Suh Ok Hwa | Alias
From Editor to Reader :
This article is written by Suh Ok Hwa (alias) who now resides in
China. She narrates her experience of seven months after defecting
from North Korea, her arrest by Chinese police and her deportation
to North Korea.
Some people with little knowledge of North Korean defectors say
there are several hundreds of thousands of people with South Korean
citizenship illegally reside in foreign nations. They also say there
are many illegal residents around the world and that North Korean
defectors are one of the international “illegal immigrants in China.”
Indeed. Technically, the defectors may seem like “illegal immigrants”
residing in China. However, as you read this article, you will see
the definite distinctions of North Korean defectors from other illegal
immigrants. Which country in the world would punish deported illegal
immigrants as such?
Some people say the punishment towards deported defectors has become
comparably generous. This is correct. The punishment has been lightened
and the length of imprisonment shortened depending on the number
of defections and their activities in China, whereas the punishment
before was harsh only by the fact of defection.
This change is the consequence of the emergence of mass defection
as well as continuous efforts including various activities and discussions
by North Korean human rights organizations and the international
community. As you read, you will raise the question, “if it is “better
than the past,” then how bad would it have been?” It is beyond one’s
Suh Ok Hwa has succeeded in escaping from North Korea and is now
under the protection of a relief organization. She has sent us a
thirty-page testimony on what she went through during a period of
seven months. Through drawings, she visibly explains the torture
and punishment she experienced while she was imprisoned in labor
detention facilities. We are led to see the reality of a ‘living
hell’ through her drawings and stories, but how could we possibly
fully understand her suffering and the depth of her agony?
She now prays to God everyday to bring her daughter and mother
to China, whom she left behind in North Korea.
At the same time, she is determined to commit herself to contributing
to the democratization of North Korea. As I wish her good luck,
I hereby present this tragic, true story to readers. This is not
the story of ancient times. It is the story from ten months ago.
It is also not the story of a strange, far-away land. It is the
story of what happened in our neighbor state, our people’s land.
* For the protection of personal safety, all locations are given
‘I wish I could be fed, even corn…’
Everyone may have love for their own country. I also loved the
country where my ancestor’s spirits remain and my roots lie. However,
there was a heartbreaking reason why I had to leave my loving country
and come to China, the country where everything was unfamiliar to
In 1998, I came to China with my five year-old daughter. I was
27 years old. The famine which began in 1994, brought tragedy to
our family. In 1994, I became ill after I gave birth to my daughter,
and the result of the diagnosis turned out to be “tuberculosis of
the lymph glands.” Because I was the only laborer who took care
of our elderly parents and my daughter, my family was in a difficult
situation as I became ill. I sold all my family property for my
recovery and medication, but I did not get any better.
To complete my misery, my sister came back home with her children
after the death of her husband. Now the number of family members
numbered six. We ate herbs such as sow thistle and shepherd? purse.
We even ate elm tree skin, but there was not enough food for six
people in the family.
Then, my father passed away in 1996. At the time, my family survived
on wild millet power mixed with grass. Therefore my father began
to suffer from malnutrition. He suffered for a few days, but we
could not afford even a spoonful of rice soup.
“I wish I can eat as much food as I want, even corn would be good,”
These were my father’s last words. I wept and cried out loud calling
out my poor father’s name, but he left the world filled with resentment.
After his death, my sister left a short note, “my beloved sister,
good bye,” and disappeared with her two daughters in 1997. What
is a handful of rice that made my sister leave and took my father
Many people in my town died from famine and starvation. Many people
left their hometown for food but died on their way from starvation.
One family starved for a few days and all seven family members committed
suicide by locking themselves in their home and eating rat poison.
What is a handful of rice that took so many people’s lives away?
Although I was not completely recovered, I worked hard to feed my
family. My mother and I even dug out part of the mountain-side and
cut grass to search for food. However, when I planted grass or food
in the soil near the house, the soil was always barren because there
was no one to care for it. I do not know how many times I have cried
looking at the almost barren soil. Then one day, I found out my
sister fled to China.
The only way to survive was to abandon my country
In 1998, I decided to come to China. It was a day in January when
a snowstorm hit the country. With my sleeping five-year-old daughter,
I left home. Despite the harsh weather that made it difficult to
breath, I forced myself to walk through the snowstorm with my mother
and my five year-old daughter. The snowstorm covered everything
so that I could not figure out where the roads were. The snow was
up to my knees, it was so windy, and my feet were pricked by the
stubbles of cornstalk. My feet, covered with ‘convenient shoes’
(convenient shoes were so called for they were made with light cloth
and convenient to take off), were no longer able to sense the cold
I told myself I had to go. Soon after I made up my mind that I
would go even if I had to risk my life, I feared no more and the
way seemed closer. I do not know how much I walked, but I arrived
at a field where the Tumen river could be seen and I felt nervous
again. I could see guards walking on the bank of the Tumen river
with flashlights. Around one o’clock in the morning, the bank seemed
My mother and I carefully climbed up the bank. The bank was about
2.8m high. As we quickly climbed over the bank, we met a forest.
