Cablegate: Rare Account of Dprk "Totally Controlled" Prison
DE RUEHUL #2109/01 1940711
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 130711Z JUL 07
FM AMEMBASSY SEOUL
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 5499
INFO RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING PRIORITY 2817
RUEHMO/AMEMBASSY MOSCOW PRIORITY 8138
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO PRIORITY 2931
RUALSFJ/COMUSJAPAN YOKOTA AB JA PRIORITY
RHMFISS/COMUSKOREA J5 SEOUL KOR PRIORITY
RHHMUNA/CDR USPACOM HONOLULU HI PRIORITY
RHMFISS/COMUSKOREA J2 SEOUL KOR PRIORITY
RHMFISS/COMUSKOREA SCJS SEOUL KOR PRIORITY
UNCLAS SEOUL 002109
E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PHUM PINR PREF PREL KS KN
SUBJECT: RARE ACCOUNT OF DPRK "TOTALLY CONTROLLED" PRISON
1. (SBU) A North Korean defector recounted his experience as
a second-generation prisoner in a DPRK political prison camp.
He described the public execution of his mother and brother;
starvation; torture with hot coals; and an education system
bereft of politics, history, or any reality outside of the
camp boundaries. If his account is true, this defector would
be the only person known to have been born in such a prison
and escaped to describe it. END SUMMARY.
OVERVIEW OF DPRK PRISON SYSTEM
2. (SBU) Shin Dong-hyuk said he was born on November 19,
1982, in Political Prison Camp No. 14, located in Kaechon,
South Pyeongan province, North Korea. Camp No. 14 is one of
six or seven sprawling political prison camps in the DPRK
where prisoners -- along with up to three generations of
their families -- are imprisoned and forced to work in
slave-like conditions, usually for life. Some small sections
of these camps, notably Camp No. 15 (Yodok) and Camp No. 18
(Bukchang), are designated as "revolutionizing" zones for
prisoners with fixed terms of incarceration. Analysts
estimate that up to 200,000 political prisoners are currently
interned in the DPRK prison system.
3. (SBU) Until now, nearly all defector testimonies on the
North Korean prison camp system have been from former
prisoners who had been detained in the "revolutionizing" zone
at Yodok, while accounts on the "totally controlled" areas
were either hearsay or from the published testimonies of just
two defectors, Ahn Myeong-cheol (a former guard at Camp Nos.
11, 13, 26 and 22) and Kim Yong (a former prisoner at Camp
Nos. 14 and 18). Shin is the only witness claiming to have
been born in a camp. We spoke to him on July 9.
BORN INTO A PRISON VILLAGE
4. (SBU) Shin's earliest memories are of living with his
mother in a two-room cement house in a village with similar
residences. The family used one room for cooking and the
other for sleeping. Shin said that residents could circulate
freely within their village, but needed special permission
from security guards to visit other villages or areas of the
camp. (Note: Shin could not describe how many houses were on
his street, how many people lived in his village, nor how
many villages were within the camp. End note.). Armed guards
circulated in the camp, especially at night. The guards wore
Kim Jong-il or Kim Il-sung badges, but at the time, Shin did
not know who those people were. Shin's father lived with his
work unit in a separate village.
5. (SBU) Shin did not know why his family was in the camp or
what "sins" his parents had committed. While he now
speculates that he had uncles who went to South Korea during
the Korean War, he never thought it was necessary to ask his
mother and his mother never explained. In fact, it was not
until he was much older that he had any reason to believe
that anyone outside the camp lived any differently.
6. (SBU) Shin began to attend elementary school ("people's
school," in North Korean vernacular) at the age of six. He
was in a class of about 35 students in a school of five
grades. The curriculum consisted of reading, writing, basic
arithmetic, and the memorization of camp regulations, such as
prohibitions against stealing, unauthorized movements and
meeting in groups of three or four. There was no discussion
of politics, history or current events. Shin never learned
about South Korea, China, the United States, or even North
Korea. Class discussion centered entirely on everyday life
of the camp. For example, children would have to write
descriptive information about their mothers bringing cabbages
7. (SBU) The children studied from 08:00 until 12:00, broke
for a one-hour lunch, and then continued class until 15:00.
They then went to work, with typical tasks including road
construction, fixing potholes, collecting coal dust, or
carrying water to the fields.
WORKING FOR RATIONS AT AGE 11
8. (SBU) At age 11, camp authorities transferred Shin from
his mother's home to a dormitory where he lived with his
classmates. His formal education then ended and his class
became a full-time work team.
9. (SBU) The security guards distributed clothing, food and
other necessities to camp inhabitants. They distributed new
sets of clothes, winter and summer, to each resident every
two years, and provided shoes twice a year. For food, Shin's
mother received a daily family ration of 900 grams of corn,
cut to the consistency of rice; salt soup and coal. Shin
never ate white rice or meat, except for the occasional mouse
that he was able to catch in the fields.
10. (SBU) Rations were directly linked to one's ability to
meet work quotas. Food allotments were small -- his share as
a work unit member was usually about 6 spoons of corn per
meal -- but sufficient to stay alive. Shin said people only
died of starvation when they could not meet their work quotas
and, accordingly, were not given their rations. Without
food, they would be too weak to meet their quota the next day
and would again be deprived of rations. Eventually, these
people would die.
