Updated Dec.5,2002 20:38 KST

Hoeryong Concentration Camp Holds 50,000 Inmates

(Editor's Note: This is an account of the Concentration Camp No. 22, the largest of the five of its kind in North Korea, as told by Ahn Kyong-chol, who served there as a guard for seven years before escaping from it and crossing the Tumen River into China in September 1994. Having since come to the South, Ahn published his memories of the camp titled; "They Are Weeping" in 1995.)

Internally named "The Korean People's Guard Unit No. 2209" or "State Security Agency Pailsan District Unit," Concentration Camp No. 22, housed in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province, is the largest of its kind in the North. Having worked there for as many as seven years, I know every nook and cranny of the Hoeryong Concentration Camp. Being a "completely restricted area" from which inmates, once incarcerated, can never leave even after death, the Hoeryong Concentration Camp is perceived as the most notorious prison for political criminals in the country.

There are about 50,000 political prisoners and their families accommodated there, most of whom are completely alienated from society and lead beast-like lives. Encompassing Jungbong-ni, Kulsan-ni, Hyaengyong-ni, Naksaeng-ni, Saul-ri and Namsok-ni districts of Hoeryong City, the population of the Hoeryong Concentration Camp jumped from about 30,000 to around 50,000 in 1992 when it absorbed some inmates from the Concentration Camps. Nos. 12 and 14.

Circling the outskirts of the camp are 2.2-meter-high electrified wire fences, and deep pitfalls are dug along passages escapees are expected to take with bamboo spears planted in them. Against an emergency, guards are always deployed combat ready, with loaded AK-47 rifles charged, hand grenades and trained dogs. Since those dogs have been trained to pounce on prisoners, many inmates have been bitten to death by them.

The North Korean authorities set up the concentration camps in the late 1950s, and some inmates have managed to survive more than two decades. Most are landowners, capitalists and religious people; those who sided with the United Nations Command forces during the early stages of the 1950-53 Korean War; so-called "anti-party sectarians" who lost in political struggles in the 1960s and '70s; and those implicated in reactionary movements; along with their families.

Inside the camp, autonomous control is enforced with supervisors and team heads selected from among the inmates. Those accommodated are mobilized for forced labor from 5:00am to 7:00pm in winter, and till 8:00pm in summer. Physical labor is followed by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il study sessions, total reflections on life sessions and instruction meetings. Nobody is allowed to move after 10:00pm. There are no portraits of the two Kims permitted in political prisoners' houses. The camp, comprising mostly of farmland, has inmates' villages, schools and hospitals, and guard posts are everywhere.

Since 300 grams of corns are supplied to political prisoners a day, malnutrition is rampant. Tortures and beatings occur daily; even public executions take place from time to time. Inmates caught attempting to escape are executed in public. The major products from Concentration Camp No. 22 are coal, farm and livestock produce with apricots, a unique product of Hoeryong, included.

The Jungbong District Coal Mine supplies coal exclusively to the Kim Chaek Ironmaking Integrated Business Corp. and the Songjin Steel Integrated Business Corp. Housing 20,000, the mine often suffers fatalities from malnutrition and excessive labor. Livestock produced in the camp is supplied to Pyongyang, and farm produce to the State Security Agency and the North Hamgyong provincial administration.

When they are first assigned to the concentration camp, the guards are told: "Political prisoners are our enemies and reactionaries whose three generations deserve eradication." Witnessing in person the horrible human rights abuses the inmates undergo and their miserable lives, however, some of them harbor a suspicion; "We (the guards) may be too harsh." Confirming the existence of the concentration camp today despite the elapse of eight years since I fled from it, I feel my heart break.

(Kang Chol-hwan, nkch@chosun.com )