North Korean Prison Camp Survivor Reveals Horrific Details Inside the Yodeok Concentration Camp

On October 5, 2012, the North Korea Study Group at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government hosted Ms. Kim Young Soon, a former celebrated dancer in North Korea. In the 2008 book entitled, "I was Sung Hye-rim's Friend," she described her ordeal at the hands of Kim Jong Il, whom she never met. In an excerpt of the book, she wrote, "I was sent to Yodeok prison camp because I knew Kim Jong Il was with Sung Hye-rim. Even Kim Il-sung was not aware of Kim Jong Il's relationship with Sung. Kim Jong Il, a would-be No.1 leader of the republic, was in a relationship with a (once) married woman would be a huge scandal, and Kim Jong Il tried to keep the highest security."

I will write about what Ms. Kim shared with her audience members at our event last month. Ms. Kim and her family were part of the North Korean elite because her ancestors were anti-Japanese fighters when Korea was colonized by Japan in the early 20th century. She was sentenced to Yodok political prison camp for nine years. Her crime? She was school friends with Sung Hye-Rim, a famous North Korean actress who became a secret consort of Kim Jong-Il, and bore Kim Jong-Nam, the Dear Leader's eldest son.

Ms. Kim and Ms. Sung were classmates and friends from high school throughout college.  One day, Ms. Sung told Ms. Kim that she was invited to Chamber #5, a residence reserved for the regime's ruling clan. After the state made the connection that Ms. Kim's friendship with Ms. Sung led to a civilian knowing too much of the Dear Leader's private affairs, Ms. Kim and her entire family was sentenced to Yodok political prison camp. While in the camp, Ms. Kim's husband was ratted out for an alleged crime by an inmate, and he was taken to the total-control zone portion of Yodok. Her entire family — parents, three sons, one daughter, and husband — passed away in the camp. 

North Korean civilians are sentenced to Yodok camp with zero knowledge of their crimes. They don’t know if they committed a crime – and if so, the nature of the crime — or if they were sentenced due to guilt-by-association. If the latter, whose crime are they associated with? Guilt-by-association is an incredibly antiquated policy that was employed during Korea’s Chosun Dynasty in order to cut off the seeds of the next generation of criminals. It was only 10 years after being released from Yodok that she was told why she landed in the prison camp.

While in the camp, Ms. Kim witnessed mothers who desperately tried everything to keep their emaciated children alive. One common 'medicinal' practice was to cut open a pregnant rat to harvest its fetuses, roast the tiny creatures, and feed this to sick human babies in the camp. This was believed to cure human diseases. Political prisoners ate anything that “flew, crawled, or grew in the field.” On multiple occasions, she, along with all the camp prisoners, were forced to watch public executions of camp prisoners who were caught trying to escape the prison. 

After speaking about Yodok, Ms. Kim spoke more broadly about the regime. By the 1980s, Kim Il-Sung’s leadership had purged all factious groups. The fall of the Soviet Union — on whom North Korea was heavily dependent for economic support —devastated North Korea’s public distribution system. One of their domestic campaigns to showcase the power of its regime was to widely circulate the movie, The Titanic, among its citizens. The regime declared that the sinking of the ship on April 15, 1912 was symbolic of the fall of evil capitalism and the rise of the Sun of North Korea.

Despite the regime’s attempt to demonize the United States by blaming the U.S. for all its own misfortunes, and calling it a wolf that can never turn into a pure sheep, it continues to pay its elites in $USD. 

She then went on to speak about the luxury that shrouds the ruling family. Among the numerous mansions that exist for the elite, Mansion #72 is Kim Il-Sung’s mansion. All rice that enters these mansions is called Rice #1. Rice #2 is the name designated for emergency rice for war. Every article of clothing for the Kim family is specially designed for the members. She gave several anecdotes of the extremely fresh, large, and exotic seafood sent into Pyongyang every day with special government funds. If this seafood delivery food train were ever late, the supervisor of the train would be killed immediately. As one could imagine, these trains were never late. Ms. Kim knew Mr. Han, the supervisor of Train #8 and #9. He was a master of the sea surrounding North Korea, and he was responsible for delivering goods to the Kim family.

Elites knew that Kim Il-Sung told Kim Jong Il that the successor must concentrate on keeping the party and military officials appeased. Do not “waste time on the economy,” Ms. Kim quoted the Dear Leader. She claims that Kim Il-Sung argued that a reformed (and presumably a more open) economy would inevitably lead to the country’s demise and the successor’s death.

Despite Ms. Kim’s ardent hope for reunification, she understands that this is not possible in the near future with North Korea pointing 15,000 artillery units at South Korea. 

Ms. Kim, along with numerous defectors, argue that Yodok and the other North Korean concentration camps have been modeled after Auschwitz under Kim Il-Sung's reign.

If prisoners are ever released, they are under strict orders to never reveal details of what they experienced and witnessed in the camps. Furthermore, former political prisoners are unable to join the North Korean military (North Korea mandates conscription for all its citizens for 12 years). Without graduating from the regime’s military, employment is nearly impossible.

She escaped North Korea on February 1, 2001 and entered South Korea in November of 2003. She serves as the vice president of the Seoul-based group Committee for the Democratization of North Korea.

Throughout our event, Ms. Kim repeatedly encouraged her audience members to watch 'Yodok Stories,' a controversial theater play that chronicles the experiences of several North Korean survivors of this political prison camp. This documentary captures the play and  interviews of defectors who helped create the play. Please watch this.Ms. Kim tells you so! Actual Movie link http://www.yodokfilm.com

Here are the transcripts of her testimony for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights (September 20, 2011): http://chrissmith.house.gov/uploadedfiles/testimony_of_kim_young_soon.pdf

Here is an interview that a report for Radio Free Asia conducted with Ms. Kim: http://www.rfa.org/english/news/korea/Interview-02062009170423.html

As always, please do not hesitate to reach out with questions or comments.

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Jieun Baek

Currently a Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government where she graduated 2014. Graduated from Harvard College 2009 as a Government concentrator, where interest in North Korea sparked. Love PolicyMic. Always open to a good conversation!

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