An Insider’s Perspective of a North Korean Gulag

Gatien Bon

Kim Young Soon Kim Young Soon, a former North Korean prison camp inmate, recently gave a lecture at Harvard Kennedy School. To begin, she warned: “I will provide a vivid testament. Many are interested in North Korea; few act. All must gain a specific image of this country to reach peace and justice: spread my words.”

Being Imprisoned in North Korea

Mrs. Kim was a dancer and a close friend to Kim Jong Il’s third wife. Being around the Leader’s inner circle, she learned simple facts about the man known as “Dear Leader”. She knew that Kim Jong Il had 3 wives, 3 sons and three daughters, that he on he was interested in cinema, art and music and produced 5 major musicals. As benign as these details seem, it became apparent in 1970 how much she knew about Kim Jong Il’s life. Mrs. Kim, her husband, her children, and her grandparents were all sent to the Yudo prison camp. She recalls: “Like in the three kingdoms period, the fact than someone ordinary knew facts about the ruling people’s ordinary lives made [me] a criminal. Ten years ago, she escaped the North Korean labor camp where she was held. She reached South Korea and became a political activist.

Surviving in a North Korean Prison Camp

North Korea has five brutal prison camps, with Yudo containing 55,000 prisoners out of about 200,000. Prisoners might not even know why they are incarcerated. Causes can be as varied as breaking a statue of the leader, speaking critically about him, or listening to outside countries’ broadcasts (all foreign news and media is prohibited in North Korea). The prisoners wake up at 3:30am and go to work until dark before being forced to engage into revolutionary discussions and self-criticism. Camps are brutal and almost all of the prisoners must scrounge for food to survive. By the time Mrs. Kim had escaped, all of her family had died from the harsh conditions.

The Luxury of the Ruling Family

Since North Korea’s 1948 independence, the leader has managed to kill all of his rivals and declared his country a “paradise” on earth. He emphasized ties with utopian communism by dubbing the country a People’s republic. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the 1990s, the public distribution system came to an end. No more rations have been given since the allied countries are not able to give supplies and all local industries ended up closing. The ruling family lives in opulence with salaries paid in US dollars. Every good in North Korea is designated either for the ruling family or for everybody else. A special train transports delicacies to the capital every day including sashimi, octopuses, and shrimps. They live in opulence to show visitors how they are “blessed”.

Vision of the United States and Perspectives on North Korea

Mrs. Kim told a tragi-comic story: watching James Cameron’s Titanic is mandatory in North Korea. Indeed, it sunk on April 16, 1912: former leader Kim Il Sung’s birthday. On this day state sources claim the sun rose and the country was freed from capitalism. The state propaganda is effective: every citizen believes that their suffering is due to US imperialism and Western oppression. When she arrived in the US for the first time, she realized it is a leader in the areas of democracy and human rights.

If tomorrow every North Korean citizen died, nothing would change: the focus is the army and the party, not the people. Even since Kim Jong Il died earlier this year from a heart attack, little is changing in this dictatorship. His son continues to ostensibly advocate for cooperation with South Korea while promoting oppressive self reliance in politics, economics and diplomacy. Despite all the horrors she has seen, her optimism and energy are inspiring. She concluded with these amazing words: “I’ve crossed barriers to talk about the truth. Take interest in the issues and try to bring basic freedoms in the country.”

In the long-term perhaps Reunification between North Korea and South Korea could be possible. It would allow true free trade agreements, let North Korea to taste the benefits of capitalism, and most significantly alleviate the suffering of 80 million people.

This will be a huge challenge for Generation Y!