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Themes Why I Became a Dissident » Ahn Myeong Chul

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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. 

Why did I decide to start a nongovernmental organization that works on human rights issues in North Korea? Before I came to South Korea, nobody really knew about the hidden North Korean political prison camps.

It wasn’t until after I arrived and made the information known that the U.S. government and digital blogs started to use satellite photography. Photos of the prison camp areas in North Korea were taken.

I decided to become an activist, because my situation was unique. Not only was I a prison guard, but I was also a victim, in that my family was sent to a prison camp.

Based on my experiences and knowledge of political prison camps, I’ve testified in many places, including a U.S. Senate hearing. I was the first North Korean to testify there. I also shared my testimony in the United Kingdom.

Based on these experiences, in 2003 I decided to start an NGO for the purpose of ending political prison camps in North Korea.

We are a part of an international NGO network called the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea – ICNK. ICNK was formed to improve the human rights situation in North Korea. My organization, Free North Korea Gulag, is at the center of this network.

Our partners also include Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and come from many countries including the United States and Canada.

Our ultimate goal is to combine our strengths as human rights groups to improve the human rights situation in North Korea through the United Nations.

Every time I network with them, I’m constantly inspired. They provide new ideas and methods for approaching the problem, so I’m helped a great deal by this international network.

I think there is much work to be done for the sake of human rights in North Korea.

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: Becoming an NGO Activist “Not only was I a guard, but I was also a victim of the prison camps.”

Other videos from Ahn Myeong Chul

Ahn Myeong Chul: Three Generations of Punishment “He wanted to purge people who were against his will.” Ahn Myeong Chul: What is freedom? “Freedom brings responsibilities.” More +