New sanctions spotlight North Korea’s harrowing Soviet-style gulags


Jung Gwang-il was a 36-year-old married father of two when a truck delivered him late one night to hell on earth.

“When we got there, I saw people who didn’t even look human, they looked like beasts,” he recalled. “It was extraordinarily frightening.”

It was April 2000. Jung had been a privileged seafood trader at a North Korean state-run company that did business with China. He was accused of espionage by a co-worker, arrested, and taken to one of the six terrifying political prison camps established by Kim Jong Un’s dictator grandfather in the late 1940s.

The “beasts” were inmates who “couldn’t walk properly because they’d been tortured and starved.”

Many of the men arriving with Jung at the mountain prison, Camp 15, also known as Yodok, wouldn’t survive the 16 daily hours of hard labor, usually dangerous logging, with little food and only light clothing in freezing temperatures. But conditions are even more horrific at remote and fearsome Camp 16, believed to be the worst in North Korea’s vast penal system, and a place no one has ever been known to escape.

Now, between defectors like Jung and the testimony of female detainees in a new UN report, the effort to expose North Korea’s murderous penal system might finally be working. Britain announced July 11 they were slapping sanctions on the country for its prison camps. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un predictably went ballistic, calling it a “flagrant political plot to jump on the bandwagon of the United States’ inimical policy” — and inadvertently shined a light on camps he and his family have always denied existed.

An estimated 120,000 “enemies of the state” are warehoused in Soviet-style political prison gulags, but even “regular” prison camps are extraordinarily brutal. According to the July UN report, about 100 North Korean women who escaped to China and were forcibly repatriated suffered “appalling violations.”

“I did not sleep and worked because I did not want to be beaten. It was excruciating to a level that I even attempted to commit suicide,” said one of the women interviewed by UN probers.

The detainees reported forced nudity, invasive body searches, and sometimes torture and rape. Several women told UN officials that prison guards tried to cause pregnant prisoners to abort by beating them or making them do hard labor. There was also infanticide.

“Guards beat the infants to death or bury them alive after they are born,” wrote Roberta Cohen, the former chair of Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), in an earlier report.

In Camp 15, an already emaciated Jung was barely able to walk after nine months of daily punishment that included waterboarding, being electrocuted while bound to a barber chair and so-called “pigeon torture” — tied to the wall for hours in such a way that he could not sit down nor stand up.

Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il
Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong IlAP Photo/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service

In an interview with The Post via Zoom from Seoul, South Korea, Jung said he managed to survive Camp 15 because the trainer-inmates warned him his family would be imprisoned if he died in the camp.

Unlike Camp 16, Jung’s prison was a so-called “revolutionizing zone.” Inmates faced nightly brainwashing sessions that often lasted until midnight. But these prisoners were sometimes let go, as Jung was after three years. He swam across the Tumen River into China 12 days after his release, and eventually made it to South Korea. He wife and two kids had escaped the country previously and joined him in Seoul.

Despite harrowing reports from the UN and human-rights groups and even the death of American college student Otto Warmbier in 2017 while detained in North Korea, most outsiders know little about the concentration camps.

North Korea has long adhered to the “three generation rule” when imprisoning dissidents, meaning their entire families often have to go with them. But no one has ever escaped to report what happens in Camp 16, thought to be a “total control zone.” Captives are reportedly worked until they drop dead, possibly at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site about a mile away.

“It’s like the Matrix,” Sean King, an Asian specialist with Park Strategies, told the Post. “You’re grown and harvested for the regime.”

Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of HNRK, said, “The level of cruelty in the North Korean prison camps is truly unsurpassed in modern history. I’ve interviewed hundreds of witnesses over the years. When it comes to a gulag system, they have out-Sovieted the Soviets.”

Thomas Buergenthal, an Auschwitz survivor and judge who served on the International Court of Justice, said in 2017 that North Korean’s political prisons are as bad, if not worse, than the Nazi death camps.

Jung, now 57, leads No Chain for North Korea, a group he founded that smuggles Hollywood movies, South Korean TV and other information about the outside world into the Hermit Kingdom. According to a recent video seen by the US-backed Radio Free Asia, Kim is so enraged at North Koreans secretly watching smuggled South Korean soap operas and K-pop music videos that he’s had dozens arrested, shackled, their heads shaved, and sent to the camps for interrogation.

Having grown up worshiping Kim Jong Un’s father, the second Supreme Leader of North Korea, Jung’s only wish now is to awaken what he says are the brainwashed masses of his former country.

He despises Kim Jong Un — but his real resentment is reserved for world leaders who appease him for their own political ends.

“I blame what’s happening in North Korea on large part on the politicians and leaders who enable Kim Jong Un,” Jung said. “South Korea nowadays is a vassal state of the north and they take their orders from the north. Kim is not a normal leader who deserves to meet Trump. Kim is a killer. He is not worthy of going to summits with world leaders.”

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