Ahn Myong Chol is a former prison guard at the maximum security Hoeryong-Area prison camp in North Korea. There, detainees and their families are held in lifelong detention for committing so-called political offenses against the communist state.
The AFP ran a story Tuesday that profiled 45-year-old Chol’s time as a guard inside of Hoeryong and three other similar camps, where he discussed what he witnessed – and the shameful acts he committed – while serving as a guard until he finally fled North Korea in the mid 90s.
Little is known about the conditions inside of these death camps, which in many ways remind us of the horrors and genocide of the Jewish people in the Third Reich's “Final Solution,” known now simply as the Holocaust.
While Chol’s narrative ends in 1994, the terrors that he recounts are still taking place, according to most human rights groups. North Korea, under the control of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, is a known violator of human rights – including such contraventions as the killing of defectors, horrific public executions of perceived enemies, and sending citizens to political prison camps under feeble evidence.
The AFP story was taken, in part, from a Jan. 15, 2003 first-person, edited account from NBC News, given by Chol and translated. The editors note says that Chol’s descriptions are graphic and may not be suitable reading for all.
The following excerpts are taken from that chilling narrative:
At first I felt it was a movie film studio for the propaganda of North Korea, speaking ill of South Korean government. But actually the officer who brought me to the prison instructed me not to speak and not to smile. I was instructed if there is a prisoner who tries to escape or fight me, then I was allowed to kill him.
They call prisoners “re-settlers.” They called the prison the managing office for the “re-settlers,” and they call the prisoners non-guilty persons… Once someone is imprisoned here, it is so horrible that might think he is already dead if he is not loyal to Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.
They trained me not to treat the prisoners as human beings. If someone is against socialism, if someone tries to escape from prison, then kill him. If there’s a record of killing any escapee, then the guard will be entitled to study in the college. Because of that, some guards kill innocent people. Beating and killing is an everyday affair.
They are not treated as human beings; they are just like dogs or pigs.
There is no instruction how to beat them, but the officers tell us to beat or kill the re-settlers without responsibility. Therefore, when someone is working in the field, the guard tells the prisoner to come over here, if the prisoner comes slowly, then it can be a cause of beating.
The guard system is so strict there are few escapees, and sometimes we need to find out a way to be, get away from our guard’s life in the prison. And we try to find a pretext in order to go to college. One of my colleagues tried to make a prisoner escape by climbing the barbed wire fence, and then he shot him, and he went to college.
I saw numerous prisoners killed, especially by beating. I saw one person age between 40 and 50 — he’s old enough because the average age of prisoner is between 40-50 — he was working in brick factory. And as he was older he was moving slowly, he was not working well. And the team master tramped on his loin, and the bone was broken. He was hit by an iron rod that is used to start vehicle engines, and I heard the next day he died.
Sometimes I used to drink alcohol together and chat together with the people in the division of torture, and when the officer in the division is in a good mood, the prisoners will be treated mildly. And when he had an argument with his wife at home, then the torture will be severe. And I heard many times that eyeballs were taken out by beating. And I saw that by beating the person, the muscle was damaged and the bone was exposed, outside, and they put salt on the wounded part. At the beginning I was frightened when I witnessed it, but it was repeated again and again, so my feelings were paralyzed.
The AFP also interviewed Chol recently. He spoke of dogs ripping children apart before his eyes:
“There were three dogs and they killed five children,” Chol said. “They killed three of the children right away. The two other children were barely breathing and the guards buried them alive,” adding that the animals were given special food the next days “as some kind of award.”
“People in the camps are not treated as human beings... They are like flies that can be crushed,” the former guard said.
In the NBC report, Chol tells of one particular woman prisoner – 26-year-old Han Jin Duk – who was raped and sent to a detention center. Chol did not see her until one year later.
One day I was going to the place to load the coal, I met her. And I noticed she was exactly that woman, and I asked her, how you could survive. And she told me, that yes, I survived. But she showed me her body, and it was all burned by fire.
Six months after that, Chol said he saw her again. This time, she was missing her legs – ripped from her in a mining cart accident. Duk was using a used tire on the bottom of her torso to sit on. She was still in the camp, and had been for 21 out of 26 years of her life.
And all she could do now was separate the corn grains from the cob. I think she no longer is in the world.
Chol says those who dig or farm anywhere near the camps will likely find dead bodies. He spoke of it as if it was a normal thing – to dig up a body.
Not only here but all other places, even in the small hills they bury bodies. And when we cut the trees down, sometimes we find a buried body. Not only here, but all around here are buried bodies.
In the hills here, if there is some flat area, it is covered with graves. And if people start to farm there, they find bodies or bones.
This area is where there are the most densely buried bodies. There are graves all over here, and we can see the graves where there are no woods. There is no particular area to bury dead bodies, but they put them all in this general vicinity, and no one can cry. It is forbidden to cry.
Chol says that despite the steady diet of propaganda, he knew in his heart that what was happening there was morally debauched.
But in the course of time, I had the opportunity to talk to the prisoners and found they are not guilty. And when I see the senior citizen kneel down in front of young guard, and he was treated badly, then my heart was breaking. And I thought this is not a humane thing… Such a system shouldn’t exist in the world. Yes, there are still such prisons. How many exist in North Korea, I don’t know.