An orphan who was caught trying to escape from North Korea told NBC News how he was “treated like an animal” in one of the country’s notorious labor camps.
The head of a United Nations panel on Monday said atrocities committed by North Korea against its own people were “strikingly similar” to those perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II and released a 400-page report which shed new light on the camps. American missionary Kenneth Bae is currently imprisoned in North Korea after being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor on charges of trying to overthrow the state. The conditions he is being held in remain unclear.
The U.N. report came as no shock for Hyuk Kim, who was a homeless 16-year-old when he was arrested by state security in 1998 trying to cross the border into China in search of food. He was sent to North Korea’s Jungeori Labor Camp after being ordered jailed for three years.
“At Jungeori, there was no sense of being human, if you thought you were a human being, you couldn’t live there,” said Kim, who is now aged 33. “You were like an animal. You do the hard labor you were ordered to do, that’s it. No thinking. No free will. Just fear.”
As his 4-foot, 9-inch frame withered away, Kim became obsessed with just one thing: food.
“Because you were so hungry, you thought about food and how to get more of it all the time,” Kim recalled. “Sometimes you got lucky and you were able to catch a rat or two as a snack, which you’d skin, dry the meat out and eat, usually raw. If you tried to cook the rats, the guards would smell the meat or fire, catch you and beat you mercilessly.”
In Jungeori, breakfast was served at 7 a.m. and consisted usually of a handful of cornmeal and 50-90 soya beans.
Inmates would toil until noon, when they were given lunch of more soya beans and cornmeal, before working again until 6 p.m. or 7p.m. However, some teams would be expected to work as late as 9 p.m. each day.
Dinner was typically served at 7:30 p.m. and the rest of the evening would then be dedicated to what qualified as the only entertainment available to prisoners: learning and memorizing the rules and regulations of the camp.
“If one prisoner got one word wrong, the entire team had to stay up until everybody got it all correct,” Kim said. If night study went well, prisoners would go to sleep each night at 10 p.m.
Amnesty International late last year released satellite imagery that showed expanded labor camps in North Korea in which an escapee claimed prisoners were forced to dig their own graves before being killed by guards.