On October 5, 2012, the North Korea Study Group at HKS hosted Ms. Kim Young Soon, a former celebrated dancer in North Korea. In her 2008 book entitled “I was Sung Hye-rim’s Friend,” Ms. Kim described her ordeal at the hands of Kim Jong-Il, whom she never met. In an excerpt of the book, she wrote, “I was sent to Yodeok prison camp because I knew Kim Jong Il was with Sung Hye-rim. Even Kim Il-sung was not aware of Kim Jong Il’s relationship with Sung. Kim Jong Il, a would-be No.1 leader of the republic, was in a relationship with a (once) married woman would be a huge scandal, and Kim Jong Il tried to keep the highest security.”
In this blog post, I will write about what Ms. Kim shared with her audience members at our event last month. Ms. Kim and her family were part of the North Korean elite because her ancestors were anti-Japanese fighters when Korea was colonized by Japan in the early twentieth century. She was sentenced to Yodok political prison camp for 9 years. Her crime? She was school friends with Sung Hye-Rim, a famous North Korean actress who became a secret consort of Kim Jong-Il, and bore Kim Jong-Nam, the Dear Leader’s eldest son.
Ms. Kim and Ms. Sung were classmates and friends from high school throughout college. One day, Ms. Sung told Ms. Kim that she was invited to Chamber #5, a residence reserved for the regime’s ruling clan. After the state made the connection that Ms. Kim’s friendship with Ms. Sung led to a civilian knowing too much of the Dear Leader’s private affairs, Ms. Kim and her entire family were sentenced to Yodok political prison camp. In the camp, Ms. Kim’s husband was ratted out for an alleged crime by an inmate, and he was taken to the total-control zone portion of Yodok. Her entire family—parents, three sons, one daughter, and husband–passed away in the camp. Ms. Kim, along with numerous defectors, argue that Yodok and the other North Korean concentration camps have been modeled after Auschwitz under Kim Il-Sung’s reign.
North Korean civilians are sentenced to Yodok camp with zero knowledge of their crimes. They don’t know if they committed a crime –and if so, the nature of the crime–, or if they were sentenced due to the guilt-by-association policy. If the latter, whose crime are they associated with? Guilt-by-association is an antiquated policy that was employed during Korea’s Chosun Dynasty in order to cut off the seeds of the next generation of criminals. North Korea is the only regime that exercises this policy today. It was only ten years after being released from Yodok that Ms. Kim was told why she landed in the prison camp.
Political prisoners ate anything that “flew, crawled, or grew in the field.” While in the camp, Ms. Kim witnessed mothers desperately try everything to keep their emaciated children alive. One common ‘medicinal’ practice was to cut open a pregnant rat to harvest its fetuses, roast the tiny creatures, and feed this to sick human babies in the camp. This was believed to cure human diseases. On multiple occasions, she–along with the other estimated 200,000 concentration camp prisoners–were forced to watch public executions of camp prisoners who were caught while trying to escape the prison.
After speaking about Yodok, Ms. Kim spoke more broadly about the regime. By the 1980s, Kim Il-Sung’s leadership had purged all factious groups. The fall of the Soviet Union—on whom North Korea had been heavily dependent for economic support—devastated North Korea’s public distribution system. Years later, one domestic campaign to showcase the power of its regime widely circulated the movie, The Titanic, among its citizens. The regime declared that the sinking of the ship on April 15, 1912 was symbolic of the fall of evil capitalism and the rise of the Sun of North Korea.
Despite the regime’s attempt to demonize the United States by blaming the U.S. for all its own misfortunes, and calling it a wolf that can never turn into a pure sheep, it continues to pay its elites in $ USD.
She then spoke of the luxury that shrouds the ruling family. Among the numerous mansions that exist for the elite, Mansion #72 is Kim Il-Sung’s mansion. All rice that enters these mansions is called Rice #1. Rice #2 is the name designated for emergency rice for war. Every article of clothing for the Kim family is specially designed for the members. She gave several anecdotes of the extremely fresh, large, and exotic seafood that were sent into Pyongyang daily with special government funds. If the seafood delivery food trains were to ever be late, the supervisor of the train would be killed immediately. As one could imagine, these trains were never late. Ms. Kim knew Mr. Han, the supervisor of Train #8 and #9. He was a master of the sea surrounding North Korea, and he was responsible for delivering goods to the Kim family.
Kim Il-Sung had told Kim Jong-Il that the successor must concentrate on keeping the party and military officials appeased. Do not “waste time on the economy,” Ms. Kim quoted the Dear Leader. She claims that Kim Il-Sung argued that a reformed (and presumably a more open) economy would inevitably lead to the country’s demise and the successor’s death.
Despite Ms. Kim’s ardent hope for reunification, she understands that this is not possible in the near future with North Korea pointing 15,000 artillery units at South Korea.
She escaped North Korea on February 1, 2001 and entered South Korea in November of 2003. She serves as the vice president of the Seoul-based group Committee for the Democratization of North Korea.
For more information about Ms. Kim Young Soon, please read this Reuters article.
Throughout our event, Ms. Kim repeatedly encouraged her audience members to watch ‘Yodok Stories,’ a controversial theater play that chronicles the experiences of several North Korean survivors of this political prison camp. This documentary captures the play and interviews of defectors who helped create the play. Please watch this — Ms. Kim tells you so! The actual movie link: http://www.yodokfilm.com
As always, please do not hesitate to reach out with questions or comments.