We walked through the forest for about 5 meters and saw figures
like monsters everywhere. I had chills all over my body and crawled
towards the monster-looking figures; they were the huts of military
guards. When I griped my sweating hands tight and walked out to
the huts for about 20m, somebody lit a flashlight and shouted “Who’s
there?” I hid myself behind a big tree for awhile and when there
was silence, I ran as hard as I could. I felt like a dark evil was
after me to hold me by my neck. A few minutes later, I arrived at
the frozen Tumen River. I was soaked with sweat. I crossed the frozen
Tumen River and when we arrived in the remote territory of China,
a sigh of relief came out.
We went to Yeonji after hearing news of my sister in Hunchun. My
sister was working at a restaurant in the city of Yeonji. We held
each other and cried the moment we saw each other.
The Sorrow of Being North Korean
The next day, we found a place to stay together, which cost us
about 70yuan (about $9) per month. We called it a room, but it was
actually more like a storage. I could see the sky through a crack
in the door, through which flakes of snow flew in that covered our
shoes when the wind blew.
It was too small for a family of six people. We laid down in order
and it did not leave room for any of us to move. We did not own
a comforter, so we covered our legs with a blanket and wore our
winter clothes to cover the upper halves of our bodies and covered
our heads with towels. The water in the room was frozen, it was
difficult to move our fingers and toes, and our whole bodies hurt
when we woke up in the morning. After eating breakfast, we would
go out to pick up some wood, go to wholesale markets to pick up
some edible leaves, frozen potatoes or frozen tangerines. Dried
leaves and frozen potatoes were good enough to eat but frozen tangerines
were too bitter to eat once they melted.
But it was much better than what we used to have in North Korea.
After a month, I got a job at a Quem (skewered lamb meat) place
but I had a hard time because I did not understand much Chinese.
Once, Chinese client called me to bring him salt, but I did not
understand. They found out that I was a North Korean and fired me.
Although I worked there for ten days, they only paid me for five
days of work.
After I was fired a few times from various other Quem places, I
learned some Chinese to work. I worked at another Quem place for
one year and learned a lot of Chinese but I could barely afford
to buy clothes for myself. I continued working like this for three
years and it was hard but I was happy to have my stomach full.
Some time in April 2002, I got into an accident where a taxi hit
my bike from behind. I was bruised all over and I could no longer
work. Until then I blamed my fate that my life is so hard. It was
only because I was a North Korean that I could not report to the
police even if I got into an accident. I hated living, always afraid
of being caught.
At the time, I have been going to a church through a lady who was
doing evangelizing work. When I was crying sorrowfully, the lady
came to me and told me to believe in God. She told me that I will
gain peace through God. Since then I accepted God in my heart and
started to live as a Christian. There was gratitude and peace in
my heart and I gained back a stable life. I could not live without
God and I experienced happiness.
Tumen Border Detention Facility
December 2003, unexpectedly, Chinese police came to our house and
arrested our entire family. Somebody might have reported us. After
five years of living in China, we were to be sent back to North
Korea, the place we were afraid to visit even in our dreams.
The place they took us was the three-story border patrol office.
They took us up to the second floor. I wished that it was not reality
but a dream. However, it was a heartless reality.
“You know where this is, right? It is like the National Security
Police in North Korea.”
A policeman of about forty years-old said to us in a threatening
“You are a North Korean. Your name is ××, You worked at △△ market
in Yongil City. Look at this picture. It is you, right?”
“You are right. I am a North Korean.”
I did not want to give out any other explanations. It was unnecessary.
Seven or eight policemen took turns and interrogated us. There,
they finished the paperwork and sent us to Tumen Border Patrol.
When we arrived at Tumen after being driven forty minutes in a car,
we were welcomed by a building surrounded by overwhelming walls
of three meters. Black iron gates tightly enclosed the area. Like
the mouth of a monster, it opened once a signal button was pressed.
Two people came out to take us in and we walked into the gate. We
heard howls… the border prison was s two-story snaped in a semi-circle
building. It was crowded with prisoners. There were about 350 North
Koreans imprisoned there.
“Take off your clothes!”
A woman wearing glasses yelled at us in Chinese. We acted as if
we could not understand her, so she yelled at us again to take off
our clothes in broken Korean. There were a mother and two daughters
who looked like a family, brought to the border prison with us.
