Kim Hye-sook: 'I saw prisoners turned to honeycomb by the bullets'

For three decades the diminutive 50-year-old endured life in a North Korean gulag. She gives Jerome Taylor a rare insight into a world of beatings, starvation and brutal executions

Kim Hye-sook reaches for a wooden coffee stirrer on the table in front of her to illustrate how public executions were carried out in the North Korean labour camp that was her home for nearly three decades.

"A day before the executions, prison guards would put huge banners to tell everyone what was going to happen, and on the day everyone would be ordered to attend," the diminutive 50-year-old explains. "They would take the prisoner to a stake, tie them up and blindfold them. The firing squad would let off 30 or 40 shots until the prisoner's body had turned to honeycomb. Every time the bullets hit, the stake would crack backwards."

Obtaining testimony about North Korea's gulag system is notoriously difficult. Once inside a labour camp few political prisoners are ever granted their freedom and even fewer ever make it over the border to describe their ordeal to the outside world. Mrs Kim is one of the most recent defectors to find safety and – in her first interview with a Western newspaper – she describes a penal system that is shocking in its outright barbarity as North Korea continues to defy the international community with a human rights record that echoes the worst excesses of Stalin's Soviet Union.

Mrs Kim's only crime was what Kim Jong-il's regime calls yeon-jwa-je – guilt by association. In the early 1970s her grandfather defected to South Korea and under North Korea's system of collective punishment for political crimes, the entire family was rounded up. "We were living in Pyongyang," she explains, referring to North Korea's capital. "I was just 13 at the time and the whole family had been classified by the state as a 'dangerous element'."

Ordered to leave her home by armed guards, she would not see the outside of a labour camp for the next 28 years. Mrs Kim was taken to Bukchang, a gulag run directly by the interior ministry, which refers to it by its bland official title: Kwan-li-so (penal-labour colony) No 18. A sprawling complex that straddles the Taedong river, it houses an estimated 10,000 inmates, the vast majority of whom are political prisoners serving life sentences in a country where life really does mean life.

The regime is slightly less strict than the camps at Yodok and Kaechon, but beatings, starvation and summary executions are still common. "We were always hungry," recalls Mrs Kim. "Every day was a struggle to find food. The camp provided a single meal of corn gruel, but it was never enough. We would go out looking for anything green to eat. The most popular item was acorn leaves as they were easier to digest." The misery of malnutrition was compounded by long bouts of forced labour – the average working day was 16 hours. The "lucky ones" worked on farms or in the prison itself but most toiled in coal mines that fed the nearby power station, slowly succumbing to exhaustion and disease.

As the decades passed, Mrs Kim's grandmother died after years of hunger and her mother and brother were killed in work accidents.

According to Kim Joo-il, a former army officer who defected in 2005 and now lives in Britain, the unrelenting mercilessness with which political inmates are treated is drummed into the country's elite, who have the task of protecting the state's Stalinist ideology at all costs. "People in labour camps are not looked upon as humans," he explains. "They are enemies of the state who have no rights whatsoever. You could kill them with your own hands and nothing would happen to you."

Freedom for Mrs Kim came in 2001 in an amnesty for political prisoners to celebrate Kim Jong-il's birthday. But it would not be the last time she saw Bukchang. With the help of friends, she crossed the border into China. North Korean women are particularly vulnerable in China. Many Han Chinese treat ethnic Koreans with contempt and sexual trafficking is rife. "I crossed over with a 23- and a 27-year-old," Mrs Kim remembers. "They were sold for 30,000 yuan (£2,900)."

Mrs Kim, who was 43, was saved by her comparative age and found work in a Korean barbecue restaurant. But even though she had escaped North Korea, her boss asked her to return to buy piglets which, thanks to the country's skewed economy, were around a tenth of the price of pigs sold in China. As an illegal immigrant she felt she had no choice but to agree.

The North Korean government views any attempt to leave the country without permission as political dissent. Mrs Kim lasted two weeks before she was found and returned to Bukchang in the summer of 2008. Held in a less restrictive corner of the camp while the authorities decided what to do with her, she managed to escape and returned once more to China. From there she made her way overland, via Laos and Thailand, to South Korea, where she now lives.

Despite growing testimony from the few inmates that make it to the West, the North Korean government refuses to acknowledge the existence of labour camps. But satellite photos show at least six camps across the country, housing an estimated 200,000 people. Amnesty International recently published images of the six camps and reported significant expansion across the country.

"These are places out of sight of the rest of the world, where almost the entire range of human rights protections that international law has tried to set up for the last 60 years are ignored," says Sam Zarifi, Amnesty's Asia Pacific director. "As North Korea seems to be moving towards a new leader in Kim Jong-un and a period of political instability, the big worry is that the prison camps appear to be growing in size."

With Pyongyang threatening international stability by its continued development of nuclear weapons, there are fears among campaigners that little is being done by the international community to confront North Korea over its human rights record.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most