Part one – “Voices from the prison camps.”
An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Christians suffer daily in the North Korea labor camps and prison facilities. Most are held with other political prisoners in the total control zones where they essentially work themselves to death while being subjected to severe physical and psychological torture.
Relatively few prisoners have survived the camps and escaped North Korea to tell their stories. But the few who have escaped paint a gruesome picture of the circumstances in which our brothers and sisters find themselves. Listen to the voices of those “who are sent to the mountains,” and pray with all your might that God will give them the strength to endure.
In North Korea if one family member commits a crime against the regime, the entire family is sent “to the mountains.” A crime such as criticizing the government’s policies or simply complaining can result in the imprisonment of up to three generations of the family. Grandmother, grandfather, wife, husband, sons and daughters… if one is guilty, all are guilty.
North Korea has two different types of labor camps. The first are smaller scale penitentiary-type prison camps where several thousand detainees are “reeducated.” The larger political camps resemble the infamous camps of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. These “political prisoners” work from 18 to 20 hours a day on little or no food. The “lucky ones” are put in the revolutionary zones (smaller camps) and released when they are considered “reeducated.” The unfortunates are put away for life in the so-called “total control zones.” Christians whose faith is exposed, are among these unfortunate ones placed in camps with the most horrific conditions. Many do not last very long.
It is unknown if any Christians have ever escaped from a total control zone. Only a handful of North Korean refugees have made it to South Korea to tell the astonishing story of life in these awful places. Through their stories and that of a former guard, we get a glimpse of what life is like. They relate that when they first arrived at the camp they were shocked at the condition of the prisoners; reduced to skin and bones, covered with bruises and scars and dressed in rags, the prisoners look like the walking dead. Many are bent over or have developed humps. Some are missing an ear or have a badly damages nose.
Throughout the camp there are barracks for singles and for families. Physical relations between married couples are strictly forbidden. Model prisoners, however, may be rewarded with a marriage and allowed to spend a few nights a year with their spouse. If a woman becomes pregnant outside of an arranged marriage, the child is either aborted or killed immediately at birth. Only babies from reward marriages are kept alive, presumably to increase the workforce in the camp.
Children up to the age of twelve go to school in the morning and work in the afternoon. The children are required to obey without asking questions, even in class; any offense could result in a terrible beating. Sometimes the beatings are so severe that the child does not survive.
Shin Dyong-Hyuk , in his book Escape from Camp 14, relates that he grew up in a total control zone. While imprisoned, he did not learn to love or even to smile. “Sometimes I pretend to laugh, just to know how it feels,” he said, seven years after his escape. In his book, he confessed betraying his mother and brother because they planned to break out and not take Shin along. After eight months of torture, they were executed in the presence of Shin and other prisoners.
After the age of twelve, children join the workforce fulltime. Each day is the same monotonous routine. Prisoners get up early, often at 5am, and begin working. Breakfast is doled out around 8.30. Prisoners only receive three small portions of food each day; the ration is reduced when they do not meet their daily work quota and eliminated when they are caught “stealing” food. Those who do not supplement their rations do not live long, so prisoners eat anything edible, often raw or uncooked.
Snakes, rats, mice, insects, rabbits, plants, roots and grass are just a few examples. The day ends with criticism sessions where one person has to sit on his knees in front of the other prisoners while he is accused of wrongdoings. After the criticism, there is ideological training for those who, in the eyes of the government, can still redeem themselves.
The camps are of tremendous economic importance to the North Korean government. Prisoners are forced to work in factories, farms or mines where a large percentage of the goods produced are exported to other countries. All tasks are completed collectively in work units, even going to the bathroom. Often the whole group is punished for individual infringements. With no safety standards, many get seriously injured, handicapped or even killed in work-related accidents.
Next week part two – “Voices from the prison camps.”
Father, we think of our brothers and sisters enduring such hardships, and we come before You with heavy hearts. Sustain them today as they struggle under unthinkable burdens. Protect them from beatings. Encourage them with the hope that one day You will take them to Yourself, draw them into Your embrace, wipe away every tear and heal every wound. We look toward the day when You will bring about true justice in North Korea and send Your Spirit across the land with the truth and mercy of Christ’s gospel, so that countless believers will rise to worship You freely. In the name of Jesus, the anchor of our souls, Amen.