Perhaps because there were some male border patrols in their twenties,
the girls did not take off their underclothes.
The woman with glasses told them to take off their underclothes
but they refused by saying, “We can’t. We don’t have anything underneath.”
The woman was furious. “What? Cho-u-ni-ma (a Chinese curse). Where
do you think you are to talk back?” The woman kicked the stomach
of one of the girls.
The girl fell and rolled on the ground. When the woman was going
to kick the girl again, the girl’s mother covered her daughter and
screeched, “hit me instead.” At that moment, a male official came
and slapped the girl’s cheek and hit the mother. I was furious but
could not do anything. They hit them until they got tired and them
dragged them to prison room number 4 on the second floor. They used
an electronic device to check our bodies and took away all of our
personal belongings. In room 4, about thirty women were imprisoned
from all over China.
You Don’t Even Have This in North Korea
Although it was a prison cell, the room was warm, and we each had
a blanket. In the evening, border patrols yelled “we will give you
food, stand in line” through the barred iron doors. We formed a
line and received rice and soup in order. It was boiled rice with
an uncooked smell and soup was dried cabbage soup but it was uncooked,
so it tasted like uncooked pieces of cabbage floating in warm water.
It did not have enough salt so it barely had any taste.
“Give us salt.”
Our room did not eat until they gave us salt. There were times
they put too much salt in our soup that we could not eat it. For
many days, I gave out my food, instead of eating.
“You should eat while you are still here. You don’t even have this
in North Korea.”
Wake-up call in the border patrol detention facility was 6 am.
At 6 am, a woman’s voice screeched to our ears through speakers,
“Tumen Border Detention Facility in order.” When we heard that we
go up, folded our blankets, and washed our faces. Then we ate breakfast
and we all went out to be investigated. After the investigation,
they took finger prints of all our fingers when the investigation
was finished. There were about five children in the room 4, the
innocents did not know anything and ran around the room and we did
not bother them.
We were imprisoned at the detention facility for eleven days. On
the twelfth day, we were being moved to the Onsung National Security
Agency of North Korea. I looked out the window of a van after being
driven about ten minutes, and unfamiliar buildings of North Korea
came before my eyes. Tears rolled down my eyes and my heart broke
thinking I have to leave everyone and everything I became familiar
Just as we came to China with empty hands, we went back to North
Korea empty handed. But I thought I will return to China no matter
what. I received everlasting life and the words of heaven and accepted
God in China. What a blessing it was for me… there was nothing I
could not go through with this blessing, this happiness in me. “The
fear of others lays a snare, but one who trusts in the LORD is secure.”
(Proverbs 29:25) I firmly believed that God is protecting my family.
Entering the Door of Hell
When we arrived at the Onsung National Security Agency, five or
six security police took us in.
“You son of a bitch, walk faster!”
Hearing curses that I have never heard for five to six years, it
felt more real that I was back in North Korea. It was about 6pm.
It was very hard to jump out of the car with my hands tied to another
person’s hand. Smoke stained one floor building stood there to receive
us. It was a land of darkness without any electronic lights. In
the mist of confusion, I held my daughter’s hand tight.
“Don’t lose your strength. Just think I am near you.” As I kissed
her from behind, “You, You bitch, what are you saying? Can’t you
shut your mouth?” and hit my head.
“You are family? You go to room 3 and you go to the hall!”
So my daughter went into prison cell number 3 and I was imprisoned
in the hall. There were room number 1, 2, and 3 in the hall but
they were all crowded and people were sweating so much as if they
were in a sauna. Even the hall was crowded like bean sprouts.
When I walked into the cell room, everyone shouted a number in
order, and my number was 98. Rooms 1 and 2 were the men’s room and
the sound of people being beaten did not cease. Once you go into
the detention facility, the first things you are taught are the
rules and manners you have to follow in the cell room.
Mainly they were ways of saying things like “Sir, may number □□□
go to the toilet?” “Sir, room ×× number ◇◇◇ here back from the toilet.”
“Sir, number ▷▷▷ here for interrogation.” When you say it wrong,
you are beat up and cursed. In the men’s room, when someone said
anything wrong, he was beat up until he nearly died.
It was my first day in Onsung National Security detention facility.
I was thinking with my head down when someone yelled at me, “Number
98, come out!” I freaked out and looked up, and there was the guard
glaring fiercely at me. I walked back towards him and kneeled down
before him. He kicked my head with his metal-soled shoe. He kicked
me again on top of my head.
“Why did you have your head down? You were falling asleep? I will
wake you up!” He slapped my cheek five or six times.
“You are awake now, aren’t you? Go back to your place.”
I felt my eyes flaming. Not because of the pain, but because of
the anger. I heard later my daughter was crying with me.
