what you have done!”

My sister cried out loud, and they all laughed.

We all thought we were going to die on that day, but they let us go when my mother fainted and did not come back to.

Ten days later, we were interrogated again all day long. All but two of the Teachers left to go attend the Living Indoctrination Meeting (They ran these meetings once a week in North Korea, such as Party Loyalty Indoctrination Meetings, Youth Meetings, Living Indoctrination Meetings, and Local Party Members Meetings.). The two remaining teachers tied my father to a pole, and tied my hands and my mother¨s to a tree branch. They then turned to my sister, “You have been here a year, and you still have some flesh left. What did you steal?” They undressed my sister, saying they had to inspect her.

Near the pole where my father was tied, there was a reed mat. They brought the mat and ordered my sister to lie down on the mat. They said, “You are so dirty. I cannot stand it.” One of them took off his shoes, and took his socks off. He gave the socks to my sister and ordered her to wet them in the water and clean herself. (He pulled out new socks from a pocket and put them on.)

My sister washed herself again and again, and her flesh turned red.

The two Teachers tried to force themselves into her, and my sister resisted. They beat her several times, and one of them rubbed a cigarette butt on her nipple. They held down my sister and sat on her face with their bottoms. My sister screamed, and they tied her hands and feet.

They tied one of her legsto the pole my father was tied to, and the other to my mother and the tree branch where we were tied. They tied her arms to the cart and a pole. “We will make you rags today!” They then raped her.

They threatened me and my mother not to talk about it to other Teachers. They would kill us both if we talked to others. They yelled at my father, “You still refuse to confess? You must be the worst spy!” They tried to put him in the freezing water.

My father at that instant gathered his last strength, pulled the bayonet from one of the Teachers, and pushed it into his stomach. The soldiers carry their bayonets at their sides. My father pushed the bayonet into his stomach hard, and there was so much blood all around him.

The Teachers panicked and called for a doctor. My father died on the way to the treatment center. My mother fainted, and came back to on the day after. She went crazy, and died three days later after she ate three bowls of human excrement at the outhouse.

(The two Teachers were punished after this incident, and were transferred out of the camp. I heard later that the Teachers were inspected by the higher authority, and there was an Ideology Indoctrination Meetings held later.)

My sister was very sick, and went crazy after my parents died. I wanted to save my only sister. I hid goodies and gave them to her at her cell whenever I had to go to the mill. Every night, there was a Reform Meeting. Women sat across from the men. I had to watch my sister across the isle, and cried silently.

My sister got weaker and weaker, and she looked like a ghost.

My sister had her hairs pulled and shaved, and I could not even recognize her.

My sister, when she was in Pyongyang, was so pretty that her pictures appeared on the cover of a picture magazine and a youth literature magazine. People living at the same apartment said she was so pretty that she could be a movie star. My sister was always quiet and did not talk much. Everybody loved her and adored her. She has become in the prison camp an invalid and a discarded vegetable case.

It was August. There was nothing to feed the prisoners at the camp. They let the prisoners eat the potatoes from the potato farm. Women pulled the potatoes from the ground with a digger, and men carried them in buckets to the collection place. The Teachers stood watch, and an ox cart carried the potatoes.

At lunchtime, the Teachers were roasting the potatoes for their lunch. The Teacher guard left to join the lunch. Three prisoners attacked my sister and raped her. She died by herself.

My sister was sick and hungry always. When the Teacher guard left for his lunch, my sister gorged herself with the raw potatoes. When the prisoners attacked her, she was not herself and went crazy. The Teachers knew what happened, but said, “She stole and ate the potatoes. She deserved to die.” They had her body covered with the potato stalks. The Teacher guard took the three prisoners who attacked her.

I was not there, and I did not know my sister died. I did not see her for a while, and asked the Teachers where my sister was. They beat me on the head, and told me they did not know.

Only when my close friend, Young-soo, told me, I learned that my sister died.

I did not know. Usually, anytime a prisoner went missing, the camp turned upside down, but it was very quiet when my sister disappeared.

It rained continuously for several days, and we were all locked inside. I had no way of knowing my sister died. My sister died before August 10th, and I didn’t find out about her death after August 20th. People went out to the potato farm, and found the body of my sister.

The mangers of the camp were to take care of her body, but could not because of the rain. They forgot about it, and sent me out to the farm. I cried and begged to the Teachers to bury her properly. The Teachers ignored my plea, and took her body to cremate her.

There was a crematory at the camp, and more than 10 bodies were cremated each month.

I looked at the body of my sister. She had a rotten potato stalk in one hand, and dirt in the other. In her mouth were dirt and rotten potatoes. I tried to clean her mouth, and cried holding her body. The Teachers kicked me, and ordered the prisoners to take her body.

For several days, I cried only when I was alone.

If I got caught while crying, they would have charged me for sympathizing with an anti-Revolutionary. I could not cry openly.

My closest friend, Young-soo was two years older than I. He said, “You should act like a grown-up man. Forget the whole thing! We must survive no matter what. Something good will happen when the country is unified.” He cared about me.

Young-soo’s grandfather was a civil vigilant during the War, and killed many people. He went to South Korea. The family got connected to their grandfather’s actions. They escaped to China, but were caught three years later. They came to this prison camp four years ago. His father died soon after, and his mother died two years ago. He did not know what happened to his brother and his sister. He bragged that his sister was in China and how good things were in China when he was there. He could eat anything and everything.

