Two North Korean journalists jailed for criticizing the Kim Jong Il regime died in custody nine years ago, a defector working with an organization that collects information on labor camps has revealed.
Jung Kwang Il, Secretary-General of the South Korea-based Free the North Korean Gulag, met with officials of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Paris in late August while advocating for North Korean human rights in Europe.
Head of RSF’s Asian bureau Vincent Brossel said the two discussed conditions in North Korean prisons and detention camps, at which point Brossel discovered that Jung had been detained at the same time as the two journalists.
“[Jung] has recently published a list of North Korean diplomats, businessmen, journalists and others, who were detained at political prisoner camps in North Korea,” Brossel said.
“Jung conducted an investigation over several years in order to compile this report. The names of the two journalists who died in 2001 are included in this report,” he said.
According to Jung, Kim Kyung Cheon and Cha Gwang Ho, both reporters with the official North Korean television news agency Chosun Jungang, died while serving time in the Yoduk “Kwan Li So” No.15 Reeducation Center, a political prison camp located in eastern North Korea.
Brossel said RSF knew that the journalists had been detained but, due to the strict control of information in North Korea, was unaware that the two had died in a camp for political prisoners.
“Numerous human rights violations are perpetrated in North Korea, but we know very little about that aspect. It is extremely difficult to collect information on North Korea’s political prisoner camps,” Brossel said.
The discovery marks the first time RSF has learned of the deaths of detained journalists in North Korea, he said.
“In China, Cuba, or Iran, it is possible to find out who is still being detained, and who has been released. In the case of the two North Korean journalists who died in a gulag, we have just found out now, nine years after their death,” he said.
“Consequently we decided that, although a long time has passed since the two journalists died, it is important to reveal this information even now, to expose the reality of press freedom violations in North Korea.”
Life in the gulag
Jung told Brossel that he had met the two journalists while he was detained in Yoduk.
Kim Kyung Cheon, a cameraman with the official North Korean TV station Chosun Jungang, was sent to a political prisoner camp in March 2000 for having criticized Kim Jong Il’s personality cult.
Jung said that even after being imprisoned, Kim would say that while freedom of the press was guaranteed by the North Korean constitution, journalists could not report on the real conditions people faced around the country.
“Kim Kyung Cheon continued to criticize the regime, although that was dangerous,” Jung told RSF. “He would often say, ‘Why aren’t images of the people dying of hunger shown on TV?’ or ‘Our constitution gives us press freedom but nothing is respected in practice.’”
Yoduk’s camp director singled Kim out for continuing to criticize the regime, Jung said.
“The camp director often shouted him out, saying, ‘We ought to kill you right now.’”
In May 2001, Jung said, Kim broke his legs during forced labor and died at the camp infirmary a few days later, at age 60.
“We had to dig his grave with our bare hands. His family was not told he had died.”
Chosun Jungang reporter Cha Gwang Ho was sent to Yoduk in January 1999, also for criticizing the Kim Jong Il regime.
After being injured while doing forced labor, prison officials cut Cha’s rations because he was no longer productive.
Jung told RSF that prisoners in North Korea’s gulag are often given only one bowl of soup a day and must supplement their diet by eating plants and vermin in order to survive.
Cha died in the gulag from malnutrition in December 2001, at age 65.
Jung said the Yoduk labor camp consists of huts housing thousands of both men and women prisoners who are subjected to forced labor.
Most Yoduk detainees have to fell trees and chop wood in difficult and dangerous conditions during winter, he said.
The camp is surrounded by barbed-wire fencing and guarded by nearly 1,000 armed guards.
Jung said the camp is divided into a “total-control zone” for inmates given life sentences and a “revolutionizing zone” for inmates who have a chance of being rehabilitated and released.
Tracking political prisoners
Jung arrived in South Korea nearly three years ago and since then has published a report listing the names of 254 political prisoners who have been held in North Korea’s political prisons, according to the testimonies of other former inmates.
Brossel said some of the prisoners listed in the report may have been released, while others are still in the camps and some may have died. It was from Jung’s report that RSF learned about the deaths of Kim and Cha.
“This report is very interesting, because it gives so many examples of regular North Korean businessmen, artists, or diplomats sent to detention camps just for expressing themselves,” Brossel said.
“It shows that many citizens in North Korea are critical of the regime, but we never hear about them.”
Jung estimates that at least 200,000 people are currently being held in North Korea’s concentration camps and “reeducation centers.”
In a statement, RSF called on the U.N. to pressure the Kim Il Jong regime to shut down its gulag system.
“The revelation that two journalists died at the start of the last decade, as so many others have done, should stimulate the United Nations to press harder for the closure of North Korea’s concentration camps.”
Original reporting by Hee Jung Yang for RFA’s Korean service. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.