PARLIAMENT HILL, Ottawa—Liberal MP Mario Silva said it’s one of the most tragic and incredible stories ever told before the Parliamentary Subcommittee on Human Rights.
The woman recounting it wore large sunglasses the entire time, telling the committee she still has family in North Korea and her tales of what goes on in the most isolated country in the world would endanger them.
Hye Sook Kim lived much of her life in No. 18 concentration camp, her entire family blacklisted when her grandfather disappeared during the civil war. Four generations of her family lived—and many died—in the camp, existing under a tyranny almost impossible to imagine.
Public executions were common, for crimes from stealing vegetables to murdering children.
She was brought to the camp at 13. Her mother and father had been sent years earlier, but she had lived outside the camp with her grandmother until guards brought her there as well.
She was greeted by her mother and family with a special meal, a gruel of grass and corn she could not stomach, though her younger brothers and sisters devoured it like a feast. Their home was less than humble.
“You couldn’t really call them houses; small huts, like beasts would live in,” she told the committee through a translator.
Kim’s father had died already and her mom soon after she arrived, in an accident while picking vegetables along a cliff.
Beyond starvation, there were beatings and the ever-present threat of death. Public executions were common, for crimes from stealing vegetables to murdering children. “Everyone was in pain and suffering,” she said.
Having been imprisoned for 28 years, Kim hoped to die but was instead subjected to humiliation, such as being forced to swallow the spit of other prisoners who detested the class of prisoners to which she belonged—so-called “relocated people.”
Their corn porridge would sometimes have a bit of salt for flavour, but not always. The rations were better for the prisoners who worked in the mine. Her brother died in the mine, and many others developed respiratory illness.
A shift was only supposed to last 8 hours, but usually ran 12 to 16 hours, with the same amount of time afterward spent scavenging the mountains for edible plants. There wasn’t enough water, which was rationed, to keep clean, nor was there soap.
The public executions escalated in 1994 when Kim Jong-Il took over leadership of the country after the death of his father Kim Il-sung, the communist leader who founded the regime.
The bodies lay on roads, too many to be dealt with until special teams were formed to take care of them.
“At first I was scared,” said Kim, but later, such a sight was too common to be afraid anymore.