Any assertion that rank-and-file people in North Korea are content with their lot is simply untrue. Although the government, such as it is, does everything possible to deceive and suppress them, they know they are getting a bad deal. How’s that for stating the obvious? They need more than reform, they need a full-blown revolution.
There have been a surprising number of demonstrations, student protests, riots due to food shortages, military mutinies and assassination attempts against the ruling Kim family. Some of the Kim statues and murals—designed to convey their God-like wisdom and abilities—have been defaced. Of course, the response is always severe with no shortage of exemplary death and destruction.
I would like to focus on a single incident which shows the people’s willingness to rise up and strike at those who keep them in such awful straits: the May 1987 revolt of prisoners at Concentration Camp No. 12 at Onsong in North Hamgyong Province—way up near the border with China and Russia. Most of what we know about it comes from the testimony of two defectors, Ahn Myong-Chol and Mun Hyun-Il. The former was a guard at nearby Concentration Camp No. 22. He learned about the riot from platoon and squad leaders who helped quell it. The latter, a civilian, was told about the uprising and subsequent massacre by fellow villagers. These accounts are admittedly second-hand, but verifiable evidence from North Korea is hard to come by.
About 15,000 people lived, if that is the correct verb, in Camp No. 12. All were political prisoners, meaning they had done or said something that the Kim regime found offensive. Some were there because of the three-generation rule, derived from an ancient Korean dynastic practice known as yonjwa; not only was a person imprisoned, but two more generations of his family. The crime could be as innocuous as possession of a DVD featuring South Korean soap operas, allowing dust to gather on a portrait of Kim Il-Sung or not answering quickly enough to the command of a soldier or public official. That constitutes being an “enemy of the state.”
According to Ahn and Mun, a man who had been working as a coal miner (if this camp was typical, he would have been lucky to have a pick and shovel as some are forced to work with their hands) and could no longer tolerate the torturous ways of a guard struck and beat him to death. Another guard came upon the scene and was killed by a crowd estimated at 200. That number only grew as they killed other guards and their family members who lived within the prison walls.
Oh, how they must have raged at their captors and the gross unfairness of it all! These people were physically weak due to inadequate diets, overwork and constant maltreatment. Most of them were quite short, resembling dwarves or midgets. Many were missing limbs and eyes, and had scars all over their bodies. Others had been subjected to draconian medical experiments. With scant bathing facilities, they were dressed in rags and covered with fleas and lice. It is unclear how long the doomed rebellion at Camp No. 12 lasted, and the prisoners surely knew that retribution would be swift. Guards from Camp No. 22 were called in. Using machine guns, they shot indiscriminately and killed about 5,000. The bodies were either burned or dumped into mass graves. Onsong’s Camp No. 12 was closed two years later and the survivors of the assault transferred to Hoeryong.
The name of the man who rose up and smote the guard, thus instigating the riot, has, of course, been forgotten or obscured. But I will call him Mr. Park. He deserves to be remembered, recognized, honored. I admire his courage and his willingness to resist. Someday, and let’s hope it’s soon, the Kim regime will be toppled. The North Korean people will get their first glimpse of the outside world, and we will be able to know the awful reality of the DPRK. I suggest that a life-size statue—no need for one of those 22-meter-high monstrosities of Kim Il-Sung before which people are compelled to bow—of Mr. Park be built in downtown Pyongyang. His action was heroic, which cannot be said about Kim or his son or grandson. The time will come when the full extent of North Korea’s barbaric gulag is exposed to the light of day.
Ahn Myong-Chol has talked freely about his eight years as a guard at Camp 22 in Hoeryong. He saw some ghastly things, such as people starving to death, children being torn to shreds by dogs, and private and public executions. The guilt-ridden man estimates that 60% of the inmates had abandoned hope but the remainder thought that maybe, just maybe, South Korean or American troops would surge in and liberate them.