In July 1977 Kang Chol Hwan, a nine-year old kid, was arrested with his family because his grandfather was not enthusiastic enough with Kim Il Sung’s regime, the dictator of North Korea for life. His grandfather was not an opponent to the regime. He had returned from Japan to North Korea with his family to witness the revolution and he had given all his fortune to the party, but it seems that it was not enough.
Kang and his family spent ten years in Yodok concentration camps as “relatives of an offender”. Later on, when he managed to flee the country, he eventually settled down in South Korea, after his long voyage around China. He is the author of The Aquariums of Pyongyang, an account of his life in Yodok camp, the first book published in Europe to bear witness of North Korea concentration camps. It is a good example of this horror literature exposing life in concentration camps, be them Nazi, Soviet gulags or in Francoist Spain, among many others. Life at Yodok is worthless. The writer suffers starvation and cold, he survives by eating rats and bugs and he is made to view public executions. He witnessed how a teacher killed another child because the latter dared to answer him back. And most discouraging: Yodok is not the worst concentration camp in North Korea. When Kang talks about other concentration camps in his country (Amnesty International located six camps, but no-one knows how many camps there are), he states: "I feel almost guilty complaining publicly about the life I led at Yodok. Yes, guilty for Yodok is by no means the toughest camp in North Korea. Far worse exist, and they are shrouded in such secrecy that for a long time it was impossible to talk about them with any precision".
Moreover, there is a substantial difference between North Korea camps and soviet gulags or Nazi concentration camps: North Korea camps are still crowded. It is estimated that in North Korea, with about 24 million inhabitants, there are between 150,000 and 200,000 people imprisoned in concentration camps for political reasons. Some of them are dissidents, some others are not, as it was the case of Kang’s family, although the regime considers them opponents too. Most of them are only guilty of being relatives of an offender.
Such organisations as Amnesty International has been fighting for years to publicize this situations and put pressure on Kim Jong Un (Kim Il Sung’s grandson and Kim Jong Il’s son, who died last December 17th) to close down these camps and release prisoners. If you want to help this advocacy campaign, sign this appeal for action. As human beings, we should all be ashamed of such camps as Yodok, Senghori or Guantánamo.
- Kang Chol Hwan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kang_Chol-Hwan
- The Aquariums of Pyongyang, Kang Chol Hwan’s account about his life at Yodok: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Aquariums_of_Pyongyang
- Campaign to take action against Yodok concentration camp: http://www.amnesty.org/en/appeals-for-action/north-korean-political-prison-camps