A lathe worker in North Korea was recruited for demolition work in a mountainous area near Kyongsong in North Hamgyong province. The site was infamous for once housing Political Prison Camp No. 11, but the worker was not prepared for what he unearthed there in March 1990.
Human remains of varying colors were dug up. The more recently buried bones were yellowish, likely due to fat. The older bones were white.
The skulls of children were also found.
“Tears came to my eyes when I realized that even children were not treated as humans but abused,” said the man, now in his 60s, who defected from North Korea in 2007.
Most inmates at North Korea’s political prisons never leave, and the lucky few who are released are told never to reveal what they experienced in the camp.
But information about camp life is being spread. Defectors and former prisoners have described miserable conditions where even children are not spared from the brutality of the system.
One characteristic of North Korean political prisons is the incarceration of entire families in camps that have been constructed on vast tracts of land.
According to human rights groups, the largest political prison in North Korea is the No. 16 camp, which has a land area equivalent to the city of Kobe.
Although the No. 11 camp may not have been as large, it did have various facilities, including factories to manufacture bricks, alcohol and furniture. It even ran a school.
Small tools measuring about 30 centimeters in length were found in the former brick plant. Children as young as 5 were forced make bricks there, sources said.
Shin Dong-hyuk, 31, was born in Political Prison Camp No. 14 to the northeast of Pyongyang.
On March 17, he described in horrific detail his life in the camp to a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
He said he hauled coal from a mine in the camp from the time he was 6. His mother and older brother were publicly executed after Shin informed authorities about their plan to escape.
“At that time, I did not know what family love was all about,” he said. “We were treated as being lesser than animals. Animals probably had it better because they had the freedom to escape.”
Shin, in fact, did manage to escape the prison and cross the border into China in 2006.
According to a report by the U.N. inquiry commission that looked into human rights abuses in North Korea, several hundreds of thousands of people have died in political prison camps over the past 50 years.
An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 inmates are currently being held in at least four large political prisons.
The report states that the main purpose of the vast political prison system is to preserve the regime in North Korea.
Anyone even slightly perceived as a threat to the state--including young children--are mercilessly thrown into those camps.
When Hwang Jang Yop, a former secretary in the Workers’ Party of Korea, defected to South Korea in 1997, his family was sent to a political prison camp, according to South Korean government sources.
When the family was being transported to the camp, Hwang’s wife jumped from the truck and died, probably due to the despair she felt at what lay before her.
Only one son of Hwang was allowed to remain in Pyongyang. The son called Hwang, who was then living in Seoul, and said, “I will be persecuted unless you return.”
Hwang is said to have struggled to maintain his composure. He died in South Korea in October 2010.
“His son would not have been safe since his role had come to an end,” a South Korean government source said.
Political prisoners are not the only ones who face hardship. Individuals judged inappropriate for supporting the state also face a cruel fate.
A man in his 60s living in North Hamgyong province was sent to an ordinary prison with a capacity of 3,000 inmates for siphoning off materials to sell.
He was forced to perform hard labor, such as carrying dirt from the bottom of a river. Meals at the prison often consisted of crushed corn and soup with leafy vegetables.
“A delicacy at that time was mice,” the man said.
Inmates who suffered from malnutrition were sent to the hospital on the prison grounds. However, the hospital rooms had no beds, so patients had to sleep on straw mats on the floor.
The hospital lacked glucose and antibiotics because they had been stolen and sold on the market. Under such conditions, even patients who might have been saved ended up dying.
A younger man from the same hometown as the man in his 60s died of starvation in the hospital.
The younger man was imprisoned for stealing laundry and selling it on the market.
(This article is part of a series based on interviews of 60 North Korean defectors by The Asahi Shimbun and The Dong-A Ilbo of South Korea.)
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