Here Is Where We Live, Work and Die
Part two – “Voices from the Prison Camps”
Being a guard in an internment camp or a prison is certainly not a privilege. Potential guards are selected from middle-class high school students. They receive training after graduation or after they have finished their military service. Most are very young – in their twenties – when they first arrive at the camp. Some take a family along; others are still single. The most important part of their training is learning to forget that the prisoners are human beings. They are taught that the imprisoned people before them are vile and anti-revolutionarily. They also learn there are promotions for faithful guards who catch people committing transgressions.
Though much better off than the prisoners, their job is one no ordinary citizen would envy. Since the “convicts” are never to be left alone, the guards have to go wherever they go regardless of cold, heat, wind, rain or snow. When prisoners must trek to the top of a hill to cut wood, the guards have to go with them carrying heavy machine-guns. Their facial expressions are remarkably similar to those of the people they guard – angry and exhausted.
Prisoners are completely at the whim of the sentries, who use brutal torture to obtain confessions, or sometimes for no apparent reason at all. Young female prisoners are especially vulnerable. They are often raped, even though that is against regulations (though killing prisoners is not). Women who become pregnant after being raped are taken away and killed.
There are Christians in the revolutionary zones of the political labor camps as well as in re-education camps. They attempt to conceal their faith even in detention, but those who are exposed are sent to the total control zones, as happened to a small band of Christians in camp No. 15 Yodok. Former prisoner Kim Tae-Jin recalled, “It was in the late eighties. I met the leader and he secretly spoke with me about God. I really liked him and he told me they formed a secret fellowship of seven persons. One day they were betrayed by a fellow prisoner.
They were all horribly tortured. They grabbed hold of my friend so tightly and beat him so hard that his arm died and had to be amputated, probably without an anesthetic. After that, he and the others were sent to another camp with an even stricter regime. You do not get out of a camp like that alive.”
In the total control zone, Christians are kept in isolation from other people. We know only bits and pieces about them, but Lee Soon-Ok, who was imprisoned in prison facility No. 1 Kaechon, wrote in her book, Eyes of the Tailless Animals, about several hundred Christians who were kept there. “They received less food and were punished harder than others. Once or twice a month all the 6,000 prisoners needed to gather on a Saturday or Sunday and one or two Christians were publicly asked to denounce their faith. If not, they were beaten or stabbed with a sharp bamboo stick. I was amazed the Christians chose to suffer and did not betray their God. Often they just sang songs or said ‘Amen.’ The guards became furious and frequently killed Christians. The Christians also had to do the most dangerous and hardest work, like working in the rubbery factory. If a guard managed to force a Christian to denounce God, he or she would receive a promotion. Sometimes we had to walk over the Christian until he died.”
What struck Lee most was that the Christians were never allowed to look up to the heavens. Those who did were punished heavily and many were sent to the electrical torture room. “I never saw a Christian return from this room,” she wrote. What she did see were the eyes of the “tailless” animals for years after she was released. Those unforgettable eyes cried out to her, “Tell the world about us.”
We wish we could give you the names and show you the – perhaps deformed – faces of our brothers and sisters who are not allowed to look up to the heavens. We are in great anguish; the afflictions are more than we can bear, but God promised that the “sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
Father, how thankful we are that we can worship You freely. Today we lift up our eyes to You, the source of all strength, and call upon You to set the captives free. We cannot hear the voices of those who are “sent to the mountains,” but You hear them. They cannot turn their eyes to heaven, but turn their hearts to heaven that they may be strengthened to endure to the end. Engulf them in the light of Your glory. Give them hearts of forgiveness, even for those who persecute them. Pierce the hearts of guards that they might repent and turn to You. We pray boldly that You might transform this land of spiritual darkness into a land of light and glory for Your name. In the name of Jesus, the light of the world, Amen.