North Korea has announced the amnesty of prisoners to commemorate the deceased leaders, Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. This year, 2012, marks the centenary of the first Kim, who died in 1994, and the 70th birth anniversary of his son, who passed away in December. Starting on February 1, an unknown number of prisoners will be released.
Until 2005 these general amnesties used to be granted twice a year. Since then, it has been increasingly rare and sporadic for prisoners to be released before completing their sentences. The only prisoners that are eligible to be selected are those who are considered to be “re-educated.” This means they have been in a re-education camp for some years and have performed well in their tasks and in the mandatory ideology classes.
People in political labor camps will never be released, because they are labeled as “incurable.” Those camps are full of politically active people, refugees who are suspected of having been in contact with South Koreans, and ideological opponents like Christians.
Though the released prisoners are very lucky to get out of these concentration camps alive, for others in the country, this special amnesty could mean bad news. North Korea depends heavily on the production from these camps. Since the North Korean government needs this cheap and replaceable labor force, it could, as it has in the past, order the police to increase the number of arrests to refill the empty places in the barracks.
Christians who have been in these horrendous circumstances describe the re-education camps as an absolute hell. “I was in a small camp,” says one young Christian, “not for my Christian activities, but because I was arrested in China. Everyday someone died, and I was forced to take the person outside the camp and bury him or her. I know it is not right, but I still hate those guards. One of my other family members is now in a political camp. I dare not think to what happens to her. It is too painful.”
Another Christian spent several years in the most infamous camp, Yodok, a place he describes as “a living mass grave.” He relates that, “The whole system made me desperate. I saw people dying of hunger and sickness. I saw executions. But one day, we had to assemble in a big hall and it was made known that in honor of the birthday of one of the leaders, a few prisoners would be released for good behavior. At that moment, I made the decision that I would be a model prisoner and I would survive this. I knew that I would have to stay at least three to five years in Yodok in order to be considered for release. I determined not to make any mistakes.” He became a model prisoner and was eventually granted amnesty. However, another prisoner was so shocked by the surprising news of his imminent release that he died of a sudden heart attack.
A third former prisoner describes her stay in a labor camp as undergoing God’s ten plagues at the same time every day. When asked what the worst event was during her stay in the camp, she remained silent. Then she said, “I could not tell you. Every day was like torture. People were dying and their corpses were burned. The guards scattered the ashes over the road. We walked that road every day, and each time I thought, ‘one day the other prisoners will walk over me.’”
More than 1 percent of the total North Korean population wakes up in a prison or labor camp each day. There are a handful of mega camps throughout the country that hold more than ten thousand prisoners each; and probably dozens of smaller ones. Prisoners are denied sufficient rations of food and medical care while being forced to endure 18-hour work days. Furthermore, they are subjected to harsh, dangerous working circumstances, torture and random killings.
Father, You know the plight of Christians and others suffering in North Korean prisons and labor camps. We pray that just treatment would replace the torture and inhumane treatment that currently exists. Thank You for the possibility of release of some prisoners, but we pray for those who remain, that they would have faith-filled courage to face each day, even to love and serve You well. We pray protection over those vulnerable to imprisonment to replace the labor lost by the early release of some. Mostly, we pray for a revival to wash over this dark nation to produce justice, freedom, true worship and joy. In the name of Jesus who bends His ear to the suffering of His children, Amen.