It was the next day. In Onsung National Security detention facility,
they do not give out rice, but only two spoonfuls of gruel. One
lady who has been in the facility of five days, known to be from
Eunduk province, put her chili paste in the gruel, and attracted
attention because people crowded around her.
“What is it? You, come here. What is going on?”
The guard called on her to come out. When the woman hesitated,
the guarded shouted “now!” Once she came out and kneeled before
him, he said, “Bring the chili paste. Open your mouth.” He stated
to squeeze in the chili paste into her mouth. He called on other
women who shared the chili paste. Once they all kneeled down before
him, the guard started to beat them with a wooden stick. One of
the women was hit right at the center of her head and blood gushed
out. One of the other women was hit on her lips and they were flipped
over and became swollen like a pig’s mouth. The sound of a wooden
stick hitting their bodies resonated in my ears, which made me feel
the pain. The four of them were beat up until they were almost near
death and apologized crying.
“Go wash your face.”
The guard shouted at the woman whose forehead was still bleeding.
There remained a cold tension in the room.
Lord, Can You See Us?
A few days later, someone who looked like a higher-ranking official
entered the room, holding a pair of scissor on one hand. “Yellow
heads! (They are people who died their heads. Some North Koreans
dye their hair to conceal their identity.) Stand up. I am going
to shave your heads now.” About seven to eight girls stood up, and
one of them was the girl who was beat up by the Chinese guard with
glasses at the Tumen Detention facility. Her hair seemed to be bleached
more than others.
“Bitches with yellow heads! You, come out.”
When she kneeled down in front of the official, he held her hair
with one hand, and started to cut her hair.
“Sir, I did wrong,” the girl said crying.
“Wrong? You go to your mother and say you did wrong. You bitches
can never change!” Then he grabbed her head and hit it on the wall.
He trampled her kneeled legs. We shivered as the young girl screamed
That afternoon, officials kicked us out of the room saying they
need to inspect the room. It was such a cold day. They made us stand
outside for two hours with only clothes on and my daughter could
not bear the cold to the point that she broke into tears. After
two hours, people went in five at a time to have their bodies inspected.
One bar official (first level soldier in military), a girl barely
reaching her twenties, inspected us and she was cruel. I entered
with four other people, and one of them was a 15-year-old girl.
She made us take off all our clothes, and then she walked over to
the fifteen year-old girl. “Did you get married? Look at your teats.
You dirty bitch!” She slapped the girl’s cheek.
“No, I didn’t get married.”
“You didn’t? They were squeezed so much that they are hanging down,
and you didn’t get married?”
She took off her belt and whipped the girl which left snake crawl
marks on her. After whipping and cursing her for a while, she started
to pick on a woman in her forties.
“You haven’t even aged that much and how can you be so rigid? You
arrogant bitch, I’ll teach you a lesson!”
“Put your legs apart. Do five hundred up and downs.”
The woman did her up and downs about a hundred times when she started
The young official started to curse at her. Tears started to roll
down the woman’s face being insulted by a girl who might be younger
than her own daughter.
“Ah! Pitiful North Korean women! Lord, can you see them? Save them.
Save these poor North Korean women.” I cried out inside.
I Will Return to China As Soon As I Get Out
It was on my eighth day in Onsung National Security Detention Facility.
One man made a mistake while reporting and the guard told him to
come out. The man kneeled down in front the guard when he was hit
at the center of the top of his head and blood started to gush out
of his head. The guard did not care and did not stop beating him
up until the man fell unconscious. The guard was bewildered and
shouted “take this son of a bitch and wash his face.” Two men came
out and took him into the prison cell, he was conscious again ten
minutes later. Then he fell unconscious again in two hours, but
he woke up again after a while. However, he died the next day. The
guards did not know what to do with him so they told us, “He was
ill and that’s he died. You are witnesses, right? The guards did
not beat him.” At the end, it was concluded that he died of natural
causes even though he was beat to death.
“Lord, save these pitiful souls.”
When I look back, there was never a time I prayed so much as I
did when I was in the detention facility. Even when we were going
through brain washing education in the prison, all the prisoners
swore inside that they would go back to China. Some women even said
it openly. “Just wait till I get out of here. That very day I am
going back to China. How could I like it here?”
That is how the ten long days passed. At that time there was dysentery
going around, and I got infected on the tenth day.
On the eleventh day, a freight truck came to pick us up from the
security police of Eunduk province. It took about twenty women including
myself and my daughter and left around 5pm, but it had to stop about
five times because the truck did not have enough power. For this
reason, we arrived at the security police station of Eunduk province
There were a big building and a small building in the security
police station of Eunduk province; the big building was the office
and the small building was the prison. The prison had four rooms.
