Life in a North Korean prison - extract from a horrifying biography

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Life in a North Korean prison - extract from a horrifying biography

Soon Ok Lee is a former prisoner at Kaechon Prison in North Korea where she was imprisoned after being set up by a jealous offical. In this excerpt from her book "Eyes of the Tailless Animals" is a more mild scene of the horrors she faced working in a prison that made foreign goods. Read it.

Read a second extract Christians in a North Korean camp

ON MARCH 10, 1988, FOUR MONTHS after I arrived in prison, I still had not gotten used to the environment. A warden summoned me to her office. Although I had seen her from a distance, I had never been close to such a high officer, so I was very afraid to meet her. She looked about fifty years old. Like all other prisoners who come before officers or guards, I knelt down on the dirty floor with my head bowed to answer her questions.

She asked me about my experiences in society. She said, "We're going to open an export factory in a short time. I want you to be the record keeper for the factory. This means that we trust you, and you must do your best to give the greatest benefit to the government."

When I walked out of the office, a lady named Chang Yu Han came up to me. I ignored her because prisoners are not supposed to talk to each other. Chang Yu Han had a twenty-year sentence, and she had been in prison for ten years. During that time, she had gotten smaller in stature. She said her height used to be 158 centimeters (5.2 feet), but ten years later she was only 140 centimeters (4.6 feet). She had a lump on her shoulder so she always turned her head to one side. Whenever I looked at her silhouette at night, she looked like a monster. She said, "You are really lucky to be picked by the officer. I bet you can get out of here alive."

Early the next morning before the prisoners left for the factory, an officer called out a list of prisoners' names. Prisoners who heard their names packed their things and walked out of their cells into the hallway That morning, there were about three hundred prisoners sitting on their knees in the hallway. They had been called out to work in the export factory

A high-ranking female officer was put in charge of the export factory She was the oldest female officer. Since she would retire in a year, she was happy that she could show her loyalty to the Party by earning greater foreign currency before she retired. Thus, she placed harder production requirements on the prisoners.

Starting in May 1988, the export factory began producing women's brassieres to export to Russia. I heard that Russia paid two dollars per brassiere. The fabric and thread were very high quality. Officers told us that Russia had very strict inspections so the garments would give the best comfort to the women's breasts, therefore the prisoners had to work carefully on them. Over the next six months, the prisoners in the export factory produced 900,000 brassieres.

About that time, 1 began to get upset with the North Korean government. I thought, Russia's government is making such soft, comfortable brassieres /or women, but North Korea's government is arresting innocent housewives and treating them worse than animals. This was about the time I began to wake up from my brainwashed Communist ideas.

The export factory also produced doilies to export to Poland. Prisoners stitched a ginseng pattern on the doilies. Officers urged prisoners to work faster to meet the shipping date. Since stitching was a new skill for most prisoners, a lot of inferior goods were produced. If a prisoner ruined a product, she was accused of wasting the government's money and she was given only 80 grams of corn to eat. An average of forty to fifty prisoners per day received reduced food rations.

In January 1990, a second export factory was opened. It received an order from Japan for hand-knit sweaters. As prisoners began to knit the sweaters, their unsanitary conditions became a problem. While they knitted, their dirty hands tainted the yarn. Officers brought soap and basins and ordered the prisoners to wash their hands.

Prisoners also covered their legs with white fabric to protect the yarn from getting dirty. But Japan still complained about unclean sweaters. Consequently, the officers ordered the prisoners to wash their hands more often. But the prisoners were too busy to wash their hands many times a day because they had to complete a sweater every three days. Sometimes, to save time, the prisoners didn't go to the toilet. That year, tens of thousands of sweaters were shipped to Japan.

Conditions in the Export Factory
The prisoners in the export factory were treated even worse than those in the other factories. Our days were a series of unendurable labor. Getting kicked and slapped was common. The female prisoners got used to an officer's kick or a slap on the face. After a few years of little food, no sunshine, constant beatings, and demanding work, prisoners began to lose the strength in their backbones. As the spine weakened, ligaments started popping out at the back of their necks. The prisoners became ugly, like beasts. The export production was the fruit of unbelievable human abuse. Yet in the midst of abuse and cursing, millions of products were made, wrapped, and delivered to the Nampo Port to meet the deadlines.

At midnight, a bell rang to signal the end of the day The fatigued prisoners just sat at their work stations because they were too weak to stand for even a minute.

