In North Korea, the sin of a single family member can condemn the next three generations to fearful suffering. Many transgressions can lead to arrest and imprisonment in the regime’s political prison camps, but perhaps the cardinal sin is attempting to escape to China or South Korea.
Kim Hye Sook learned this in February of 1975, when authorities dragged her family off to a political prison camp in Bukchang-gun. She was 13. Her family, previously members of the elite in North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang, did not know what they had done wrong.
Kim would not learn the truth until her release from the camp 28 years later. An older relative told her that during the Korean War her paternal grandfather had gone missing, and the event finally caught up to the family. That suspicion doomed Kim’s family to prison camp, where her parents, grandmother, husband, and one of her brothers would die.
I met Kim, a diminutive woman with kind eyes and a softly waved bob, in March. She and another North Korean defector had testified that week before a United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. We talked with the help of an interpreter, and Kim showed me pictures that brought to life the heartbreaking details of her story.
She lost her father first: Authorities dragged him away for asking why they had been locked up. The family never saw him again. Three years later, while scavenging for food on a mountainside, Kim’s mother missed a step and fell to her death before her children’s eyes.
Death visited the camp often. Sometimes workers, like Kim’s brother and later, her husband, would die from accidents in the dangerous coal mines. Sometimes prisoners died from malnourishment, like Kim’s grandmother. Sometimes, guards publicly executed inmates. Kim remembers the execution of one woman who, so desperate for food, had killed and cooked her 9-year-old daughter. Everyone in the camp had to attend the execution, where guards tied the prisoner to a wooden stake and blindfolded her. A firing squad fired round after round until the stake holding the bullet-hole-ridden body cracked.
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