Defector from North Korea: The Story of Mr. Hong Gang Chul (1/2)

To put things short, the Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS)’s Protection Center for North Korean Defectors (previously called the Central Joint Interrogation Center) is a jail without bars equipped with “good” facilities like shower stalls and beds.

…and I did as told, not knowing that it would later be used as evidence against me in the court.”

[Entry]

I entered the South Korean Incheon International Airport via China, Laos, and Thailand on August 16, 2013, after escaping from North Korea on June 20, 2013. I was taken to a hospital by a NIS worker for a health checkup, then brought to the NIS Central Joint Interrogation Center (CJIC). Upon entering this center, one has their belongings and thumb-prints checked along with their photos taken in the waiting room. All these processes take place without the consent of the party involved. When the NIS workers carry out this inspection, you are supposed to keep your own belongings.

My belongings included two light summer clothing, four family portraits, a ‘Nokia’ cell phone
from a Laos’ broker, a memo of a Chinese broker’s cell number, and since my belongings were few, I put them in my female companion’s bag. When my belongings appeared in my female companion’s bag, the NIS officials swore loudly. Another defector who had also placed his belongings in his fiance’s bag and thus had male clothing coming out from ‘her’ bag. The NIS workers began to shout things like, “Will you guys not listen” In this way, inspections were carried out in very unpleasant and harsh conditions.

The time I felt most insulted was when they inspected our bodies naked. It was the first time since my checkup when entering military service in North Korea. The NIS said that the reason they are doing such naked inspection is because they once had a case where a female hid some drugs in her underwear. While inspecting our bodies, they asked us to show our genitals and turn around and open our private parts, so I did as I was told.

During the inspection, I intended to throw away the broker’s phone number that I had previously received but the NIS asked me to place it in a plastic bag (the type that police use to collect evidence during crime scene) and I did as told, not knowing that it would later be used as evidence against me in the court.

After the inspection, I was warned of the behavioral rules I must abide during my stay in the CJIC and they further warned that if I didn’t keep them, they would cut back my subsidies. I received the necessary things and went to my room.

[Life in the CJIC]

In the CJIC, the defectors are divided into “End Class” and “Waiting Class” as well as being
divided into women and men and live accordingly. According to the NIS, the “End Class” are those who have been accepted as South Korean residents while the “Waiting Class” are those who are still labeled as North Koreans. Hence the defectors in the “End Class” receive three cigarettes a day, one for after each meal, but those in the “Waiting Class” do not receive any. As the people in the “Waiting Class” cannot smoke, they are anxious to hurry their inspections. It is only after the inspections can they smoke one cigarette per meal.

In the CJIC, the defectors are divided into “End Class” and “Waiting Class” as well as being divided into women and men and live accordingly. According to the NIS, the “End Class” are those who have been accepted as South Korean residents while the “Waiting Class” are those who are still labeled as North Koreans. Hence the defectors in the “End Class” receive three cigarettes a day, one for after each meal, but those in the “Waiting Class” do not receive any. As the people in the “Waiting Class” cannot smoke, they are anxious to hurry their inspections. It is only after the inspections can they smoke one cigarette per meal.

The “Waiting Class” defectors are not allowed to talk with the ones in “End Class.” There are CCTVs in hallways and when if people try to talk to each other, warnings are announced to them. Even if you are married, you cannot meet with each other without the consent of the NIS. There are times we see each other during meals but since the NIS are inspecting us carefully, we cannot talk with each other and thus only are allowed small signs of eye contacts and such.

Those who have been selected as “End Class” through inspections are allowed to watch the TV programs of their choice. But for those who have not yet been inspected and thus not accepted as Korean citizens are only allowed to watch the program designated by the NIS the EBS (government-owned educational broadcasting) channel.

In the Thailand immigration center as well as the Seoul Detention Center all are allowed to make phone calls. This is called the right to communicate. But in the NIS CJIC, defectors are completely alienated from the outside society and are constantly checked upon under the name of administrative inspections.

As well as phone calls, newspapers are definitely not allowed. Very rarely, with the permission of the NIS, teens are allowed to call their parents who have already settled in South Korea. At 6AM and 9PM, the NIS does an attendance check. When they announce that they will take attendance, we need to clean our rooms and sit patiently in two lines at front of the door and when the NIS calls our name, we need to answer loud and clear. After the night inspection, at around 10 PM, the central control room on the 1st floor shuts down the lights and closes the doors.

Because I was well-off back in North Korea, I never felt hunger but I experienced much hunger in a land where they say they have plenty of food.

Each class, according to gender, is ordered to exercise one hour every day. Of course, talking
is not allowed during exercise. During exercise, many are busy searching the floors an garbage for cigarette butts. Upon finding one, we hide them and bring them to our rooms. Since we have no lighters, we lick the tips and combining the electric lines on the wall, we light the cigarettes. We then go to the bathroom and each takes a puff with the ceiling
ventilators open.

At that place, we call the NIS workers “teacher” and have to greet them bending our back 90 degrees. The NIS told us that even Mr. Hwang, an elderly man who held a high position back in North Korea, also had to greet them with a 90 degrees bow and requested the same from all of us. When moving with our classes, we need to walk in three or four lines. Even in the North, only students and soldiers walk in lines, not ordinary people.

[Detention Center for Inspection]

In the NIS CJIC, there is a place called the Detention Center for Inspection where they keep
those who are being inspected separately. When a person enters the detention center, they
do a belonging check and inform us of everyday rules such as, “In the Inspection center, you cannot shout, you cannot damage things, and you have to sit patiently in front of the door
upon inspection. No one can read, as such time should be used to reflect back your past and
be used to learn to become a true, free Korean citizen.” Hence we receive the instructions above and are assigned to rooms accompanied by the NIS members.

Rooms were dark because of the brown wallpaper (I noticed how they changed it to a bright-colored wallpaper right before my first trial). There was only a clock, no calendars. Upon entering the room, I noticed how those who lived here previously had ripped the brown wallpaper and had instead written dates on the wall and so I did the same. When it is time for our morning and evening attendance check, we politely sit in front of the door. As the doors are automatic, they instantly lock the moment we enter. The water fountains are at the center of the hallway hence we need to ask for permission to the central control center before we drink water. After receiving permission, we can go out only if there are no other defectors in the hallway. Exercise is not allowed during the inspection period. The women defectors deliver meals to our rooms, and in order to prevent any conspiracy, the NIS workers open the doors. Because the meal portions are so small, everyone complains of hunger.

Because I was well-off back in North Korea, I never felt hunger but I experienced much hunger in a land where they say they have plenty of food.

Teens are also not an exception to the inspection in solitary confinement. While I received inspection in solitary confinement, there was a six-year-old child next door along with a 16-year-old teenager. A fellow woman defector had a seven-year-old daughter and the young child was also not exempt from such inspection. This woman was inspected before me and she told me of how she cried because the three NIS members persistently questioned her especially asking about her relationship with me.

…TO BE CONTINUED

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