When the prisoners sewed with white fabric, they had to be careful because the sewing machine oil would get it dirty If someone made a small spot on a product, she was beaten until she lost consciousness. If prisoners continuously made mistakes sewing doilies, they were placed in solitary confinement.

When a prisoner broke the policies, she had to write a document that criticized herself before she was sent to solitary confinement. The solitary confinement room, nicknamed "the room to meet death," was located at the end of the first floor. It was very small-only .6 meters (2 feet) wide and 1.1 meters (3.6 feet) high. The prisoner had to crawl into the confinement cell and could not stand or lay down. She was sealed in with iron bars. Because prisoners could not move, often their legs would become paralyzed,

A hole in the floor was used as a toilet. In the winter, cold air from the toilet hole froze the prisoners and they came out with frost bite. In the summer, thousands of maggots crawled out of the hole, so the prisoner had to pick up the maggots and put them back into the hole.

Prisoners in solitary confinement were given only 30 grams (1 ounce) of corn and a cup of salt soup at each meal. Once in a while, a rat crawled out of the hole in the floor. A rat was a cherished treasure for confined prisoners who would catch the rat and devour the "tasty" living animal. In fact, rats were the only kind of protein prisoners ever got. But a prisoner had to eat the rat secretly because if an officer found out, the prisoner was punished.

One forty-year-old lady named Man Ok Song was put in solitary confinement for seven days because she stained some fabric. Another time, Soon-Young Urn, Eun-Hee Pak, Hwa-Sook Lee, and seven others were placed in solitary confinement for seven days. When they came out, their legs look like octopus legs. None of the women could stand alone.

One illiterate lady named Young Sook Kim was assigned to the knitting factory. She had no elementary education, so reading a knitting pattern was almost impossible for her. She tried to figure it out, but she kept tangling the yarn and pulling out her stitches until the yarn was ruined. She was so frustrated that she muttered through tears, "Why was I born in a rural town where I had no opportunity to go to school?"

An officer heard her crying. He kicked her and said, "Do you think I believe that you do not know how to read? I know you are trying to make excuses not to work!"

She answered desperately, "I really don't know how to read or write."

He kicked her and beat her some more. "Our government eliminated all illiteracy a long time ago. And you are saying you are illiterate? I'll have to drag this liar to the interrogation office."

The next day she was dragged into the interrogation office, which was used for questioning and torturing prisoners. A month went by, but Young Sook Kim never returned from the interrogation office. A prisoner later told me that she had been beaten to death.

With a broken heart, I remembered my friend. She once told me that she came from a town in the mountains. It was called "the closest town to the sky." Young Sook Kim couldn't go to school because it was too far away from where she lived.

Earning in Hell
In 1990, the export factory obtained more orders from other countries. The Khechen prison warden and the rehabilitation officer were overly eager to earn foreign currency. Every day the warden came to the export factory and constantly threatened the prisoners: "If you ruin a product, I will put you in solitary confinement."

One time France ordered paper roses. Prisoners rolled different colored papers to make golden, silver, and spotted roses, then tied them onto sticks. Each prisoner had a quota of 1,000 roses per day After rolling that many roses, their fingertips were worn out and blood oozed from the skin. But once the quota is set, it must be fulfilled. That meant that each hour, 60 roses had to be made to keep up with the quota one every minute. To save time, prisoners often hurried to the toilet and ate their balls of rice while they worked.

When the export factory first opened, the officers chose relatively young and healthy prisoners for the work. Two years later, many of these prisoners had become handicapped or had died from suffering under heavy labor, beatings, and all kinds of punishments.

The central public security director urged the prisoners to make more and more goods. Consequently, the Khechen prison earned a great deal of foreign currency with the free labor, so the government promoted even more export production. With the money they earned, the officers imported television sets and refrigerators. These were given to each district security bureau officer and called "presents from Kim Il Sung."

I thought about the foreigners who would buy what the prisoners in North Korea had made. They would never know that the products they purchased were made in exchange for a prisoner's life. They wouldn't know that the products were made in a prison where all kinds of bacteria and viruses are rampant. And that among the prisoners, earning foreign currency was called "earning in hell,"

My Long Days in Solitary Confinement
In November 1989, I was assigned to solitary confinement. At that time, prisoners were making costumes for the International Youth Festival held in Pyongyang. Right before the costumes had to be shipped out, I discovered that one costume was missing. I quickly made a replacement with leftover fabric and shipped it out. Later, an officer found the missing costume under the chair of one of the tailors. Her name was Young Sun Suh. She had accidentally ruined the costume, so she hid it to avoid punishment.