I was put in room 4 and my daughter in room 2. Eunduk security facility
was overwhelming from the moment I walked in. Onsung national security
detention facility was crowded and messy but Eunduk security detention
facility was far stricter. One had to sit straight without moving
even a fingertip. Hands had to be gripped into fists and put on
knees and one had to maintain that position until the break. We
had to sit like that for two hours before we could move, and when
the guard found out someone moved even a bit, he got punished by
the guard. We could only go to the toilet every two hours during
the break. You had to report first to cough, if not, you were cursed
“Sir, may Number ××× of room △△△ cough?” had to be said first even
when the cough was about to come out. If someone snores at night,
the entire room had to stay awake through the night. There were
many kinds of punishment. Up and down a hundred to two hundred times,
some times five hundred times, stand upside down, and stay sitting
on the tip of your feet with your hands on the head. The last one
was the hardest one. Days passed being punished and nights passed
shivering from cold. I had hardly any strength left since I had
In Eunduk security facility, they gave us 150g of noodles as our
meal which was much better than what we got in Onsung detention
facility. There were times when they hit people when prisoners did
not listen or follow the rules but compared to Onsung detention
facility, it was less cruel. On the other hand, because we had to
sit up straight for so long, I had a harder time breathing and every
part of my body ached. Lonely days in Eunduk security facility were
doubly harder to bear than Onsung detention facility. We were imprisoned
for ten days in Eunduk security facility and on the eleventh day,
we were moved to the detention facility of Enduk province. In the
security facility, my feet were frozen to point that I lost all
my toe nails. There were five rooms in the detention facility. They
were building a new two-story building in front of the old building,
and behind it was an old prison building.
At the detention facility of the interrogation facility, people
were given legal prohibitions according to the documents of the
national security policy. According to the number of times one transgressed
the border, he is either sent to long-term prison labor camp or
to a labor detention facility. First degree punishment is one to
three months in a labor detention facility, second degree punishment
is four to six months in the labor detention facility, and third
degree punishment is long term in the prison labor camp.
The first thing you learn when you are in the interrogation facility,
are the prison rules.
One, You should never talk in the prison room.
Two, You cannot move freely from one room to another.
Three, You cannot write on the walls of the room.
Four, You must be given permission of the guard if you wish to move
in the room.
Five, You cannot speak of anything happening in the prison once
There were about a hundred prisoners when I walked in the detention
facility of Eunduk security, and most of them were border transgressors.
There were five prison rooms - room 2, 3 and 4 were women’s rooms,
and room 1 and 5, men’s. My family was put in room 4. More people
became infected with the dysentery. Eunduk facility was extremely
filthy. Toilets were inside the rooms, and since there wasn’t much
water available, the smell of the toilet filled the whole room which
made us feel nauseated.
Also, there were so many fleas, we were bitten all over our body.
More started to get infected with scabies and colitis. There were
many people who were sent to long-term prison labor camp among the
transgressors. There was a mother and a son who crossed the border
twelve times and were sentenced to seven years of imprisonment in
the long term prison labor camp. There was a young woman of age
27, a recently married bride. Her husband had tried to take her
to South Korea when they were arrested. Her husband was sentenced
to life and she was sentenced to three years. Another woman of age
39 was sentenced to three years for doing business with cell phones.
The room was filled with people who committed “crimes” somehow connected
to China. There was a saying that thieves and robbers in North Korea
were safe but those who went to China were severely punished.
We had to wake up at 6am in Eunduk facility, when we heard the
command in a mannered way, and we had to bow down to the guard.
When the guard yells out “sit down!” everyone has to sit still on
their knees, put their hands on their knees with their heads down.
We were given three or four breaks but we could only excrete in
We were given meal, about 150g of steamed dried corn kernels three
times a day, 7am, 12am, and 6pm. That was much better than what
I used to get in Onsung prison and Sebyul prison. They also gave
us boiled salted water, but it was still soup that we could have.
Although one has to stay for days at the interrogation facility,
I was moved to the labor detention facility after five days.
Life in Labor Detention Facility
On the fifth day in the security interrogation facility, I was
moved to Eunduk province labor detention facility. The facility
building was in L shape, covered with pieces of planks, surrounded
by three meters tall dried stems of bean stalks. It was about January
27th when I arrived at the labor detention facility, they could
not climb the mountains because the roads were blocked with snow,
so they were making hay rope. Each one was assigned to make 200m
of rope every morning. The next day, we woke up 6am to sweep the
yard. Sweeping the yard was assignment to be done early morning
everyday. After sweeping and cleaning out the snow, breakfast was
given at 7am. The meal was about 100g of steamed grain and salted
bean paste soup. At 8am, we had to gather again in the yard to be
checked and receive another assignment.
