[Viewpoint]The most brutal gulags in the worldI visited the Gana Art Gallery in Insa-dong on Feb. 14. It was the last day of “Where Love Does Not Exist,” an exhibition documenting life in North Korea’s network of concentration camps, where an estimated 154,000 prisoners are held.
The exhibition was hosted by Sage, a student group at Handong Global University in Seoul that advocates for human rights in North Korea. Visitors were waiting in a long line to view the exhibition. Usually, when an exhibition about North Korea is held, the visitors are mostly elderly. However, this one was different. Many of them were in their 20s. It certainly is a significant change.
Young North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyeok, who attended the exhibition, described life at Kaechon concentration camp. “I was born in a concentration camp and lived there for 24 years. I never heard people saying ‘love,’ ‘happy’ or ‘fun.’ I learned the meaning of these words after I came to the South. Those words did not exist in the concentration camp. We learned basic addition and subtraction, a set of basic vocabulary words and feelings needed for the laborers. In extreme conditions, we were raised as slaves,” he said.
Kaechon concentration camp is a completely restricted zone where prisoners are imprisoned for life and never released. There are too many prisoners suffering in concentration camps in North Korea. And the question is, what is happening in them?
“We ate anything that moves and flies. We even ate any grass that grew on the ground. So many prisoners had food poisoning. People said when you burn a young, hairless mouse and put it on the skin, the food poisoning would be healed. So mothers would do anything to catch mice, but they couldn’t even find rodents in Yodok concentration camp,” said Kim Yeong-sun, another defector from the North.
“Would the citizens of the Republic of Korea allow a concentration camp somewhere in the country where people are hauled away without reason and three generations are killed systematically?” asked Kang Cheol-wan, another defector.
A photograph caught my attention, of a mother and two daughters currently imprisoned in Yodok concentration camp. They are the wife and daughters of O Gil-nam, a South Korean. O received a doctorate in economics from the University of Bremen in Germany in 1985. He then voluntarily moved to North Korea with his wife and two daughters.
About a year later, while at the airport in Copenhagen, Denmark, he decided not to return to North Korea because he was disgusted by the reality there. His wife and two daughters, still in the North, were imprisoned at a concentration camp.
In one corner of the exhibition venue were yellow cards he placed in hopes of rescuing his daughters. Many visitors signed their names, addresses, e-mail addresses and phone numbers and donated 1,000 won ($0.88) for the cause.
“I cannot even cry because it doesn’t feel real at all. I just cannot imagine the harsh reality,” one visitor wrote after seeing the exhibition.
“I won’t stop at just feeling sad. I won’t stop at just crying tears for them,” said another visitor, pledging to make a difference.
Yet another visitor confessed, “I felt guilty for not finishing my breakfast this morning. I am embarrassed about the abundant food in my refrigerator that often gets spoiled.”
I read the names on the list of prisoners at Yodok concentration camp: Kang Mi-suk, Kim Gyeong-ok and Kim Gwang-sik. Suddenly, I felt tears welling up in my eyes. These political prisoners had been imprisoned and may still be imprisoned at the concentration camp.
I felt a chill from looking at the names. My blood seemed to stop circulating. A former prisoner who spent 10 years at Yodok cried out, “The government and the citizens of the Republic of Korea are neglecting North Korean human rights. The suffering is being ignored!”
Feb. 16 was Kim Jong-il’s birthday, and it is the biggest holiday in the North. However, the prisoners at the concentration camps must deal with harsh conditions and severe weather.
We cannot just stand by and watch the cruelty. We should make a fire and warm them up.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Chung Jin-hong