Jeong Kwang-il, a former political prisoner at Camp Yodok in North Korea, spoke about his experiences in the camp at an event hosted by Truth and Human Rights in North Korea Thursday at the Mortara Center.
Jeong was arrested by the North Korean government in 1999 after he contacted a South Korean citizen while he was on a trip to China. After he was tortured, he falsely confessed to being a spy and was sent to the camp.
Jeong then spent three years in the camp, where he and other prisoners were forced into hard labor under brutal conditions. He was released in 2003 after a senior guard determined he had been wrongly accused.
One month after his release, he escaped North Korea, arriving in South Korea a year later. Once there, he became involved with various advocacy movements to raise awareness within North Korea about human rights violations and to bring information from the rest of the world into the country.
Jeong said that while he was at Yodok, he found that many of the other prisoners shared similar experiences of wrongful imprisonment.
“There were so many people there who weren’t actual political enemies, but who simply uttered something that was deemed offensive,” Jeong said. “They were sent to a prison camp, or tried to escape to China and were arrested by Chinese authorities and ended up in Yodok.”
According to Jeong, prisoners faced daily abuse from guards. The prisoners’ labor consisted of pulling weeds and cutting logs. Jeong said that prisoners who fell behind in their work faced beatings or other punishments.
“At Yodok, prisoners were forced to work 16 hours a day, which was very physically demanding,” Jeong said. “If you did not complete your assigned work quota, you were not given food for that particular day. It was a very difficult situation.”
Jeong said that prisoners worked from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m. and were only permitted to eat one bowl of rice and vegetable soup. At the end of every day, Jeong said that they were forced to take a class for political re-education and were not allowed to sleep until they memorized what they had learned.
“What I experienced at Yoda was inhumane and the time that I spent there is indescribable,” Jeong said.
“When I first came to South Korea and began my life as a resettled defector, I could not sleep at night because I could still see the faces of my fellow inmates at Yodok.”
In 2009, Jeong began to send outside information into his home country. He started off by sending CDs and DVDs, and eventually began sending information through USB flash drives.
“When I myself was living in North Korea, I had no contact with information from outside and I feel that people in North Korea need to know about what is going on outside the country,” Jeong said. “After I came out of North Korea, I saw how important it was to send information.”
Jeong said that the purpose of this information is to create a sense of awareness for the North Korean residents and to educate them on ideas like democracy and freedom.
In response to an audience question about the future of North Korea, Jeong expressed optimism.
“I can’t look into the future, but regarding Kim Jong Un, a regime like that can’t last forever,” Jeong responded. “In due time, I believe that change will happen.”
Julia Rhodes (SFS ’18) said that she was moved by the event.
“I thought the event was particularly powerful because the issue of human rights abuses in North Korea seems almost surreal,” Rhodes said. “It is very grounding to see this story embodied in one single person and I think that it…makes this nightmare seem all the more real.”
Min Joo Lee (SFS ’18) said that the topic of the event was personally relevant to her.
“To us South Koreans, North Koreans are not just anybody. They are actually part of some families who are living in South Korea and are in great pain because of this repressive regime,” Joo Lee said. “This is very personal to me, firstly as a human being, and also as a student who is studying foreign policy. This is what we study for, [and] these are the kind of situations that we want to make better after going through a Georgetown education.”
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