The assignment was for everyone to climb the mountain and bring
back two logs longer than 200cm. The round trip was close to 20km,
and it was a roughly rising slope on the way up, and steep on the
way back. It made me dizzy just looking up at the 45 degree mountain
covered with snow. It felt harder to climb up although we were empty-handed.
I climbed the mountain although I was sick and brought back a log
everyday which made me constantly fall down on my way down. For
the first five days they were not harsh on me knowing that I was
sick, but they made me bring back two logs each day after that.
Walking down with two heavy logs, I saw sparkles, everything turned
yellow and when it turned black, I fell unconscious. They kicked
me when I fell behind the line or could not walk fast. I thought
I would rather die. I prayed “Lord, give me strength. Please save
me” as I climbed up the mountain and once I arrived at the top I
prayed, “Thank you Lord. You let me win.” I prayed the most during
that time in my entire life. As I got tired dragging down the heavy
logs, I sang hymns in my heart.
“This so sweet to walk with Jesus, step by step and day by day stepping
in his very footprints, walking with Him all the way.”
The assignments got harder as well. East person had to carry ten
beanstalks thicker than 10cm in circumference and 3m in length,
but I could not get up even with eight stalks. Everyone sympathized
with me and helped me because I worked hard even I was ill. Guards
at the facility had a good impression of me as well. There were
pit falls where snow came up to my waist when I was bringing down
wood, and I was like a cow with a burden.
Every time I faced difficulties and hardships, I thought of the
hardships Jesus endured with His cross and the beloved people. I
missed them so much and I was always with them in my heart. It was
a supernatural power that held me together since I could not eat
for fifteen days due to enterohemorrhage. How much have I cried
and how many times did I fall unconscious? I could only cry thinking
that the Lord and many people love me. “The trusting heart of Jesus
clings nor any ills before bodies, but at the cross of Calvary,
sings, praise God for lifted loads!” I overcame hardships with a
smile, singing this hymn.
There were many who escaped because of the hard labor at the labor
detention facility. Some people made their way out but some had
bad luck and got caught. When they were caught it was something
very serious. People made the person who attempted to escape where
everyone can see and hit him like a sandbag for Taekwondo training.
A woman escaped not being able to bear the hard labor in the facility,
but she was soon caught and brought back. The guard brought out
a bean stack and started to hit her. Blood gushed out of her nose
and mouth. The next day, she hit her head with an ax, but she did
not die because some people near her held her back. That night,
ideology strife meeting was held and everyone was told to criticize
her. The meeting was held until 2am and she was pushed.
A few days after you arrive at the facility, you go through “gongpan,”
which is a strife meeting where people are gathered and officials
from security office read out all the wrongdoings of the transgressor
and the subjects have to review themselves and go through “regret.”
I was put into a gongpan as well.
Once there was a man who was caught while escaping, he was beat
with wooden sticks until he was bleeding and two of his rib-bones
were broken and he was released on bail after being recoded as being
ill. Two more similar cases occurred. There was a woman of 42-years-old,
who was a leader of one of the labor teams. She was having such
a hard time that she ran away one night. She was brought back the
next day and the guards and male team leaders beat her up so bad
that I could not recognize her bruised and swollen face. She bled
a bucket of blood. It was terrifying. Two month later, I gained
the confidence and was assigned to individual work, which was to
a walk round trip of 12km to bring food and cook it to feed everyone.
There was about ten of us on duty to do the assignment. It was much
better than climbing up the mountains to bring back the logs, but
this job was not at all easy. We would cook breakfast at 5am, clean
it up, cook lunch, and then walk 12km to bring food. It took us
about two hours and a half to walk back and forth. After that, we
would have to cook supper.
With this new assignment, there were times I just wanted to run
away, but I could not, thinking about my little daughter and elderly
mother. At that time, there was something called honorable release
- if someone does not commit any errors and works hard, you are
At the end of May, they released me from the labor detention facility.
I treated myself at home after I was released. Around June 10th,
I was already much healthier, but I could not figure out how to
survive. My mother and I went up to the mountains to bring back
wood and looked for edible plants. We picked spinach to sell. We
barely picked 4kg of spinach working the whole day, and we received
35won per kilo. Earning 140won per day could not buy us even half
kilo of corn, which cost 300won per kilo. The only thing we could
buy was 2kg of potatoes. Later, spinach also became rare, and we
could not pick enough to make a living. As a last resort, I decided
to take my family to China once again.
My country is the best country?
June 16, I promised to pay 35,000won per person to the guide at
the Tuman River Guard Police. I paid 50,000 won in advance. That
night, however, our guide took us into one of the border guard posts
on purpose, he ran away and we were caught. He was honored and earned
money, and he ran away with my 50,000 won. This is how the three
of us became imprisoned again. Since we were caught at the back
of the Tuman River, the guard took us to their military storage.
