In the Daily NK, as part of the Center for Investigation and Documentation of Human Rights in North Korea's efforts to document the abuses and violations perpetrated by the North Korean regime, there's an interview with Pak Joo Yong, who spent the first 23 years of his life in prison camps:
Good afternoon Mr. Pak. Could you tell us where you were born?
I was born in Camp 21 and was moved to Camp 18 (Pukchang Political Prison Camp) when I was around a year old, apparently due to some crime committed by my uncle.
And how long were you imprisoned in the Pukchang Political Prison Camp?
I escaped from the camp just before turning 23. [...]
Can you tell us about your experiences as a witness of public executions in these prison camps?
Well first, it wasn’t just one or two executions. The compulsory attendance of public executions was a frequent occurrence. Before an execution, the authorities would post a picture on the walls of our homes with the prisoner's name, age, height, date and time of the execution, and other details. Everyone would be required to attend, with only those who had work assignments at the given time permitted to be absent.
Our mother of course wanted to protect us from witnessing such horrors and so she tried to hide us away in the house during these times. The inminban (people's unit) leader (also a prisoner) found us during their inspection once, so our mother tried to then hide us in the space below the house. I remember it smelling of coal briquettes down there, and how we would just wait there without knowing why, and never go out until our mother came back out of fear of getting in trouble.
Though still quite young, I remember eventually being there to witness the executions, starting from around 9 or 10 years of age. They made the youngest ones go to the very front, sorting people from youngest at the front to the oldest at the back. The prisoner was then taken up to the wooden platform, hands tied, and their situation was explained to the crowd. At one of these, the prisoner was said to have attempted to escape from his section of the very large camp, but would not admit his crime and was sentenced to death for disobeying the word of the Supreme Leader. But we were first made to hurl rocks at the man and beat him with the driftwood from the riverside. I remember it was monsoon season at the time.
I mean it was just horrible for me, but I recall its effect and that it made me believe that if I were to commit any crime, I would meet the same fate. Probably the worst part was how they made the man's own family throw the first stones. Only after the person was beaten nearly to death would a guard finally kill the man with a gun. We were supposed to fully internalize the idea that if someone goes against the leader, they are no longer a human.
Though people may have had different reactions, what was the general reaction among the people attending these executions?
We were taught to refer to Kim Jong Il as our father, and that if you went against the word of your father, you had to die. There were definitely many people there who supported this idea - maybe 80 or 90%. Those like me who were born in the camp and knew no other kind of life also thought this way, but others like my parents who had experienced the outside world must have had other thoughts.
But still, us innocent children - "like blooming flowers" in the words of our "father" - were forced to watch such gruesome events. I could not come to terms with this contradiction. [...]
It has now been about 5 or 6 years since you escaped the Pukchang Concentration Camp. Were public executions still being held until your last days there, and do you think they are still occurring now?
Yes there were still public executions up until the time that I escaped. I cannot say for sure about these days, but I would think they have gotten even worse. Personally, I’m not able to connect with anyone still in the country, but I have friends who still contact their family in the North. One friend told me that their older sister was executed by firing squad recently, which would suggest that the executions are still occurring. It seems that these days Kim Jong Un is trying to instill even greater fear into the people by executing people for even more trivial crimes than under Kim Jong Il.