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North Korea, The Prison Nation

Book Recommendation: Eyes of the Tailless Animals, by Soon Ok Lee Published in 1999 by Living Sacrifice Book Company, Bartlesville, OK

Jun 25, 2010

Map of North Korea

Posted by Kimmy Sophia Brown

Not long ago, while discussing the topic of North Korea, a friend recommended a book written by a survivor of the North Korean prison system; Eyes of the Tailless Animals, by Soon Ok Lee. My local library did not have a copy but I used the inter-library loan service and got a copy fairly quickly.

I knew that North Korea was one of the worst places on earth, but this memoir, written in graphic detail, left me with no doubt. Ms. Lee was imprisoned over a small incident. It is doubtless that such incidents occur in North Korea every day.

She came from a prominent, communist family, and after graduating from university, became a supervisor at a material distribution center. Her job involved procuring and distributing supplies. She was dedicated to the communist cause, loved the leader, Kim Il Sung, lived in a nice house with appliances and had a husband and son. She seemed to be doing everything right. Then one day she made a fatal mistake. There was a certain type of jacket that Kim Il Sung wore that was also popular among the bureau officers. A certain officer requested that she obtain for him more than his share of fabric to make himself two jackets rather than one. She denied the request because of limited supplies and then thought nothing more about it. However, soon after that, she was arrested and taken to a prison without being able to talk to or see her family again. She was brutally interrogated and tortured for fourteen months until she finally signed a confession that she was a traitor to the government. After a trial without defense, she was sentenced to thirteen years in a re-socialization prison.

When she entered the prison, the lieutenant in charge said to her, “You are not a human being anymore. If you want to survive here, give up the idea that you are human.”

It is unfathomable for those of us raised in the West, to grasp the inhumanity of such a vicious system. I have read biographies of Soviet prisoners such as Coming Out of the Ice, by Victor Herman, which is the true story of an American who moved to the Soviet Union in the 1920s with his parents. Later, when he wanted to leave and return to America, he was exiled to Siberia. I read books of the famous dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, including The Gulag Archipelago and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, about life in Soviet prisons. I also read Nina’s Journey, by Nina Markovna, the autobiography of a Russian girl who grew up in Stalin’s Russia, as well as Grey is the Color of Hope by Irina Ratushinskaya, about her time in Soviet prison, and also, My Testimony by Anatoly Marchenko.

All of the books of prison life under communism speak of terrifying arrests in those dead of night, aggressive and cruel interrogations, inhuman punishments, revocation of human rights, unending prison sentences in filthy conditions and small rations of vile food. Still, in the midst of these stories, as well as stories of the Nazi holocaust and the conditions of imprisoned Jews, there were testimonies of the occasional guard who could be bribed, or a guard who showed a shred of kindness toward the prisoners. There were occasions when the prisoners sang, or talked with each other, or grew vegetables in hidden places, or had time alone to think or pray. I even heard stories of Jewish women in concentration camps arguing about recipes.

There was a context among them, a common memory in the minds of both guards and prisoners of a time when “things were better”. Not so in North Korea. The vigilance of this system to watch and punish its prisoners defies reason. There is no talking, no singing, no laughing and often prisoners are forced to stay in one physical position for many hours at a time without relief. Besides that they suffer with filthy blankets, tiny rations of only corn with salty soup to eat, filthy clothing, filthy sewage conditions, no heat in the winter, blistering heat in the summer and nineteen hour work days as a slave labor force in government owned factories. These factories produce shoes, sweaters, doilies, leather goods and other clothing in conditions that make the Industrial Revolution look enlightened. They receive continuous verbal and physical punishment for showing any reaction to any of the things they suffer.

Prisoners are allowed to go to the bathroom only three times a day - four prisoners at a time, all in the same hole. Otherwise, if they mess themselves they just have to endure it with no change of clothing, no washing, nothing. Solitary confinement in tiny spaces often causes paralysis in the limbs. If you have ever heard of any sort of torture that has been inflicted on human beings, the North Koreans have probably used it. Beatings, forcing water into the mouth and nose of a prisoner and then jumping on their stomach, having their hands bound behind their back for hours and hung from the ceiling by the wrists, forced into small spaces, forced to kneel in one position for hours, exposed to extreme high and low temperatures that produces burns or frostbite, teeth knocked out, starved and then shown but denied hot food eaten in front of them by guards, denied water, denied medical treatment, denied adequate food, clothing, shelter and human contact. I don’t even want to write about what happens to pregnant women and their babies.

As I read the chronology of the dates in Ms. Lee’s book, I realized that I was enjoying the birth of my first child and other joys living as a free American citizen while she was being subjected to an onslaught of unspeakable cruelty on the other side of the world.

Ms. Lee was released from prison after six years for being a model prisoner. She escaped over a frozen river with her son during a snowstorm. Eventually she reached South Korea and became a Christian. Her ministry is to tell the world about the fate of her fellow North Koreans prisoners and citizens.

Not many people make it out of North Korea alive. There are a few other books that tell of suffering in their gulags, such as The Aquariums of Pyong Yang by Kang Chol-hwan. The following is from a review of Kang’s book on

Inexplicably released in 1987, the author states that the only lesson his imprisonment had "pounded into me was about man’s limitless capacity to be vicious." Kang’s memoir is notable not for its literary qualities, but for the immediacy and drama of the personal testimony. I would say the same regarding Ms. Lee’s book.

I would say the same regarding Ms. Lee’s book. It is so hard to know what to do to help a situation like this. I hope every person who enjoys life in a free nation can take time to read books like these and pray for the liberation and healing of North Korea, as well as to spread the word about what is going on there to others. They suffer from an incredible blackout of knowledge about the outside world. The control on the population exceeds anything the world has seen to date. It’s time for the human rights violations in North Korea to cease and for their people to enjoy life, liberty and happiness. 

I hope that others will read Ms. Lee’s book as well as other books on the subject, and write to their congressmen and senators and do whatever they can to help shine a bright light into the darkness of North Korea. One way to help is to donate to the United Nations' World Food Programme. They send food all over the world and have a specific project sending food to North Korea. It's hard to know if the food is reaching the people who need it the most, but since the entire nation is suffering from starvation and malnutrition, it's bound to help someone.

Click here to find out more about the United Nations' World Food Programme:

Ms. Lee is a Christian. The website of World Christian Ministries has this page about Ms. Lee:

Image(s) from Wikimedia Commons

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