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Interviewed April 2014

Ahn Myeong Chul was born in North Hamgyong Province in North Korea. As a teenager, he was the only person from his province selected to serve as a political prison camp guard. Ahn worked in several camps for a period of eight years where he was brainwashed into believing that political prisoners were enemies of the state unworthy of sympathy. As many as 130,000 men, women and children are imprisoned in North Korea’s vast system of gulags.

Although Ahn witnessed executions, starving children, and extreme torture, it was not until he became a prison truck driver that he questioned the system. Ahn would converse with prisoners he transported and was astonished to learn they knew nothing about the reasons for their imprisonment. It was his introduction to the country’s system of “guilt-by-association” punishment; in North Korea, whole families are incarcerated for the offenses of a single family member.

While on leave in 1994, Ahn learned that his father, a member of the ruling Workers’ Party, had committed suicide after questioning the regime’s rationing system. Ahn’s mother and siblings were imprisoned for his father’s offenses. Fearing that authorities would come for him, he fled to China and eventually reached safety in South Korea.

Since his escape, Ahn has become a North Korean human rights activist. He has provided testimony at the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and is now the secretary general of the organization Free NK Gulag. 

I want to provide you a very personal definition of freedom. For me, freedom means happiness. I say this because, when I was back in North Korea, I never experienced freedom at all.

When I crossed the border to the south, I had a hard time understanding what it meant, at first so much that I didn’t even know how to enjoy freedom.

After spending much time here [in South Korea], I now know that freedom means being able to choose and with those choices come responsibilities so freedom often is linked with personal happiness for me.

In North Korea, you are punished for disobeying authority orders and guidelines. While in North Korea, I perceived freedom as being something bad.

Freedom was considered to be a poison for maintaining the regime, so it was something to be denounced.

My understanding of freedom while in North Korea is very different from my understanding now. When I was in North Korea, freedom was closely linked with things I was not allowed to do, so my definition of freedom was the same as what the authorities defined it to be.

Now that I am in South Korea, I understand that freedom brings responsibilities. It is something that individuals can choose. Freedom is about individual choice. 

North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a country of 23 million people in northeast Asia, ruled by Communist dictator Kim Jong-Un. His deceased predecessors—father, Kim Jong-Il, and grandfather, Kim Il-Sung – respectively retain the titles of “Eternal President” and “The Great Leader.”

The Korean War began in 1950, when Kim Il-Sung, backed by the Soviet Union and China, attacked South Korea. The conflict ended in a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty, and the border between the two Koreas remains tense and heavily militarized.

Kim Il-Sung employed harsh tactics to consolidate his power and propagated an extreme personality cult that has been continued by his successors. A blend of communist doctrine, state terror, xenophobia and hyper-nationalism has given North Korea its unique ideology. Despite some recent openings, North Korea remains largely isolated from the rest of the world.

With the end of Soviet communism and withdrawal of economic support, North Korea’s economy collapsed in the 1990s. A massive famine, aggravated by the regime’s indifference, killed as many as 2 million people between 1994 and 1998. While conditions have improved, even today, North Korea faces problems of malnutrition and insufficient access to food.

Tensions between North and South Korea remain high. In 2010, North Korea sank a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors and attacked a South Korean island, killing four civilians. North Korea has developed and tested nuclear weapons in contravention of several international agreements. The country withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 in order to test ballistic missiles and eventually a nuclear device. Multilateral negotiations have so far failed to constrain North Korea’s arms buildup and nuclear program.

North Korea is among the world’s most repressive states, engaging in widespread and systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, torture, forced abortion, arbitrary detention, and denial of the rights of expression, association, assembly, and religion. The government pervasively regulates all aspects of the lives of its citizens, each of whom is categorized as “core,” “wavering,” or “hostile,” according to the history of his or her family’s relationship with the regime. Access to housing, employment, education, and other social and economic goods depend heavily on these security classifications. The government determines where each citizen will live, and travel within the country is strictly limited.

Emigration is prohibited. Refugees who have escaped to China have frequently been forcibly returned to North Korea where they are imprisoned, subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, and sometimes executed. The government operates a network of forced labor camps for an estimated 120,000 political prisoners. While persons convicted of ordinary crimes serve fixed sentences, those convicted of political crimes are confined indefinitely. Punishment is extended to three generations – the offender’s parents, siblings, and children are also incarcerated, as a way to pressure North Koreans to conform. Political offenders are often denied food, clothing, and medical care, and many die in prison.

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report classifies North Korea as “not free” and as one of nine nations whose lack of political rights and civil liberties are considered the “worst of the worst.”

More on this theme from Ahn Myeong Chul

Ahn Myeong Chul: What is freedom? “Freedom brings responsibilities.”

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Ahn Myeong Chul: Three Generations of Punishment “He wanted to purge people who were against his will.” Ahn Myeong Chul: Becoming an NGO Activist “Not only was I a guard, but I was also a victim of the prison camps.” More +