Kang Cheol Hwan is one of the most well known survivors of Yodok forced labour camp known as “Camp 15”. Picture: Shannon Ebrahim

If anyone doubts that a world approximating George Orwell’s 1984 or Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 exists today, just ask one of the survivors of  North Korea’s prison labour camps. 

I did just that last week when I was in Seoul, and interviewed one of the most well known survivors of Yodok forced labour camp known as “Camp 15” in North Korea – Kang Cheol Hwan. It is one of the most secretive places in the world.  

Hwan is not an easy man to get a hold given the demands on his time as the Director of the North Korea Strategy Centre. These days there is hardly a spare half hour in his diary with the flare up in tensions on the Korean peninsula. But for someone who has met with numerous world leaders, Hwan is remarkably humble and soft-spoken.

It is never easy to ask someone about an agonising period in their lives, but even more so about their experience in one of the infamous prison camps in the world – hidden deep in the mountains of North Korea. 

Camp 15 is one of the rare prison camps in North Korea from which there is a remote possibility of eventual release. For those imprisoned in ninety-five percent of the country’s prison camps, there is quite simply no release, they will die in the  impenetrable mountains of the hermit kingdom.

It is commonly known in North Korea that if someone articulates any type of criticism against the regime, three generations of their family will be taken to a prison labour camp, often for the rest of their lives. The story that led to Hwan’s family being incarcerated in Camp 15 is of particular interest.

Hwan’s grandfather had resided in South Korea during World War Two and was taken by the Japanese occupying forces to Japan. After the war he had remained in Japan and headed the Economic Association. “My grandmother was deeply committed to her communist beliefs, and insisted on taking the whole family back to what was then North Korea,” Hwan recalls. 

It was a decision that later traumatised her and she lived to regret. Back in Korea, Hwan’s grandfather was given a senior position in charge of the state’s department stores for rationing food, and his wife held a highly respected position as the deputy chair of a committee in the national assembly. 

It was none other than the wife of Kim Il Sung that chaired the committee.  

Following the death of Kim Il Sung power was transferred down to his son Kim Jong Il. “It was the creation of a family dynasty that drew criticism from my grandfather who believed it was not in keeping with communist principles,” Hwan said. 

Such dissenting views were not taken kindly, and party officials tried to smear his reputation by suggesting that he was an agent of the Japanese police. 

Eventually Hwan’s grandfather was punished to one of the most brutal and infamous prison camps in the country, while the next two generations of his family were sent to Camp 15 for what ended up being a 10 year period.

Interestingly, Hwan’s mother was spared the torturous experience as she came from a family that was considered like royalty to the Kim regime, and she was forced to divorce Hwan’s father in order to avoid being imprisoned herself. 

It was then that Hwan, his uncle, grandmother and siblings were taken to Camp 15 which began a decade fraught with pain and tragedy.

“My earliest memory of the camp that first autumn as a 10 year old, was seeing the young boys running around looking worse than beggars. They were all skin and bones, without shoes, and many kids years older than myself were the same height, as malnourishment had stunted their growth,” Hwan recounted.

From day one Hwan was subjected to hard labour, which at the age of ten entailed pulling heavy wood from the forests to the camp – sometimes 3kms or more. “I nearly fainted under the weight. 

If you didn’t perform the work expected by the guards, it was not the guards who would beat you, but they would instruct members of your work group to exact violent punishment,” Hwan said. 

No one dared defy the orders of a guard for fear of being sent to the prison within the prison camp, where detainees were held for six months in a cell four ft by four ft. “Most never survived the experience as prisoners were forced to sit for extended periods in cold muddy water, and if they survived, their flesh was literally rotten.”

“The memory which most traumatised me during those years was the day I saw a man hanged. It was not only the hanging itself, but the fact that the guards forced prisoners to throw rocks at the body and left it hanging there for a week until the birds had pecked at it so much it was beyond recognition,” Hwan recalled. 

This was the reason he claimed very few people ever thought of trying to escape as the repercussions were so brutal. “We watched people being executed all the time.”

For many North Koreans who have managed to escape to the South, it is the recollection of executions and hangings that have had the most prolonged and devastating effects. Many need lifelong treatment for PTSD, and even with psychological counselling never fully recover.

“One third of the prisoners in Camp 15 never made it past three months due to malnourishment,” Hwan said. “The only food we were given to cook for ourselves was corn and salt. Other than that they had to find sources of protein in the forests which meant eating everything from snakes, to rats, worms and frogs.” 

Many resorted to eating weeds. Hwan, like most North Korea prison camp survivors, most vividly recalls his perpetual state of hunger.

The prisoners were woken daily at 5am to start work, which would be varied depending on the season. It could entail panning for gold in the river, mining, building houses, farming, cutting and transporting wood. 

Three evenings a week they had to attend political lectures until 10pm which largely consisted of going through the writings and sayings of Kim Il Sung.

“Of all my family members, the person who was most devastated and affected by the experience was my grandmother. She blamed herself continually as she had insisted that the family return to North Korea from Japan,” Hwan recalled.

But despite the morbid conditions of the camp it did not make many of the prisoners turn against the regime, precisely because they never had any other reality to compare it to. For them this was how all governments treated their people, and one had to simply accept it and hope to survive.

When Hwan and his family were released after a decade, it took years for Hwan to become aware that there was a very different world beyond the borders of North Korea. Much of the information that he garnered came from banned South Korean  radio stations, and provoked discussions among him and his close friends.

Five years following his release he and a former prisoner of Camp 15 hatched a plan to escape across the Yalu river into China. They succeeded in their dangerous journey in 1992. 

When Hwan finally reached South Korea, he documented his experiences in a riveting book called “The Aquariums of Pyongyang,” which has been translated into English. The title depicts the ever seeing eyes which watch your every move in the country’s capital, just as a fish would be constantly stared at in an aquarium.

Hwan has now dedicated his life to covertly disseminating information about the outside world to North Korea through USB sticks using a sophisticated underground network. Hwan is high on North Korea’s most wanted list, and has to be guarded by round the clock protectors. It is dangerous work, but with the potential to change the perspectives of many North Koreans.

Hwan’s story is testament to the fact that a world similar to the one depicted in the novel 1984 really does exist in our own time, and its horrors are even more grave. Using satellite imagery Amnesty International claims that the forced labour camps in North Korea have expanded since the time of Hwan’s release, with new buildings having been erected. 

But with increasingly numbers of defectors fleeing the country despite the tightened border security, the truth of this secret world is being laid bare.

* Ebrahim is Independent Media's Group Foreign Editor.