The storage was about 1.6㎡, and there were already three people
there. Six people were there in complete darkness.
Military officials of Border Patrol asked me who took me to the
river during interrogation. I said I do not know. This was because
if I told him, both he and I would have been heavily punished.
The three people who were already there took the floor so the three
of us we sat on the piles of bricks and dirt where the pipes of
heat went under and stayed as so for five days. Three of us sitting
on the piles of bricks left us room for not even a needle to go
through. They did not give us food or water. They did not open the
door to go to toilet. Men pushed the door all the way they could,
which left them with a little space where a pencil could go through,
and peed through the space. When it did not go through the space,
pee flowed into the storage. Adults were able to endure but children
cried for hunger and thirst so that later they lost strength even
to cry. They stayed laid down too tired to open their eyes. It broke
my heart to watch my ten year-old daughter and old mother suffering.
I pounded the door with my fists.
“Please give this child some water. Please give her some food.”
A low ranking soldier opened the door and shouted.
“Please have mercy and give this child some water.”
“Betrayers of the country cannot ask for water. If you shout again
I will deal with you.”
He slammed the door. Betrayers! Yes, we are betrayers. Then what
are you? You are murderers, worse than animals.
I shivered with hatred. After a moment, I pounded the door once
again. This time I pounded as hard as I can.
“Who is this? Which son of a bitch is this?”
The door suddenly opened and the same soldier came in.
“Was that you? You bitch!”
“Are you really human beings? Give this child some water.” I replied
with anger. Having heard the door pounding, a higher ranked official
came in and ordered the soldier to bring the child some water. This
was an unimaginable world. We could not drink, eat, sneeze, live
or die according to our will.
There was no respect for the dignity of human rights. When we were
at the labor detention facility, the song that was most frequently
sung was called, “My country is the best.” This is the first song
we sang during the song learning portion of the night. Once, a woman
was punished for falling asleep during the song learning time. Her
punishment was to sing this song for one hour standing outside,
in the middle of a snowstorm. Another time, there was a case of
theft, someone ate some kimchi from a 2kg container. In order to
find the theft among us, we marched for two hours back and forth
from the train station to the labor detention facility singing this
song, “Our country is the best.” Some people stopped walking to
watch us and children followed us giggling. I hope they heard the
opposite of “the best.”
Praying and Praying
We were transferred to the National Security Police in five days.
The atmosphere at the National Security Police was even more frightening
than before. When someone moved only a little bit, the whole room
got punished to do up and down 500 times and knelt down with the
tip of one’s toes for two or more hours.
I was in room 3 at the time and they told me to be the room leader
because I have already been there once. The room leader had to teach
newcomers the rules of the room and report everything happening
in the room. The room leader was able to move a little bit under
the conditions that s/he keeps the room under control.
There was a woman who did not report in the right way after the
meal. What you were supposed to say was, “Sir, how many spoons should
room △△ number ○○ take?” but she was not used to saying things in
such a way that she kept on making mistakes. As a result, the entire
room had to stand up and shout what she was supposed to say for
two hours. After that, everyone learned the way to report correctly.
Never have I prayed harder in my life than that time. Everyone
told me that our family will be harshly punished because it was
our second time. I was not scared. I believed that Father God will
save me no matter what. Also, never have I felt more peaceful than
that time. Looking back from China, I think all the things I have
gone through in North Korea must have been a process to make me
a stronger person.
On the tenth day, they transferred me to the Security Police once
again. I entered the familiar-looking atmosphere once again. The
guards looked at me and said, “Oh, you came back. Good to see you,”
kidding around. I smiled and replied them, “It’s good to see you
There were four guards and a second lieutenant and soldiers with
three bars, two bards, and one bar. The second lieutenant and the
three bar soldier treated us better. They joked from time to time
and got some medicine for sick people, although they cursed and
punished when somebody did not follow the rules. On the other hand,
the two other lower-ranking young soldiers were cruel. What the
soldier with two bards did most frequently was kick the rice bowls.
When it was time for the meals, prisoners formed two lines to receive
the rice bowls. The hole for the bowl was at the bottom. When the
guards came with food on a tray, you had to pull your arm outside
to receive the bowl with food and people would do this in line.
When you did something wrong in their eyes, they either did not
give you any food or kicked your bowl so your head would be covered
with your food.
On my first day at the facility, the soldier with two bars walked
in arrogantly and said, “All those of you who came into today, stand
up.” When I and four other women who came in with me stood up, he
yelled, “I will let you know what prison is about. Come out!” This
was because when one of the women on the front row was talking to
another woman next to her, her eyes met the guard’s. When five of
us walked close to the iron bars of the prison room, he told us
to put our hands out through the bars. When we put our hands out
hesitating, he started to hit them with his leather belt.
