She saw forced abortions, infanticide, and harsh treatment of Christians —
By Mark Ellis —
She entered Kaechon Prison a loyal communist, but lost her faith in the godless ideology of North Korea under horrifying conditions, then found faith in Christ after her release and a daring escape to freedom in South Korea.
“I saw something so unimaginable and so terrible that I wanted to let the world know,” says Soon Ok Lee, one of the rare human beings to survive and offer an eyewitness account of conditions inside North Korea’s political prisons. Lee has testified before the U.S. Congress and published a book about her experiences, “Eyes of the Tailless Animals, Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman (Living Sacrifice Book Co.).
She was falsely charged and sent to prison because of the wounded pride of one of her superiors at the material distribution center, where she worked. It seems a certain casual jacket style worn by Kim Jong Il caused a sensation among lower party figures, who all wanted to be seen in the stylish attire. Unfortunately, the material for the jackets was available only inChina, and party officers began pressuring her for more than their share.
“The security bureau chief asked to have two jackets made out of the fabric while everyone else received only one,” she writes. “Without raising my voice, I explained to him that I could not give him more than his share. Suddenly he turned around and spit out, ‘All right, Soon Ok. You will regret this,’ and he left my office.”
Arrested and falsely charged
On a peaceful Sunday morning a few weeks later, Lee was arrested for violating the commercial policies of the communist party and taking bribes. “It didn’t make any sense to me; I was as pure as snow,” she notes. “It was all the security bureau chief’s cunning scheme for revenge.”
Without a moment to say goodbye to her husband, who she would never see again, or her son, she was placed on a seven-hour train ride to her first cell. “For three days they did not let me close my eyes,” she writes, about her first interrogation. “They kept beating me and demanding that I answer their questions. I just kept repeating, ‘What do you want from me? I don’t really understand.”
Lee’s tormentors seem demonic, by her account. She describes them having eyes “like ravenous animals, shining with an unearthly light. It scared me to look into their eyes.” Their voices were “evil.”
They used a variety of diabolical techniques to extract a confession from the slender young woman. Once she was placed inside a furnace where bricks were baked. When she lost consciousness due to the intense heat, they dragged her out and poured cold water on her head to revive her, while intensifying their demands for confession.
She recalls being lashed by a leather whip while chained to a chair. “Even worse than the pain of the torture was being totally naked in front of all these men,” she writes in her book. “The shame of it pounds in my ears. I was so angry I fought them.”
“Frozen fish torture”
As winter arrived and Lee had still not signed her confession, her interrogator commanded one of the guards to “let this woman freeze.” Then she was forced to remain outdoors at night in her undergarments for extended periods until she was close to freezing to death. “For the first 20 or 30 minutes, my hands and feet were so cold that I felt kind of crazy. After that came the pain. But soon the pain disappeared and my body became numb,” she writes. The prison guards referred to this as the “frozen fish torture.”
Lee was shocked to discover that most of the people she met in the prison yard were arrested for refusing to give bribes to their superiors, so they were all there because of “someone’s revenge.” Still a loyal communist, she wondered “how the law could allow this.”
Seven months after her arrest, she was transferred to a province interrogation center. “At this point I lost my right of citizenship inNorth Korea,” she writes. “I was also expelled from the Party. This meant I that I lost all my rights as a human being.”
Her new interrogator tortured her for days to extract a confession. “After they released me from the fetters, I could not stand or walk straight because of my weakened condition, and I lost consciousness from time to time,” she writes. “Once as I regained consciousness, my back itched.” As Lee reached back to scratch she caught sight of something crawling.
“Through swollen eyes, I saw maggots all over my back. Flies had landed on my deadened flesh and laid their eggs as I was unconscious for hours.” Her new cell had no heat in the winter, and her interrogator insisted that her window be left open at night. “Cold wind and snowflakes blew into my cell and froze my body. It was too cold to sleep.”
Lee survived on meager food rations that were typically a crust of dried corn with a few beans. “The food was supposed to have 30 percent beans and 70 percent corn, however, the jailers took most of the beans to eat themselves,” she writes. The jailers warned them if they told anyone they didn’t get their beans, their ribs would be broken.
Finally the time arrived for Lee’s public trial, held in an auditorium. A police officer met with her and warned her to say “yes” to every question she was asked in court.
“You have a choice,” he said. “One is to do what I told you. The other is to be rebellious and then be secretly killed by us. If you die, I will cancel the trial, and you will be listed as a missing prisoner.”
“Throughout the whole trial, my attorney did not say a word to defend me,” she notes. “He came only to formally occupy a seat. No one told my son or husband about the trial. I did not even have a witness to speak up for me.” As the trial ended, Lee was sentenced to 13 years in prison for embezzling public funds.
