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The Secret Concentration Camps
in North Korea Must Be Dismantled
Immediately in the Name of Humanity

Speech by Kwon Hyok
        Former State Security Agency Chief
        Concentration Camp No. 22 in North Korea

I was a state security officer in the 5454 Unit of the North Korean People’s Army for seven years and a secret agent, then a full colonel, of the Intelligence Section of the North Hamkyong Provincial State Security Agency for seven years. I defected to South Korea in 1999 for freedom and democracy. My name is Kwon Hyok. On behalf of over 11,000 North Korean defectors now settling in South Korea, please allow me to thank the international human rights activists, representatives of human rights NGOs and organizations, and the Japanese citizens and organizations attending this international conference for their deep and sincere concern over the ongoing human rights violations in North Korea today.

In 1998, I was assigned to Concentration Camp No. 22 as a chief of the State Security Agency under the direct command of the Camp Superintendent. For a period of six months, my main duty was to supervise the dismantling of all the production facilities in mines, food factories, furniture factories and orchid farms, and then take inventory of all the materials involved in the process of reducing the size of the camp. (It was later learned that the political prisoners were all relocated elsewhere with the exception of those in the Haeng-yon headquarters area. All mines were transferred to the United National Mine Operation Corporation and the territory to the tobacco farm of the People’s Army.) Thus, I am one of the few people outside of North Korea who has first-hand experience with the control of a state-run North Korean concentration camp.

Today, I wish to give you a picture of the terrible reality of Concentration Camp No. 22. North Korea, the world’s only legacy left from the Cold War, is obstructing the peaceful development of Northeast Asia. Of the 4 nations involved, Japan is a potential direct target of North Korean attack, as is South Korea. Under these circumstances, we human rights activists have an important job before us, that is to inform the world of the stark plight of the poor victims of the North Korean concentration camps, camps in which they are treated as worthless flies and slowly perish under forced hard labor until their deaths. Today, I wish to tell you about the horrendous reality of the crimes against humanity perpetuated in North Korean concentration camps that I have never told anyone about since August 1999 when I arrived in South Korea.

I am one of the few people who was on duty at Concentration Camp No. 22 in Hweryong, North Hamkyong Province in North Korea. Camp No. 22 was the largest North Korean concentration camp and was located in an area of roughly 28 kilometers, adjacent to concentration camps No. 13 and 12. The area shares boundaries with Hweryong city, Saebyol district and Onsong district. The entire area is surrounded by steep mountains over 1000 km above sea level. Mountainous conditions, gentle winds in winter and mild temperatures in summer have made the area ideal for farming and, at the same time, a fortress to imprison political prisoners.

This is a living hell no one can leave, dead or alive, a most dreaded hell where the prisoners include men, women, children and babies who are 2nd and 3rd generation, or sometimes even 4th generation offspring of the original offenders. There are over 35,000 miners in 3 mines. The prisoners also include other non-North Korean Asians who made unsuccessful attempts to defect from North Korea. It is my understanding that there are some Japanese prisoners who had been abducted from Japan that are in the camp.

A battalion force of 1,200 are on guard duty, and some 300 state security agency officers conduct the day-to-day operations of the camp, a total of 1,500 guards and security officers. They are fully armed as if they are at combat, with 7.62 mm automatic rifles and 1,200 bullets each. Previously, the guards were each given 20 bullets, but that increased to 1,200 bullets in 1985 on instructions from Kim Il-sung to kill prisoners on the spot for any insubordination in the wake of repeated riots by prisoners in the camps. There is electrified barbed wire of 3,300 volts as well as traps, 4 meters high and 3 meters wide, all around the camp. There is also a sand corridor so that anyone who crosses the fence would leave footprints. At the bottom of the traps are large and strong sharp nails. The prisoners are divided into family battalions, companies and platoons and also bachelors’ battalions, companies, etc.

