How To Survive A North Korean Labor Camp

camp_4_smallFortunately, journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were released a couple of weeks ago without having had to spend any time in one of North Korea’s brutal labor camps. But you, my friend, may not be so lucky. Let’s say you’re on vacation in China and you’re near the North Korean border and you think to yourself—“wouldn’t it be totally awesome if I just crossed into North Korea for a few seconds to take a quick photo so I can prove to my buddies I was there?” Before you know it, you’re surrounded by armed NK guards and taken into custody.

Because you are a nobody who isn’t working for Al Gore–the outside world is not going to care that you were arrested, you’re not going to be on CNN, you’re going to be tried and convicted on charges you probably won’t understand and sentenced to one of the country’s infamous labor camps. You are essentially screwed, my friend. No one’s going to be holding any vigils for you, Anderson Cooper will not be interviewing your family and Bill Clinton will not be coming to your rescue. In case you may ever find yourself in this situation, I once again offer some practical advice—this time, on what to expect in these camps and the best way to survive.

According to a recently published report by the nongovernmental US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, entitled The Hidden Gulag, prisoners are forced to work–many to their deaths (some estimates say as many as 20-25 percent of detainees die every year)–in mining, logging, farming and industrial enterprises. Other facts:

“The camps give out such meager food rations that prisoners are kept in a condition of ‘deliberately contrived semi-starvation.’”

“Former inmates who have escaped North Korea have given accounts of brutal treatment inside the camps, including regular beatings, forced abortions and rape.”

“Others have told of Nazi-style experiments involving chemical and biological weapons resulting in the painful deaths of dozens of prisoners at a time.”

“At other times, re-education classes involve long sessions where inmates are forced to memorize speeches by Kim Jong-Il, word-for-word.”

“Most work 12- to 15-hour days until they die of malnutrition-related illnesses, usually around the age of 50. Allowed just one set of clothes, they live and die in rags, without soap, socks, underclothes or sanitary napkins.”

As bad as all this sounds, some former prisoners have said that what is even worse is the pre-camp interrogation at the hands of the Bowibu, the National Security Agency. Here’s how one inmate described the almost year long ordeal: “They wanted me to admit to being a spy. They knocked out my front teeth with a baseball bat. They fractured my skull a couple of times. I was not a spy, but I admitted to being a spy after nine months of torture.”

It gets worse. We know from news reports that Ling and Lee were allowed phone calls to their families as well as letters during their imprisonment period. But this seems to have been an exception made due to the heavy media focus on the two journalists. According to the Korean Bar Association’s 2008 paper on human rights in North Korea, prisoners are denied any contact with the outside world. So your friends and family may not even know you’re in one of these camps. They may think you just mysteriously disappeared on your Chinese vacation.

And it gets even worse. Most of the camps are designated “complete control districts.” That means inmates work there until they die. Doesn’t matter what your sentence is, don’t expect to get out—ever. And if you have children while in the camp, he or she must also serve a life term. And if your children have children, your grandchildren must serve out a life sentence for your crimes too (three generations must be punished according to doctrine).

So you are basically left with two options—try to escape or learn to survive.

Let’s first explore the escape option. If you are going to attempt this, keep an important fact in mind—if the guards catch you, they will most likely shoot you in front of the other prisoners so really think this through before choosing this path. 

An electrified perimeter fence surrounds most of these camps. If you can get past them without the guards catching you, you will be on the outside and one step closer to freedom. The best thing to do is try to find an area of the fence with enough room to allow you to crawl through. If this is not possible, you’re just going to have to risk getting electrified but to minimize this, look for the following:

Poor earth grounding–the fewer the ground rods around a particular section of the fence, the weaker the charge.

Sections of the fence where there is heavy, wet vegetation–wet grass will suck the juice out of fence chargers.

Look for kinks in the high-tensile wiring–kinks in the wire will weaken it so you may be able to smash through the fence with a hard object like a rock.

Fencing that mixes steel and copper wiring–when these two metals (which are commonly used in electric fences) come in contact, a process called electrolysis occurs and the metal becomes corroded which will weaken the charge.

Now, let’s say you successfully get out. The best thing to do is head northeast for the Chinese border. Travel only at night and find a safe place to sleep in the day. It may take you days, weeks or longer to make it to the border so you should brush up on your wilderness survival techniques before you take your trip to Asia as a precaution. The Chinese government does often deport refugees who cross over but since you are an American, you should be fine.

North Korean Prison CampNow what if you choose to stay? Perhaps you do not want to risk being captured and executed or you’re hopeful that the U.S. will eventually develop a diplomatic relationship with North Korea and you will be released. How do you ensure your survival until then?

The first thing you must do is keep up your physical strength. Your daily ration may consist only of three handfuls of salty corn and a bowl of watery soup. In the book Long Road Home: Testimony of a North Korean Camp Survivor, Kim Yong, a former inmate at one of these camps, offers the best advice on how to do this: Eat anything that’s alive—rats, mice, even human flesh. Yes, it’s gross, but if you don’t do this, you will surely die of starvation.

But no matter how physically strong you may be, the people who survive a situation like this are always those who are psychological strong. Surprisingly, it is the most optimistic who will have the most problems. This is a condition known as the Stockdale Paradox, named after Admiral James Stockdale, the highest-ranking American POW in Vietnam.

Stockdale said these optimists were the first ones who perished in captivity. These were the prisoners who were certain they’d be released by a specific date (say, Christmas) and when the imprisonment continued past that period, they grew more and more disheartened until they died of a “broken heart.” Here’s what Stockdale said about surviving under such conditions: “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

And that’s the paradox–that you must be able to face your stark reality, but never give up hope. I know this sounds like an impossible thing to do under these circumstances, but if you’re going to survive in a North Korean labor camp, you don’t have a choice.

3 thoughts on “How To Survive A North Korean Labor Camp

  1. you know, i went to high school with Admiral Taylor Stockdale’s son. he was a teacher on my campus so his father came and spoke to the campus on occasion. All i can say is that POW camps suck for sure. as for NK labor camps, i heard they’re even worse.

    thank you for providing me with a guide just in case i get abducted by the NKs and thrown into a labor camp. armed with your knowledge, i will make sure not to be too much of an optimist…

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