In the book, Lee vividly describes her new home, Kaechon prison, filled with 6,000 political prisoners. As she arrived, a lieutenant introduced her to her new reality. “You are not a human being anymore,” he said. “If you want to survive here, you’d better give up the idea that you are human.” She was assigned number 832, her new identity.
New prisoners had to memorize a set of commandments, which began with the first commandment: ‘Adore the authorities of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il with all your heart.’ Both leaders are deified in North Korean society, and citizens are required to wear the image of ‘The Great Leader’ on their clothing at all times. Even visitors to the capital are required to visit a giant statue of the deceased dictator and pay homage to him by bowing down.
In her newcomer’s cell Lee met a thirty-nine-year old woman who stole two pounds of sugar. She was sentenced to three years in prison and all her property was confiscated by the state. When she appealed to a higher court, her action upset the public prosecutor, who extended her sentence to 20 years.
Initially Lee’s food rations were 80 grams per meal, less than one mouthful; the regular ration was 100 grams per meal of corn and a salty cabbage soup.
Work in prison factories
In her book, Lee describes prisoners awakened at 5 a.m., who then spent the entire day working in prison factories making clothing and shoes for export to western countries. “They survived every minute with fear,” she notes. “After a day of heavy labor (which lasted until after midnight), they only had four hours of sleep from 1 to 5 a.m.; however they could not relax even during these four hours,” she writes. “Every night two prisoners were assigned to watch the others who slept. The next morning, the prisoners who stayed awake had to report what the other prisoners said in their sleep.”
Lee describes workers who faced demanding quotas and severe treatment if they made mistakes on the job. “When I was dyeing clothes I had to be very alert,” she writes. “If I would put the clothes into the dye in the wrong order, the color would come out wrong and I would be put into solitary confinement.”
“The solitary confinement cell was only high enough to allow a person to sit on the floor,” she recalls. “Concrete thorns stuck out of the walls so the prisoner could not lean against them. The person could only sit and not move for many days.” Many prisoners legs became paralyzed as a result of such treatment, and could never walk normally again.
Lee reports her factory sent 900,000 brassieres to Russia and tens of thousands of sweaters to Japan. The Japanese returned many of the sweaters, complaining they were unclean. “One time France ordered paper roses,” she writes. “Each prisoner had a quota of 1,000 roses per day. After rolling that many roses, their fingertips were worn out and blood oozed from the skin.”
Even though Lee was raised an atheist, she first began to wonder about God’s existence during her prison experience. “I thought about humans,” she writes. “Sometimes they were extinguished so easily; sometimes they survived so incredibly. Based on man’s miraculous survival, I could not deny the existence of God.”
Sadly, Lee also witnessed forced abortion at Kaechon prison. While being transferred from one cell to another, she saw six pregnant women lying on a concrete floor giving birth to babies that were supposed to be stillborn. “Poison was injected into the babies,” she recalls. “After the injection, the pregnant women suffered tremendous pain until the babies were stillborn about 24 hours later.
“Miraculously, some of the babies were born alive. They cried like normal babies do. When a live baby was born, a medical officer said to the medical prisoners, ‘Kill it! These criminals don’t have any right to have babies. What are you doing? Kill it right now!’
“The mothers of these newborn babies just laid on the floor and sobbed so helplessly while a medical prisoner’s shaking hands twisted the baby’s neck. Male prisoners wrapped the babies in rags and dumped them into a basket.”
Christians in the camps
Christian prisoners were known as “superstition believers.” Because of their belief in heaven, they were never allowed to look up during their confinement, and were forced to keep their eyes to the ground. “Once a month, the believers were placed in the yard in front of all the prisoners and asked to deny their faith,” she writes. “Since they would not deny their faith, they were given the most difficult work assignments such as cleaning the toilets and removing human excrement.”
Other dangerous assignments for Christians included work in the rubber factory, smelting factory and the mine.
One day she witnessed six Christian prisoners transferring over a ton of human excrement from the toilets to a large tank. It was the monsoon season, and these prisoners were working in the pouring rain.
A woman named Ok Dan Lee climbed up on the tank to open it, but slipped on the slick surface and fell into the noxious mixture.
“Sister, can you come out,” one of her friends shouted to her.
“I’m having a difficult time,” she gasped, as she struggled to keep her head above the waste.
“Let me come up and help,” her friend said. An officer tried to stop her, but she climbed up the tank and jumped in to save her friend. Then another woman climbed up the tank and then another.
“In all, four women jumped into the tank to help their friends,” Lee recalls. “Each of them tried to push the others up first.” Then the officer below ordered the tank door be shut, cruelly sealing their fate. “The door was closed and the women were left in the tank. No one ever tried to take the bodies out.”
