Deaths in North Korea’s notoriously cruel gulags stopped being recorded after dictator Kim Jong-un took control of the pariah nation, a former prisoner has claimed.
“When Kim Jong-un came to power, he questioned the officials that oversaw the labour education camps about the high death rates. The result was that prison officials were instructed not to record the deaths of overworked prisoners,” he said.
The comments, in an interview with the Daily NK news website, were made by a former prisoner of the Tongrim disciplinary labour centre in North Pyongan Province, who spoke anonymously out of fear for his family’s safety.
He claimed to have personally seen medical records while he was sick in the gulag’s clinic that showed a high death rate among patients in 2011 tailing off from 2014.
The man, who was imprisoned for a year, described a life of starvation, brutality and bribery as inmates struggled to survive long hours of hard labour on meagre food rations of boiled corn porridge.
Inside North Korea
He said prisoners were forced to make false eyelashes, with those who failed to meet quotas being brutally beaten and denied food, often “collapsing from overwork and malnutrition.”
When he tried to offer a hungry fellow inmate some food, he was thrown into solitary confinement. “I was so cold and hungry that I thought I was dead,” he said.
“They really did not consider us as humans by the way they beat us so harshly, sometimes to death.”
The former prisoner revealed how an informal hierarchy developed in the camp as those with more money managed to bribe their way into better positions as group supervisors or informants.
Monied middle class inmates could pay their way out of a harsh initiation to the camp of 30 days indoctrination, beatings and hard labour.
For ordinary prisoners, every day began at 5am, with prisoners remaining at their workstations until collapsing with exhaustion at 11pm.
Those without family members able to bring extra food worked continuously until 3am, taking on extra quotas in exchange for food. “This was the only way these prisoners can survive,” he revealed.