Inside Kim Jong-un’s camps of death: Former North Korean female guard reveals the horrors she saw in secret prisons where thousands face being starved, beaten, raped and butchered
Lim Hye-jin still shivers at the memory of two brothers who managed to escape briefly from her massive concentration camp in the mountains of North Korea. Seven family members were killed on the spot in revenge. Scores more prisoners were savagely beaten as collective punishment for the breakout.
Several weeks later, guards and inmates were ordered to gather as the pair – their bodies battered from torture – were dragged back behind the barbed wire. They had been caught in China and returned to the repressive regime.
‘The two brothers were beheaded in front of everyone,’ said Lim. ‘They called everyone to watch as a warning not to flee. The other prisoners then had to throw stones at them.’
The scene left Lim, then 20, so traumatised she could not eat for days. Yet it was just one of many terrible incidents she saw during seven years as a camp guard, including routine killings, torture and rape of political prisoners declared enemies of the state.
One woman was stripped naked, then casually set on fire after annoying a guard during interrogation. ‘They do not see them as human beings, just as animals,’ said Lim.
Now Lim – who ended up in prison herself after being caught trading in China – has spoken exclusively about her experiences, offering a unique insight into the horrors of North Korea’s forced labour camps holding an estimated 200,000 people.
Her revelations come as tensions continue to rise on the Korean peninsula. US President Donald Trump is pressing China to act over its cruel neighbour with warnings of possible ‘major conflict’ if the stand-off over North Korea’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons is not resolved through diplomacy.
Lim is the first female guard to talk openly about her experiences.
‘We were manipulated not to feel any sympathy for prisoners,’ she said. ‘We were told they had committed terrible crimes. Now I know they were normal people so I feel very guilty.’
Few have escaped these hidden hellholes, modelled on Stalin’s gulags and compared to those run by the Nazis. Even children are incarcerated for life, along with parents and grandparents, under rules that punish three generations for perceived dissidence.
One defector told me he was the only one of 5,000 children to escape his camp, which held close to 50,000 people. Many prisoners are stunted and deformed by hunger and back-breaking labour in freezing forests and deep mines. Former inmates told me of living in fear of constant beatings, of injured people dumped to die in the snow, of hundreds sealed beneath ground after mining accidents, of rotting corpses piled beside huts, of catching snakes to survive deadly starvation.
Satellite evidence suggests some of these barbaric units have grown since Kim Jong Un took over the family dictatorship six years ago, although their existence is denied.
Camp 12, a fenced-off farm growing corn and peppers near the Chinese border, was where Lim first began working, aged 17. Inmates included high-ranking officials who had fallen out of favour with the regime.
Guards, brought up in a system that deifies the Kim dynasty, were given brainwashing sessions twice a week and told not to see prisoners as humans. ‘Even if a guard was driving and ran over a child, there would not be real punishment,’ she said.
Most inmates at the two camps where she worked were women and children. ‘If men were healthy they would be sent to the mines where they were used as disposable labour. Many died. They were also made to psychologically suffer.’
One survivor told me of frequent accidents in quarries and mines as exhausted inmates worked round the clock. ‘On one occasion, 300 people lost their lives in a gas explosion. The guards just closed off the tunnels with others trapped inside to stop the fires and gas spreading.’
Hundreds are also alleged to have died hollowing out huge tunnels in Mount Mantap for the testing of nuclear weapons and then clearing the contaminated sites afterwards.
Lim said male guards abused women in camps by having what they called ‘affairs’ with them. ‘It was basically rape because prisoners did not have the right to say no.’
If women became pregnant, they had to have abortions or were killed by lethal injection, and if pregnancy was too advanced, babies were beaten to death or buried alive.
Camps have ‘reward marriages’, in which model prisoners are given a mate selected by camp chiefs as an incentive to work hard. Men and women are otherwise kept apart.
This is a satellite image of Camp 12, a fenced-off farm growing corn and peppers near the Chinese border, and was where Lim first began working, aged 17.