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
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,
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.
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
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
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.