It hurt me so much that later I lost sense in my hands. The five
people screamed endlessly.
“You bitches, talk again and I will not let you live.”
Then he left. My hands were swollen so bad that I could barely move
my fingers, and they were bruised blue all over. I could not wash
my face for three days. They hurt me so much. Things got worse as
That evening, an even worse thing happened in the prison room
where my mother was assigned. A private soldier came in and a woman
was caught while she tried to talk to a person next to her.
“Room number 4, all arise. Up and down 500 times!!”
When my mother told the private soldier she could not do it after
100 times, ‘kneel down’ punishment was ordered again.
Among them, there was a pregnant woman, and she was not an exception.
As the pregnant woman cried out she could not do it, the private
soldier said, “bitch, I see that you liked living there. You bore
a seed of a dog there, and what are you saying now? Now the entire
room will be punished because of you.” Then up and down 300 times
was ordered once again.
Still not satisfied, the soldier made all the women in the prison
to remain standing straight up, then came back to them with two
water buckets. The soldier poured the water on their heads. After
about 10 buckets, she ordered them to lie down. When they did not
listen, more buckets of water were poured on their heads. That evening,
women had to lie down and fall asleep on the soaking wet floor.
I am not the best writer; I am just describing the situation. Think
of how they would have felt when they were made to sleep on the
soaking wet floor. What I write is only the simple facts. There
was a greater number of awful things that happened that are even
worse than this.
I was released after my detention period. People in my town seemed
to be suspicious of how I was released.
There were people asking me if I had bribed them to get out of the
prison. But, honestly, I did not bribe anyone. I only prayed to
God, the father during the entire imprisonment. It was God’s power
that saved me.
Soon after, someone came to my house and told me to leave the house
quickly because they probably released me temporarily, so they could
come arrest me again. Just as he said, a few days later, a security
guard from the prison told me to bring my picture. I became nervous.
I was almost sure they were creating a document. I worried about
my mother and my daughter so I decided I would stay at my house.
However, my mother told me crying, “If you live, we all can live.
So, don’t worry about us. Leave quickly!!”
As my mother and my daughter insisted, I decided to come to China.
Despite seven months of imprisonment, the possibilities of arrest
still remained. Regardless, I tried to escape to China again with
a determined mind that ‘if they arrest me, I am arrested. If they
kill me, I am dead’. Now I recall, the half of a year in my country
was a nightmare.
Please Save the Poor North Korean People
Now, regardless of their will, North Koreans survive each day.
In my town, most households live on soup made of dried radish leaves
mixed with a few spoons of corn powder. It is not fun to barely
make a living day by day. My family was not an exception. My mother
and I picked potato leaves and dug up parsley, but we could only
eat thin soup. I do not know how my mother and my daughter lived
in North Korea…… Since the time I came here to China, I have not
been able to sleep thinking about them with a suffering heart.
“Lord, please guard and protect my mother and my daughter. Please
make the day I will meet them come sooner.”
This is my first prayer every day.. I feel terrible about North
Koreans living in such harsh conditions. The people living in a
country where no hope or joy remains, in the dark……. Because of
the Military first policy which regards the military as the best,
soldiers behave like gangs. They swindle pigs, potatoes, and money
from private households. Everything is settled when the military
Security guards only think of how to rip off the citizens.
“Nose ring on the nose, earrings on the ears.”
“Sympathy is a pitfall. To buy on a credit is to buy for free.”
These are famous sayings in North Korea. Speaking a word is being
interpreted political and sinful, and sympathizing becomes a pitfall
for oneself. Unbelievable…
People live in a house stained with soot where the ceiling is falling
down or the house where the hypocaust seems to be bombed…. North
Koreans are told the reason they are so poor is because of Americans.
Today, the world is now speaking of civilization and it is so developed
with the internet system. Then there are people who living, politically
ignorant, without knowing or seeing any of this developed civilization.
God, Father, please save them. Please save those poor people.
I dearly miss my mother and my daughter. Dear Mother, and Dear
my daughter, farewell …… until the day we meet again …… I will surely
come back to bring you here.
I feel like I have been to a ‘living hell.’ I am furious and I
grit my teeth when I think of it. I sealed a thumbprint on the Democratic
People’s Republic of Korea 146 as I came out of the National Security
Agency. This law indicates, I should not tell anyone about any incidents
in the prison. If I violate this, I should be punished. However,
it is not impossible for people who went to North Korea to hide
this tragedy only in their hearts. I wish that the day for unification
comes soon and people in North Korea could also live happily. I
wish I could be of little help to save them.