It must be shocking to you that all prisoners in the camps are detained there without judicial review or due process procedures such as arrest, prosecution and trial. They have never had any opportunity to defend themselves. They were taken to an unknown location and tortured to confess before they were brought there. Their families were also taken to this camp without any knowledge of any of the charges against them. They have to carry out hard labor under horrendous conditions. The food supplied is the bare minimum required for survival. They are obliged to eat wild animals, even snakes, as well as plants, the bark of trees and the like at any opportunity. The prisoners are put to work in mines for coal, iron or gold, in forests for logging, and in farms during spring and autumn. They work for more than 12 hours daily, without any holidays except on New Year’s Day and the birthdays of the two North Korean leaders.

The camp’s annual assignment of agricultural production includes 400 tons of corn, 200,000 tons of potatoes, 50,000 tons of beans, 10,000 tons of peppers in addition to other vegetables such as cabbages, radishes, cucumbers and eggplants. There is a brewery for the production of whisky, soy sauce and the like. The coal from the mines is supplied to a power plant in Chongjin and steel factories in Chongjin and Kimchaek. Please allow me to give you more details about life in the camp.

The camp is literally hell on earth. The prisoners’ life in the camp starts with the sound of a siren at 5 o’clock in the morning and the appearance of a mounted woman, a prisoner herself but selected to be merciless to prisoners at roll call (she is called a she-devil by prisoners), and their work continues until 8 o’clock in the evening while they suffer like beasts from all kinds of hard labor followed by mind-numbing classes for the study of revolution every day. Men and their wives are separated into different shifts so that they cannot see each other. For example, if a husband starts work at 7 o’clock in the morning until 7 o’clock in the evening, his wife starts work 6 o’clock in the evening returning home the following morning after her husband has left already for work. The schedule is an effort to prevent conception. If a woman becomes pregnant, she is isolated, treated harshly and often badly beaten. If a child is born nonetheless, it is quite common that the baby is stillborn, or that the parents kill and bury the dead baby in the dirt kitchen floor. During the process of the hand-over of the mines from the camp authority to the National United Mine Corporation, the workers of the corporation were shocked to find a baby’s bones buried by parents underneath the dirt in the kitchen floor at one of the former political prisoner’s houses. This is what I have actually witnessed, but I had heard about similar cases previously and so I was not surprised. Thus, it is inconceivable to think of a child being born at Camp No. 22.

Prisoners’ work quotas and rations are determined on an individual basis. Prisoners are forced to fulfill the work quota of an additional person from the moment a child is born. Who could possibly do that, complete the amount of work of two people in one day? The prisoners’ houses are made of red brick with dirt floors covered by straw mats. To put it simply, it is like a cow barn. The pigpens in South Korea are better than the prisoners’ houses in the Camp No. 22. The camp regulations stipulate that the chimney must not be over the height of the prisoners’ house. Farmers live in grass huts.

The wells in the camp are supposed to be cleaned once a month or so. I know for a fact that some chemicals are added to the wells to reduce the sexual capability of prisoners. This is why all camp officers and guards carry water bottles with them. This grotesque practice should give you some idea of what life is really like for the victims in the camp.

Camp No. 22 practices a collective escape prevention system by forming teams of 7 each. The camp’s rules dictates that if any one of the 7 prisoners in the same team should attempt to flee from the camp or commit any other acts of insubordination, all of the prisoners in the same team, including their families, will be shot to death. In August 1999, a man named Kim, a former South Korean POW and a tractor operator from Sasu-ri, Kyongwon district, North Hamkyong province, who was about 60 to 63 years old at that time (I cannot remember his name but his son’s name was Kim Jong-nam) was the team leader of his group of miners. He was publicly executed, together with 18 others including his team members and their families, for possessing a blind shell.

This type of public execution is so common in Camp No. 22 that no one is surprised at such executions. Many prisoners are killed almost daily for one reason or another. There are two brick houses in the area of mine tunnel 1 on the way to Hyangyon village. These buildings are used for the purpose of storing dead prisoners, who are removed about once a month or so. They are loaded on a coal wagon, under and mixed with the coal, and sent to power plants and steal plants to perish like smoke when they are burned in the furnace with the coal. How can any human being commit such a barbaric crime against another human being?