The actions of these women left Lee searching for answers. “When I saw their love, it raised questions in my mind that I could not erase,” she writes. “How could they die for someone else? What was it about heaven that was worth the cost?”
Lee saw more evidence the Christians received greater abuse than other prisoners, yet she was struck by their attitude. “In some instances while believers were being beaten, they would stand up halfway and begin to sing hymns and say ‘Amen.’ The guards thought they were crazy and took them back to the electric torture room. I never saw any of the believers return from that room.”
“They did not only not falsely accuse others, but were willing to take the blame for another. They even died for other prisoners.
On one occasion she saw the warden launch into a tirade because a Christian would not deny his faith. His fury was so intense Lee thought it looked like “he had been taking drugs to make him high.” He began to stomp on the Christian, reminding the other prisoners, “This is going to happen to you if you ever believe in heaven.”
Then the warden ordered all 6,000 prisoners in the camp to walk over the body of the Christian. “It was unimaginable how he died.”
Christians used as experimental guinea pigs
Lee also testifies to biochemical weapons experimentation on prisoners, including Christian prisoners. “Every morning I had to call out those names,” she says. “Many had just been added to the prison camp, so they were much healthier than the rest of us.”
“They were taking them to the biological weapons laboratory. They would put them in rooms, release different biological agents, and see how quickly the people died,” Lee says. “They would take others, strap them to beds and inject them with things, and watch them die over days and weeks.”
One day the emergency bell rang in the camp, which usually signaled a prisoner was about to be executed. “I ran outside wondering who would be executed this time,” Lee recalls. When everyone had gathered, an officer called out Soon Ok Lee’s name.
“My heart dropped,” Lee writes. “I couldn’t understand what I had done to deserve a public execution.”
Two soldiers led her in front of everyone and announced: “Soon Ok Lee has faithfully worked for Kim Il Sung, so we decided to reward her work. She will be returned to society. I am telling all of you, if you work as hard as she did, you can also go home.”
Lee immediately noticed 140 Christians in the front row raise their heads to look at her, violating prison policy. “Their eyes were glowing with a heavenly light,” she writes. She felt their eyes imploring her to testify about what she saw in the camp. “I will never forget the sight of those pleading eyes.”
On the day of her release, she ran out the iron gates of the prison with “unbelievable joy” into the arms of her son. “I saw my son running toward me. My son cried, “Now everything is fine with life again!” Her son was a university student who was forced to leave school after her arrest, and spent a brief period in a labor camp. Lee’s husband, a school principal, was also taken to a labor camp and perished there.
Lee estimates there are 200,000 prisoners in North Korea, and believes she is one of the very few who got out. “I was the first one in 30 years who was given the special privilege of a release from Kim Il Sung.”
The book chronicles Lee’s daring escape fromNorth Korea, which she now viewed as a “den of evil.” She and her son climbed over a mountain at night, then ran across a frozen river into China, made their way to Hong Kong, and finally South Korea. The entire journey took almost two years.
After their arrival, they were debriefed by South Korean officials. One day an inspector came in to meet with them, and said, “If you want to adjust quickly to living inSouth Koreaby forgetting all your suffering, you should read this book.” He handed them a Bible, which Lee had never seen before. Then he began to sing “Amazing Grace” to Lee.
“I knew the tune and joined him in singing,” she writes, although she didn’t remember where she learned the song. Later, memories began to return to her from when she was very young. She began to remember her mother and her friends gathering at night to “do embroidery” and sing about going to heaven. She remembered her mother singing hymns to her as she went to sleep.
“I realized my grandmother and my mother had been telling me about the Word of God in a safe way,” she writes. “When children go to school the teachers ask them if their parents ever secretly read out of a black book. The children are promised honor if they report their parents. But when the children tell on their parents, the parents are taken away.”
After Lee’s debriefing, she attended church for the first time, and began reading the Bible because she “wanted to have a good life.” When she read John 8:32, that “the truth will set you free,” she committed her life to Jesus Christ and began to experience “real freedom,” she says. “Soon my son also accepted Jesus and began to come to church with me.”
For a long time after her release Lee suffered nightmares about being tortured, and thought she would live with her “sad heart forever.” But God began to cleanse and heal her painful memories.
“I have been healed with the love of God and His comfort. I no longer dream
dreadful dreams. I am free.”
Lee’s body still bears the marks of the torture she endured. Some of her teeth are broken, the left side of her face is partially paralyzed, and she carries a scar over her left eye. She still suffers headaches from being kicked in the head, her eyesight blurs from time to time, and her shoulders are uneven. Yet she is grateful to God.
“Today all the things I hoped and dreamed have come true,” she says. “It’s really a miracle.”
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