11. (SBU) Shin did not recall any instances of teachers,
supervisors, guards or even fellow inmates showing any
compassion or offering to help anyone trapped in this cycle
of missed quotas and starvation. Inhabitants were too
concerned about their own survival. Moreover, it was assumed
that death by starvation was the natural and proper fate for
someone who could not do their work.
SWIFT PUNISHMENT, NO HEALTH CARE, ACCIDENTS COMMON
12. (SBU) There was usually one security guard per work
team. Thus, in a leather factory where Shin worked for a
time, there was one guard for the roughly 2,000 workers. The
guards casually punished inmates for various infractions. In
one instance, Shin dropped and broke a sewing machine table.
The security guard in charge administered immediate
punishment: he cut off the end of Shin's right forefinger.
Shin considers himself lucky to have received such light
13. (SBU) Inhabitants did not generally seek health care
because they would try to work regardless of their health.
If they were too sick to work they could not meet their work
quota, be unable to receive their rations, then die.
Although there was a hospital in the camp, it was mainly for
victims of industrial accidents. Camp inhabitants, he said,
were often hurt in the coal mine, where tunnels regularly
collapsed, and in the forests, where huge carts of wood
injured or crushed the workers.
TORTURE AND CONFINEMENT
14. (SBU) One morning when he was fourteen, guards
blindfolded Shin and brought him to an interrogation center.
They told him that his mother and brother had been caught
trying to escape and asked Shin to confess his complicity
with their plans. He denied any knowledge of the escape
15. (SBU) Guards bound Shin's feet and hung him upside down
"for about a day," he said. The guards then took Shin down,
chained his hands and feet together, and burnt his back with
hot coals. The guards held his torso in place with a metal
16. (SBU) The guards then put him in a windowless room,
perhaps underground, for seven months. He had a roommate who
claimed to have been there for ten years. Shin's food
rations were cut from the normal six spoons of shaved corn
per meal to only two or three.
PUBLIC EXECUTION OF MOTHER AND SIBLING
17. (SBU) On November 29, 1996, guards brought Shin and his
father, who had also been imprisoned for seven months, to the
camp's execution yard. The yard was used two or three times
a year to execute people for attempting to escape, stealing,
or violating other camp regulations. Typically, the village
residents, including children, would be forced to gather to
watch. Song remembers being about five-years-old when he
witnessed his first execution. He said he ran to the
execution yard filled with curiosity.
18. (SBU) Shin thought that he and his father were about to
die. Instead, the guards announced the imminent execution of
Shin's mother and brother for attempting to escape the camp.
Shin said that all public executions were preceded by long
exhortations by prison authorities about the various sins
committed by the condemned. With the villagers gathered,
executioners hung Shin's mother, bound and gagged, from a
tree. They kicked a stool out from under her feet and she
died, Shin said coolly. Three soldiers then shot and killed
Shin's brother, who was also bound and gagged. Asked how he
felt about his mother, Shin said that he was angry that his
mother had tried to escape. He would never forgive her for
causing so much trouble for him and his father.
19. (SBU) Security guards then allowed Shin to rejoin his
work unit. However, his team avoided him and treated him
like a criminal. He said that he volunteered to work longer
and harder in order to win back their trust. He felt guilty
for the crimes of his mother and brother, he added.
ESCAPING THE GULAG
20. (SBU) In 2004, Kim met a fellow inmate who had lived
outside the camp and had even been to China. Based on his
discussions with this inmate, Shin resolved to look for an
opportunity to escape. On January 2, 2005, Shin and his
coworker were working in the woods gathering wood near the
electrified barbed-wire perimeter of the camp. Not seeing
any guards in the area, they decided to run through the
fence. Shin wedged himself through the wires, suffering
burns on his legs. He said that he did not know what
happened to his coworker, who appeared to have been caught in
21. (SBU) Shin broke into vacant houses to steal food. He
exchanged his light-blue prison clothes with regular clothing
he found in abandoned buildings. As he traveled north to the
Chinese border, Shin was able to blend in with crowds and
avoid authorities along the way. "It's not like you have a
sign on your forehead that says you grew up in a prison
camp." Shin crossed the Tumen River after traveling about 25
days in North Korea.
22. (SBU) Shin spent about a year in China, farming and
working at the house of a Chinese man in Yanbian for about
nine months. He later traveled to Shanghai. In February
2006, a "Chosun Ilbo" newspaper reporter then working in
China helped him enter the ROK Consulate in Shanghai. He
arrived in South Korea six months later.
RESETTLEMENT IN THE ROK
23. (SBU) Shin's resettlement has not been easy. Shin told
poloff that he was hospitalized after one month at the
Hanawon Resettlement Center because he was having nightmares.
For the time being, Shin has given up living alone in his
ROKG-funded apartment and is staying at the Database Center
for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), a local NGO. Dr. Yoon
Yeo-sang, President of NKDB, told poloff on a separate
occasion that Shin still showed symptoms of mental
instability and had difficulty in talking with other people.
Indeed, during this interview Shin often seemed distant and
disassociated from the events he was describing.
24. (SBU) Despite the difficulties of overcoming the trauma,
Shin still wants his story to be known. He is currently
working, with the assistance of an NGO, on a book for
publication at the end of July. He is also trying to get a
25. (SBU) Shin's testimony is almost impossible to verify.
However, many experts within Seoul's DPRK human rights
community seem convinced by his story, and we, too, note the
general consistency between his account and what little we
already know about the totally controlled areas of North
Korea's prison system. END COMMENT.