North Korean concentration camp survivor tells horrific life story

By Erica Wong |Staff Writer|


Life in North Korea is shrouded in mystery but a defector’s testimony allowed the international community to gain an insider’s perspective of the brutality of the North Korean government against its people.

A near-perfect map has helped the international community finally locate Camp 18, a concentration camp North Korea has repeatedly denied existence of.

Kim Hye-Sook is a North Korean defector that managed to escape Camp 18 and is now campaigning against the abomination by using the map and her pictures as her life memoir.

Kim spent almost three decades at Camp 18, forced to do manual labor in the mining town for 16-18 hours per day.

For 15 years, she pushed two-ton mining carts every day, resulting in her lung disease.

Camp 18 prisoners had no electricity and yet they lived within the confines of 3,300-volt electric barbed wire fences.

“It was through fear that they ruled,” said Kim.

Executions were a daily norm, and other prisoners were frequently forced to watch as a warning of what would happen if they did not obey.

There were no rules or regulations, and even on their best behavior, prisoners were beaten and abused. Everyone was at the mercy of the guards.


Kim told of some guards that commanded prisoners to kneel with their hands behind their back and their mouths open.

The guards would spit into the prisoner’s mouth, and if it wasn’t immediately swallowed, the prisoners were beaten.

Many died from arbitrary brutality, exhaustion, disease, or starvation.

According to Kim, there were corpses scattered around the camp.

Kim later learned that she and her family were imprisoned because of her grandfather’s defection to South Korea during the Korean War.

Their guilt by association with a family member Kim had no recollection of led to a lifetime of suffering.

Nobody was allowed to ask questions about their imprisonment, said Kim. North Korea justifies their labor camps by avoiding and denying.

The North Korean government puts on a show for the rest of the world by lying to humanitarian inspectors about living conditions.

They place fake props inside homes but after the inspectors leave the items are quickly confiscated.

Kim lost three of her five siblings as well as her mother, father, husband, and son. She still has two sisters that have been in the camp for 43 years.

Kim’s family of seven was only provided 4 kg of corn per month.

Conditions were so dire that being in the camp drove people to desperate measures, doing whatever it took to stay alive.

The prisoners were sometimes forced to eat tree bark or grass to survive.

Kim told the story of a mother who came home from work one day to find that her son had eaten the last of their corn.

She was so angry she stabbed her son to death.

Kim Hye Sook

Kim Hye Sook

“One time a woman put her nine-year-old daughter in a large pot and boiled her,” said Kim, looking down. “The girl was too big for the pot, so the mother chopped her head and legs to make the body fit.”

Kim tried to escape multiple times and was tortured every time she was caught.

In the detention center, captured escapees were hung by their legs and beaten.

Kim was stripped and forced to jump and squat multiple times to reveal any contraband she could have hidden in her orifices.

“I just wanted to make a home for myself,” said Kim.

During her first escape attempt, a woman who found her homeless in a subway station lured her with food,and sold her back to the guards.

The second time, she was captured with two other young girls that were sold into prostitution but she was considered too old and was sold to work for a restaurant in China.

While buying pigs in North Korea for the restaurant, she was seized and sent back to Camp 18.

At last, she was sold to a limping Chinese man as his bride, but he was compassionate enough to help her escape to South Korea.

During Kim’s final escape through the Mekong River, an alligator ferociously attacked a woman in her boat, but the guards left her to die.

Realizing the injustice, Kim became an activist against North Korea’s inhumane treatment of its citizens.

In retaliation, North Korean delegates were sent to her recent New York seminar to refute her testimony with accusations that the survivors are being paid to lie.

Kim’s experiences have led her to become pessimistic about the reunion of separated North and South Korean families.

Gifts from South Koreans to their North Korean relatives during family reunions are quickly seized afterwards by the government.

Any humanitarian aid given to alleviate suffering in the North never makes it to the intended recipients.

Kim’s drawings encourage the international community to help, but not in the ways one would think.

Pressure on North Korea from other countries may be a better way to bring about change.

Her anger from all the years of brutality has turned into a passion for activism.

Life in Camp 18 is far beyond anything the world could imagine. Most individuals will never have to endure such conditions in their lifetime.

Kim never knew what life was supposed to be like until she left North Korea.

“You guys are so lucky,” said Kim.

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