In the camp, there is an execution site, a 4 meters high, 5 meters wide and 15 meters long man-made platform, about 1 kilometer from the center of the camp. Countless numbers of prisoners waiting for your rescue have perished there. The site was always wet with blood and the screaming hardly ever ceased.

There was a large-scale prisoners’ riot in May or June of 1987. Over 1,000 prisoners were executed at this site, according to proud remarks by Kim Ho-chol, a state security agency officer who was about 50 to 53 years old at that time. In the aftermath of the riot, the camp authorities concluded that it was the easy and idle life of the prisoners in the camp that had caused such a disturbance. They ordered all prisoners and their children, including toddlers, to dig a canal, 5 meters high, 13 meters wide and 23 kilometers long, in addition to the routine work. The canal was completed in 3 months, which shows how hard the prisoners were forced to work. You can easily imagine how many prisoners, including small children, perished during the course of work! Stones were collected by small children from the river bed and from the farm. As a result, today you do not see any stones in the camp. Could you sleep if you knew that the victims were your parents, sisters, brothers and children?

Let me tell you about another appalling and ghastly mechanism in the camp at its railway entrance. All cargo trains are checked and searched by guards with dogs before exit. Then, the wagons must pass through a gate where a metal plank, the size of the wagons and fitted with countless sharp spikes, is pressed into the coal so that any prisoners who may be hiding under the coal are killed.

In the camp, prisoners are not treated as human beings but as disposable machinery. They are driven to hard labor for at least 12 hours daily if they are over 6 years old. In any house on the farm, you almost always find a small size A-frame for a small child. You can find a 4 year old helping his parents at a roof tile making factory. The small toddlers are driven up the hills to collect mushrooms in autumn.

In the Hyangyon valley, Yonsan-ni, Saebyol District, North Hamkyong province, about 2 kilometers from the village headquarters of the camp, you will find 3 red-brick buildings in a strictly off-limits area. The buildings look like single story buildings from outside, but the buildings actually have basements that are in fact the site of biological experimentation on humans. This area is so strictly off limits that no one can enter the area without the authorization of the Central Committee of the Party.

One day, I saw Sohn Jung-son, a former South Korean POW, his wife, his son, who was about 15 years old, and his 10 year old daughter here because of political remarks Sohn had made. Obviously, they did not know that they were going to be killed as they talked and laughed in the beginning. I was there with guards. I was able to watch the whole process of human biological experimentation from the start, over the shoulders of the fully armed guards. The family sat on stools in a glass chamber. They reminded me of specimen in an alcohol bottle. I saw gas flowing into the glass chamber from the ceiling. As the gas touched the skin of the young ones, they said something to their parents as the pain obviously began to intensify. They began to beat their hearts, struggling and banging the glass wall for help. The scene is still so vivid to me today -- up to the last moment, the parents embraced their children to protect them from the gas and tried to supply oxygen into the mouths of their children with their own breathe, all while in such excruciating pain themselves. This is what I saw personally with my own two eyes as a witness of history to the human biological experimentation in North Korea. Shamefully, I thought at the time that anti-revolutionary and anti-party elements deserve such a death. Today, I am doomed to remember the scene for the rest of my life with a horribly guilty conscience, pain in my heart and feelings of deep remorse for them.

Ladies and Gentlemen, you cannot find anywhere in the world today any government as criminal as North Korea. Even today and at this moment, the most shocking crimes against humanity are perpetrated in North Korea.

There has been an abundance of first-hand accounts, testimonies and reports about the North Korean crimes against humanity by so many North Korean defectors in South Korea. It is so saddening that South Koreans refuse to trust them and believe their reports to be grossly emotional, biased and overstated. Rather, they want to believe what the North Korean regime says, arguing that as a legitimate government, they could never commit such atrocities. Human rights are the core of democracy. Accepting human rights is a poison for dictatorship.

Defense of human rights in North Korea is much more important than preventing the development of nuclear weapons and missiles. Let us try to inform the world of the most hideous crimes against humanity in North Korea. Please help us until the day when the secret concentrations camps are dismantled and there are no more political prisoners in North Korea. Thank you.