The foreman of her unit, Myung Hee Hwang, and I were considered responsible for her crime so we were sent to solitary confinement.

One officer said of Young Sun Suh, "Her behavior is contempt against the International Youth Festival and discredits Kim Il Sung's authority. This is an anti-Communist act." Young Sun Suh was sent to the interrogation office.

Before Young Sun Suh became a prisoner, she had worked as a cook for construction workers. She was so sweet and nice to everyone. The construction workers asked her for more rice, so she cooked more for them. At the end of the month, the supply of rice was considerably less, so she was accused of stealing.

In the interrogation office, Young Sun Suh was so afraid of being tortured that she agreed to whatever the officer said. She was executed before everyone's eyes in May 1990. It was not easy to forget her even after her death.

Before Myung Hee Hwang and I were put into solitary confinement, we had to write a self-criticizing document. I wrote as one officer dictated, "With the care of Kim Il Sung, I had a life without any worry. Instead of giving my utmost loyalty to his care, I ungratefully betrayed him by breaking prison policy"

It made me very upset to write such nonsense as "with the care of Kim Il Sung, I had a life without worry," but I had to be silent and patient. As I stood there with a blank look, the rehabilitation section chief said, "Why are you standing there like that? You should be thankful that we let you live rather than kill you for your crime." After I finished writing, we came out of the office.

That night after a hard day of 'work, I was entering my cell when I heard my name being called for solitary confinement.

As I went, a cell control security officer, a short and stocky woman, said in a thick Northern accent, "Soon Ok! What's the matter? We especially trusted you and put you in a record keeping position. You were not supposed to break our trust like this. Now you're heading for solitary confinement." In reality, no matter how well the prisoners behaved, almost everyone in prison was sent to solitary confinement.

I entered the cold, dark confinement cell. Since the confinement cell is always dark, I had no idea how many days passed. The only way I could tell was by counting the number of meals I received. When my rice was brought in, I received only 30 grams, which amounted to only a spoonful. After one swallow, the rice was gone and I didn't feel as if any rice ever reached my stomach. After sitting in one position for so long, my hips and waist began to hurt, but I couldn't lean against the thorny wall.

One night, I saw something moving in the dim light. When I got closer, I found a mother rat with a baby in its mouth climbing the wall toward the ceiling. For a minute, I was totally absorbed by every movement of the rat. In my thrill to see the instincts of motherhood in the small animal, I forgot how hungry and cold I was. I thought, Even these small animals take care of their babies, but we humans in this republic aren't allowed to take care of our own children. I felt so miserable about living in a worse environment than the rat lived. I couldn't comprehend why any woman, especially a mother raising children, is brought to this terrible place to secretly cry when thinking of her own children. It was hard to accept this harsh reality.

I remembered the words to a North Korean song, "A woman is a flower of happiness. A woman is a flower of' love in a family But the women in prison were flowers of sadness who cried for their children. They were withered and trampled flowers.

Finally, I was released from solitary confinement. The first few days, whenever I was required to walk, my legs gave way under me. Fortunately, I had a job in which I could walk around a lot so my legs gained strength. But many women who came out of solitary confinement and worked in the same spot all day never walked again.

The Bald Female Prisoners
When Myung Hee Hwang was released from solitary confinement, she was moved to the PoHwa factory, which was a shoe factory It is also one of the hardest places in prison. If prisoners broke prison policy or did not meet the daily quota, they were sent to the shoe factory.

The shoe factory squeezed out the last drop of the prisoners' blood and sweat. Workers were required to produce 3,000 pairs of shoes every day, and each pair went through 58 steps-all done by hand. Pouring hot rubber into the mold and taking the dried rubber out of the mold were especially hard. Many shoes were hung over a big pot of boiling water.

The factory's doors and windows were tightly closed even on hot summer days because the officers said that the outside air caused bubbles to form in the shoe glue. The atmosphere felt like a sauna, and the air easily suffocated first-timers. The temperature must have been above 100 degrees.

The sweaty prisoners always looked as if they had just stepped out of the shower. Because they lost a lot of water through sweating, the prisoners suffered from more severe malnutrition and they fainted easily. They were supposed to receive a bigger ration of salty soup, but they did not get the right amount. Many prisoners lost their hair because of inadequate diet. The shoe factory had more people die of malnutrition than any other factory in the prison.