In September, they assigned me to the group who collected mushrooms. There were no mushrooms yet, and we had to collect wild grasses. We had to fill two sacks with wild grasses every day. Young-soo was with me every day, and talked about escape.

I was scared. I did not know the way, and the Teachers were guarding with their rifles ready. Young-soo said we would be safe if only we could climb over one mountain. He had been in the camp over three years, and he said he knew where the barbed wires were, where the mines were, and where the pits were.

We went out to collect wild grasses for eight days in a row. We ate lots of grasses, and we felt better.

The day before we escaped, Young-soo caught a big snake. He cut the head off, and cut the snake in half with a stone. He cleaned the inside and gave me the snake. We pretended we were eating grasses, and tried to eat the snake. It was very difficult because the skin was very tough. I discarded the skin, and swallowed the meat only.

Young-soo said we had to escape on the day after. It rained lightly on the day after.

The Teachers had their raincoats on. They traded with the civilians, wild grasses for wine. They were drinking wine. The guards were watching, but we decided to escape from the camp. Fortunately, one of the guards fell from a tree because it was slippery. The Teachers were not watching us. Young-soo and I went through the barbed wires, and ran like hell toward the mountains. Young-soo told me beforehand several prisoners who ran down the mountain were all shot to death by the guards. We ran up the mountain in the misty rain and fog. We were not spotted by the guards.

We were near the top of the mountain, and a shot rang out. They found out we were missing, and began the hunt. We ran like hell and climbed over two mountains.

There was a mountain brook. Young-soo suggested we go into the brook in order to escape the hunting dogs. We stayed in the brook until dark. There was no sign of dogs and the search party.

Young-soo said we would reach Hwasung City if we climbed over one more mountain. It was only then that I realized I was near Hwasung City. I had heard the camp was near Chilbo Mountain, but was not sure where we were.

As we come down the mountain, we avoided people who were collecting wild grasses. Young-soo and I raided a nursery school. We stole one pack of flour and three kilos of corn grain. We raided another house, and got new clothes. There was nothing to eat at that house, but we found some pears in the cabinet. We ate them all. Young-soo said we should not ride the train, but walk alongside the railroad track. It was my first time in Hamkyong-Bukdo Province. It was very difficult to walk to Chongjin City.

We walked to Sang-Ki Town, and rode a cargo truck to Chongjin City. We met a guy named Chol in Chongjin City. (He was 18 years old.)

Chol said he had been to China seven times altogether, and there were many relatives of his in China. He offered to take us to China. Young-soo and Chol got into a fight, and Young-soo won. We all became friends afterwards.

Chol suggested we should wait in Namyang City for the freight train heading for China, and got on the train when we could. Young-soo and I did not know how to swim. We were afraid of drowning in the Tumen River while crossing the border. We wanted to sneak into the mining cart going into China. We thought we could hide in those carts. We had to go to On-sung City first to make money. Chol and Young-soo were very good at raiding and stealing.

We spent three days at On-sung Market collecting money by pick pocketing. We made thirty thousand Won¨s. We could bribe the inspectors with money, and make sure they would not poke holes into the cart cargo we were going to hide in. We went up the hill and looked at the China side.

There were lots of people down in the village because there was a hospital. We decided to spend the night in the hills even though it was dangerous. We all slept at the cliff supported by wooden poles. Young-soo kicked around in his sleep, and fell off the edge down to the railroad track. He screamed, and the guards came running with flashlights. It was very noisy down at the tracks.

Chol covered my mouth with his hands. He said we had to run. We ran to the other side of the mountain. I ran crying all the while. I did not want to abandon Young-soo.

When I lost my father, my mother, and then my sister at the prison camp, and was ready to die myself, it was Young-soo who saved me. He was like a brother to me, and he was gone now.

In the mountains, I called out Young-soo’s name and cried. My brother, Young-soo had to die in front of Tumen River just before crossing.

I searched for his body for several days, but could not find him.

Four days passed like that. Chol and I crossed the border in a cart heading for China, and arrived at a place named Ahn-Doh. Chol’s relatives in Ahn-Doh gave us 350 Yuan, but did not let us in.

They put us in a bus, which was heading to Mok-Dan River.

Chol and I arrived at Mok-Dan River on the 7th, and we continued on to Chonjin City by bus with the help of Chol’s acquaintance. In Chonjin, they told us that it was dangerous to go to Beijing. They advised us to go inland from Chonjin City by train or bus.

We were walking out from a Korean restaurant, and we ran into a South Korean reporter-benefactor.

I cannot forget my father. I cannot forget my mother. I cannot forget my sister. I cannot forget Young-soo.

I can eat rice and beef now everyday. I think and resolve every day that I will take revenge.

I am still a child, but I have watched many movies from South Korea now, and I have met many South Koreans.

The reporter-benefactor has been very kind to me, and I got to know many people here.

When I grow up, I will avenge my father, my mother, my sister, and my brother, Young-soo.

The reporter-benefactor told me to write this letter. He told me this letter would reach the people in South Korea. I think about my parents and my sister. I cry every day thinking about them.

Please help! I will never forget your kindness.


[Letter ends here]