Defecting from the Hermit Kingdom with Ahn Myeong Chul

Ahn Myeong Chul, North Korean former prison guard turned defector and human rights activist, addresses the 6th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full Remarks


Ahn Myeong Chul: Good afternoon, my name is Ahn Myeong Chul. I would like to thank everyone from all around the world at the Geneva Summit for giving me the opportunity to talk about North Korean human rights violations today. 

I’ve heard that a lot of survivors, previous prisoners from the political camps, witnessed and testified on this spot. I’m different from them because I used to be a former guard of North Korean political prison camps. I, as an attacker, and also as a victim of the system, watched prisoners to make sure that they would not succeed in running away from the camps and tortured them. I was prestigiously selected at the age of 19 to work as a guard in a political prison camp due to my elite family background, because my father worked for the government as a party officer. 

There are two types of political prison camps: revolutionizing zones, and total control zones. 

While revolutionizing zones allow the release of prisoners after three years, the total control zones capture only families and relatives related to fugitives in order to separate them from the fugitives. The total control zones are a modern-day barracoon, where all the prisoners, regardless of their gender and age, will be killed after [a] forced heavy workload. 

As you can see from the picture, until now, there are six political prison camps in total, and 150,000 to 200,000 people in number [are] kept within, under the strict control of the national security department. Numerous guards, including me, are educated to think that, number one, prisoners are anti-revolutionary and anti-government traitors. That if prisoners defy authorities or attempt to escape, guards are allowed to kill them as number two. Number three, that if a guard catches an escapee, the guard will be sent to the University as an award. Number four, that if guards express sympathy towards the prisoners or do favors for prisoners, not only the guards, but also their entire families, will be punished. 

This photograph on the screen is a captured scene from a film secretly recorded by one of the Japanese TV stations a few years ago. The photo captures the daily bathroom cleaning time of the prisoners. 

For the first three years, my task was to make sure that there was no attempted escape [to] the outside of the political prison camp. At that time, I regarded all the prisoners as vicious evils, as the government taught me to do. 

The other drawing on the screen depicts a smaller prison within the camp. The smaller prison will capture prisoners who violated regulations within the camp, along with severe usage of physical violence on the prisoners. The drawing illustrates several prisoners having free time to get sunlight once in a week. 

All these drawings show pictures that I drew myself while I wrote my memoirs of working as a political prison camp guard in North Korea. As you can see from this slide, which describes how the prisoners are treated, all the guards, including me, used physical violence on prisoners on a daily basis. All the guards, including me, practiced Taekwondo on prisoners, just like the government told us to do. Furthermore, because of the award system of sending the guard who caught an escapee to the University, one of my friends set up a situation which was like catching an escapee, but in fact he just dragged random prisoners from their working shifts to a deserted field, killed them, filed a false report, and made it to the University. 

The previous drawing shows how the public execution is arranged. Executing people in public is one of methods for the government to create terror in order to prevent further escapes. 

Six months after I entered the camp, I witnessed an incident [in] which the guard dogs attacked five children who were younger than the age of 15. The security dogs are trained for ten months by smelling pungent smells coming from the prisoners. The security dogs from the drawings actually got compliments from the authority that they were raised in fine quality and feature. 

After three years of my service as a guard, I was selected as a driving guard, and that was the moment for me to meet more prisoners and to ask questions, such as where they’re from and why they are captured in the camp. However, more than 90 percent of the prisoners who I met did not know why they were even locked up in the camp. When I asked them why they were in the camp, they told me that in the middle of the night, when they were sleeping with their parents, a truck from the security department suddenly came in to arrest the whole family. When they got off the truck, it happened to be the camp, and the security guards informed them that they were arrested due to the crimes that one of their great-great-grandfather’s committed. 

Inside of the political prison camp, there were children who got picked up in the middle of sleeping, as well children who were born in the camp, through the award system of allowing exemplary prisoners of opposite genders to have sexual intercourse. As I was thinking about what kinds of crimes that sleeping children as well as babies born in the camp can possibly commit, I got more and more confused. 

After eight years, I was sent out for vacation and was permitted to return to my hometown. When I went back, I was told by the neighbors — not even from my family members — that my father had committed suicide. North Korea was going through a severe famine, and on a drunken night, my father — as one of the heads of the food distribution centers — blamed the government for not having enough food to eat, also blaming the government of the Kim Jong Il regime. The next day, realizing the offense he had committed, my father drank poison and passed away. Because of my father’s crime, my mother, my younger sister, and my younger brother were placed under strict surveillance and were eventually taken away. I was no exception to this strict surveillance, and that was the moment when I truly began to understand how prisoners felt under the system of injustice. That was the moment when I decided to defect. 

I defected through China and successfully arrived in South Korean territory. I’m currently working as a North Korean human rights activist under the organization called Free NK Gulag, in order to dismantle the system of political prison camps and to promote the release of prisoners. 

Last March, when the United Nations established the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (COI), I participated in the investigation of the overall North Korean human rights crisis. During the investigation, I have testified the most, and the COI report laid out the fact that North Korea carries out systematic crimes against humanity just in order to maintain dictatorship throughout three generations of the Kim family. The COI report came up with a very well-analyzed status report on the DPRK. The DPRK’s government, however, stated that the COI reports were false and that they will not hold the report accountable in just one sentence. 

For now, [the] North Korean human rights crisis cannot be solved only by the North Korean people. As North Korea is the one and only country without freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly or any form of freedom. I felt the reality of the North Korean people who cannot overcome this crisis with any external assistance. 

Last December, people all around the world witnessed that the current North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Un, mercilessly killed his uncle, Jang Song-Thaek. The current regime of the DPRK brutally killed one of the relatives of the dictator, so they would kill their people as easily as killing flies — within a second. And this is the reality that North Korean people are facing today. 

Thus, the North Korean human rights crisis will not get any resolutions without the international community’s help, and the international community must become aware of the continuing North Korean human rights violations and must act upon this issue. First of all, the international community should strongly file claims against the persons and perpetrators responsible for crimes against humanity to the ICC, the International Criminal Court. Additionally the international society should press the DPRK to react upon the UPR, Universal Periodic Review, and to act upon its recommendations. In other words, the DPRK’s crimes against humanity and instances of abuse must be investigated, recorded, and given to the UN to manage. Moreover, other states should use all the functional methods to pressure the DPRK, including cutting all the diplomatic strings attached to the DPRK, following what Botswana did. Finally, all this factual information should be distributed to the North Korean people to spread the citizens’ awareness on promoting human rights and democracy and to introduce activities done by the UN, as well as the international society. In addition, current and former guards and security agents in North Korea must be educated to know that their actions have been brainwashed and controlled and are considered a human rights violation.

Speakers and Participants


Human Rights

Welcome with Isabel Rochat

Isabel Rochat, member of the Council of the Geneva canton between 2009 and 2013 and member of the Federal Commission Against Racism until 2012, delivers opening remarks at the 2nd Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.   Full remarks   Hillel Neuer: On