The shoe factory prisoners were almost naked to endure the heat. Most of the women didn't wear shirts, and they did not even cover their breasts. Their naked bodies were discolored from terrible burns.

The heat and malnutrition caused many prisoners to have hernias, which caused a lot of bleeding. The prison recycled fabric female hygienic napkins and supplied them to shoe factory prisoners since they had the most hernias. Some prisoners died from severe blood loss. in fact, I knew about ten prisoners who bled to death.

The officer of the factory was a man about 55 years o1d. He loved to harass the prisoners. He carried a long, wooden stick, and he jabbed prisoners with it to see them react. He laughed while he watched the pain on their faces.

Suffering for No Reason
Myung Hee Hwang did not deserve to be in any prison-and certainly not the shoe factory. She had received special training in the army and had become a platoon lieutenant. After she was discharged from the army, she got a job in the international department of the Central Bank.

One day her boss, the Secretary of the Communist Party in that city who was responsible for the Central Bank, asked her to exchange North Korean currency for foreign currency. She did as her boss told her to do. In North Korea, many Central Party committee members took foreign currency out of the bank for exchange and pocketed the gain for their own use. As this practice became more prevalent, the government began to inspect the central committee members. Many were arrested. During a government inspection, it was discovered that foreign currency had been exchanged without the government's approval. Bank workers like Myung Hee Hwang, who only did the errands requested by the Secretary, were punished for collaborating with their bosses. The powerless workers became victims under the shadow of greedy, powerful superiors. These workers suffered, were tortured, and died for no reason.

Myung Hee Hwang suffered from the hard labor in the shoe factory. Whenever I saw her, she was being cursed by the officers. Her job was gluing rubber on the shoes, but she was not good at it. Eventually, she was sent into solitary confinement again, and this time her legs became crooked.

Food Poisoning
The kitchen has as many sanitary problems as the laundry room. In May 1988, the prison kitchen didn't have enough water to rinse the cabbage, which was covered with an agricultural chemical. The cooks made the soup without washing the cabbage. Consequently, hundreds of prisoners got food poisoning. They began to vomit and have diarrhea, which were deadly to the prisoners because they were already malnourished.

About 150 prisoners died from the food poisoning. That May was very hot, so the dead bodies quickly began to rot and stink. Some prisoners who passed out were carried out with the dead to an ever-growing pile of bodies. Those prisoners died without any medical treatment.

I was one of the prisoners who got food poisoning. I was put into a room with other poisoned prisoners where I vomited and suffered from diarrhea like the rest. Finally I lost consciousness. Then I heard a voice, “Heaven will protect you … you will be saved”.

When I came to a few days later and opened my eyes, I saw dead people lying all around me. I crawled out screaming, "Get me out of here!"

The prisoners who worked in the medical department pulled me out. My survival was a miracle. I did not understand how I lived among so many dying people, but today I know that it was a miracle of God. God must have answered my mother's and grandmother's prayers.

The Fruit Tree
The officers kept the food poisoning incident secret and didn't allow anyone to talk about it. All the dead were buried together under a fruit tree. Some of the dead bodies were not even covered with a blanket when they were buried. The prisoners' families didn't know about their deaths, and no one kept track of where the bodies were buried. They disappeared as if they did not leave a trace of their lives.

I will always remember my friends who died during that terrible time. One was from Sinuju City in North Pyong-An Province. Kwang Ok Choi, sixty-two years old, was arrested a few days before her youngest daughter's wedding. When she went out to barter her fish for a blanket for her daughter, she was caught by a policeman. Because of her arrest, her daughter postponed the wedding. Kwang Ok Choi always told me that if she got out of prison, she would prepare a nice wedding for her daughter. Now she would never be able to do that.

Another friend, In Sook Kim from Jae-Ryung City in North Hwanghe Province, said that she had lived with her three young children after her husband stepped on a land mine and was killed in the explosion. Every night in her prison cell, she called her children's names in her sleep.

I also remember another woman who always worried about her elderly mother. And there was an eighteen-year-old woman whose life was ready to bloom. They were all buried under the fruit tree.

After North Korea is united with South Korea, I will insist on going to that spot and digging under that fruit tree. People will see so many bones belonging to prisoners who had the most sorrowful life in the world. The barbarous crimes of the North Korean government will never escape the severest judgment of God and history.

Buy the book here Eyes of Tailless animals

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By netchicken: posted on 19-4-2009

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