The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is a source country for men, women and children who are subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking. Government oppression in the country prompts many to flee the country in ways that make them vulnerable to human trafficking in destination countries, especially China. Within North Korea, forced labour is part of an established system of political repression. The government subjects its nationals to forced labour through mass mobilisations and in North Korean prison camps. There are an estimated 80 000 to 120 000 prisoners being held in political prison camps in remote areas of the country. Here men, women and children are subjected to unhygienic living conditions, beatings, torture, rape, lack of medical care and insufficient food. Many do not survive and furnaces and mass graves are used to dispose the bodies of those who die.
Young Soon, along with her family, was forced into an internment camp in North Korea as a political prisoner. Forced to live in a cramped hut and fed only gruel, Young Soon worked long hours in a corn field. All members of her family either died of malnutrition or were killed. After nine years, Young-Soon was able to escape to South Korea.
I met Seong Hye-rim at a school for North Korean elites. That was where I learned to dance. She was a singer, a very good one. Seong and I stayed friends long into our 30s. One day, she told me she was moving to “Residence Number 5”, where the great leader Kim Jong-il’s family lived. She looked very happy. I asked what would happen to her existing family, but she didn’t answer and I never saw her again.
A few months later, I was given orders by the Communist party to go on a business trip. I left my nine-month-old son with my mother and went to the train station. A lieutenant colonel put me in a jeep and drove us down a pitch-dark road. I had no idea what was happening. That first night in captivity was the longest of my life. I was forced to write down the history of my entire existence, including who I had ever met and what I had ever said. It amounted to 200 pages.
I spent the next two months in solitary confinement. Then they moved me, my parents and my four children to Yodok, an internment camp for political prisoners. We all lived in a cramped thatched hut with a mud floor, and were woken at 3.30am to work on the corn fields until sunset. The only food we were given was gruel. To survive, we found anything that grew or moved and ate it, quickly, so no one would catch us. On a lucky day, we would find a rat or a snake and share it.
I was in that camp for nine years. My parents and my eight-year-old son died of malnutrition there, and the rest of my family were either shot dead or drowned. Later, after I was released, I was told we’d been imprisoned because I knew about Kim Jong-Il’s relationship with Seong.
I managed to escape to South Korea, and the first thing I got here was a potato. I don’t know why, but I’ve kept it all these years in the fridge. When I look at it, I feel happy. I know I can get food here any time, anywhere.
As told the Guardian.