An officer at a penal labor facility in North Korea was killed last month by a former inmate in what is believed to be an act of retaliation for the officer’s harsh treatment of inmates at the work camp in Kaechon, South Pyongan province.
Penal labor facilities exist all over North Korea. They are called “labor training centers” by the regime and are under the control of the Ministry of Justice and the police. Established in the 1990s to reform minor offenders through short-term labor, the training centers have no shortage of inmates.
But sources say that inmates in the centers go hungry and must endure abuse from those in charge.
A source from South Pyongan told RFA’s Korean Service Monday that the Kaechon labor training center officer who was killed in April was in his 40s, and was attacked while returning home from work.
“While riding his motorcycle, he was hit in the head by a weapon wielded by a young man hiding in the street. He died immediately,” the source said.
“The guy who killed him is a discharged soldier who had been imprisoned in the training center for a minor offense,” said the source.
The source said that the former soldier had resisted when he was assaulted by the officer while he was being held at the center. He was further punished for resisting.
“The young man experienced unjustified assault, so he planned to kill the officer in revenge after he was released,” said the source.
The sources said that this type of attack has happened several times before.
“There are about 10 officers at the training center in Kaechon. Even though this is not the first time a former prisoner carried out a revenge attack, they were shocked to hear that someone they worked with was killed by someone who had been an inmate,” the source said.
Police were quick to respond to the attack, immediately launching an investigation.
“But the case was quickly closed because the young discharged solider just turned himself in. In the aftermath of the incident though, there is a climate of fear within the ranks of judicial authorities and officials at the labor training centers,” the source said.
A second source, also from South Pyongan, noted that because the labor training centers were set up to punish minor offenders, it is quite common for people to serve a stint in one as North Korea’s economic transition to a market economy is forcing them to find new streams of income, some of which run afoul of the law.
“People have a very hard time making a living these days, but the authorities can indiscriminately arrest people on charges of anti-socialism. That’s why labor camps, educational institutions and labor training centers are overflowing with prisoners,” said the source.
“At present there are more than 200 inmates at the center in Kaechon, and they are there for illegal business activities, for being unemployed, or for having taken part in superstitious rituals,” the source said.
While fear of future attacks may haunt guards tasked with watching the inmates, among the inmates themselves the reaction has been jubilant.
“Rumors of the murder are spreading fast among prisoners and the officers are struggling to stop the rumors from spreading further. But when the prisoners heard the news, they responded that they are delighted by the fact there was a person like [Korean independence activist] Ahn Jung-geun among those released by the training center,” said the source.
Ahn has folk hero status in both North and South Korea. He is lionized for carrying out the assassination of Ito Hirobumi at Harbin station in October 1909. Ito was a four-time prime minister of Japan and had in June of that year finished serving as the first Resident-General of Korea, which had been a protectorate of Japan from 1905 until it was officially annexed as a colony of Tokyo in 1910. An was imprisoned and sentenced to death.
Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.