She is most notable for her characteristic emotional and sometimes vitriolic tone, described as “passionate”, “vaguely menacing”, and “aggressive”. Ri made the official announcements of the deaths of Kim Il-sung in 1994 and Kim Jong-il in 2011. In a news report by CCTV News on 24 January 2012, Ri announced her retirement as chief newsreader at KCTV. She has periodically reappeared on television in the years since, typically to make an announcement regarding the country’s militaristic developments.
Ri was born in 1943 to a poor family in Togchon, Gangwon, Japanese Korea. She was cultivated by the North Korean government because of her background of abject poverty, which is considered a sign of political trustworthiness in the country. Ri studied performance art at Pyongyang University of Theatre and Film and was recruited by KCTV.
Ri began work onscreen in 1971, became chief news presenter of KCTV in 1974, and was consistently on‑air from the 1980s. Her career was unique for its longevity; while many at KCTV were demoted or purged, her career was never interrupted. After retiring in January 2012, she came out of retirement especially to announce that North Korea claims to have carried out an H-bomb detonation in January 2016 and that North Korea had launched a missile in February 2016. She also announced the nuclear test of September 2016.
Ri has received high acclaim from the North Korean authorities for her resonant voice, impressive mood and outstanding eloquence. She is known for her melodramatic announcing style. She often speaks in a wavering and exuberant tone when praising the nation’s leaders, and conversely with visible anger when denouncing the West.
According to Brian Reynolds Myers, a professor at Dongseo University and an expert in North Korean propaganda, her training in drama serves her well, given the large amount of showmanship that is typical of North Korean broadcasting.
When she made the official announcement of Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, Ri was visibly crying during the broadcast. Likewise, when she announced Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011, she was seen holding back tears. Her melodramatic style has been parodied in the character of Kim Bong Cha, a North Korean correspondent on The Noose.
Ri usually appears wearing either a pink, Western-style suit or in a traditional Korean hanbok
Mr Trump said that a “lot of bad things happened” to Mr Warmbier, but added: “At least we got him home to be with his parents, where they were so happy to see him, even though he was in very tough condition.”
President Trump said Mr Warmbier’s death had deepened his administration’s resolve “to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency”.
“The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.”
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in told CBS News on Tuesday it was “quite clear” that North Korea had “a heavy responsibility in the process that led to Mr Warmbier’s death”.
Otto Frederick Warmbier (WARM-beer; December 12, 1994 – June 19, 2017) was an American college student who was imprisoned in North Korea from January 2016 to June 2017 after being convicted of “hostile acts” against the country. Warmbier, then 21 years old, confessed to stealing a political propaganda poster and was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor.
The United States made diplomatic efforts to seek Warmbier’s release. A U.S. State Department spokesman said Warmbier’s harsh sentence was a response to U.S. sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear activities. According to his father, Warmbier’s confession was forced, and he was abducted by the North Korean government for political purposes.
Warmbier fell into a coma in North Korea and was released in June 2017, after nearly 18 months there. According to North Korean authorities, Warmbier’s coma was a result of botulism and a sleeping pill, but U.S. physicians cast doubt on that claim. Warmbier arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 13 and was taken to University of Cincinnati Medical Center for immediate evaluation and treatment. He was diagnosed with
Otto Warmbier was born on December 12, 1994, to Fred and Cindy (née Garber) Warmbier and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a family of American-Jewish descent and was one of three children in the family.
His father, Fred Warmbier, owns his own business, a metal-finishing company, that was featured in Forbes for its rapid growth in 2015. In 2014, he contributed to the The New York Times‘ blog titled You’re the Boss about running a small business. Otto worked as an intern at the company from 2010 to 2013.
Fred Warmbier stated that his son Otto was traveling in China at the end of 2015 when he saw a company offering trips to North Korea. He decided to go because he was adventurous, according to his father, who accused the tour operator of specifically targeting young Westerners with slogans like,
“This is the trip your parents don’t want you to take!”
Fred Warmbier said the China-based tour operator, Young Pioneer Tours, advertised the trip as safe for U.S. citizens. Danny Gratton, an adventurous British sales manager, met Warmbier in Beijing as the two boarded the tour flight to Pyongyang. The two struck up a friendship and were roommates on the trip. They stuck together from the time they got to Pyongyang until Warmbier was arrested.
Warmbier traveled to North Korea for a five-day New Year’s tour of the country organized by Young Pioneer Tours. Ten other U.S. citizens were in his tour group.
“Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il‘s patriotism!”.
Harming such items with the name or image of a North Korean leader is considered a serious crime by the government.
A video purporting to show the theft was released by state-run Korean Central News Agency on March 18, 2016. In the 18-second low-resolution video, an unrecognizable figure removes the sign from the wall and places it on the floor, leaning it against the wall. This action is shown twice, followed by a higher-resolution picture of the sign on the wall. The face of the person removing the poster is not seen during the video clip.
Arrest and conviction
On January 2, 2016, Warmbier was arrested for theft just prior to departing North Korea from Pyongyang International Airport. Gratton witnessed the arrest.
“No words were spoken. Two guards just came over and simply tapped Otto on the shoulder and led him away. I just said kind of quite nervously, ‘Well, that’s the last we’ll see of you.’ There’s a great irony in those words. That was it. That was the last physical time I saw Otto, ever. Otto didn’t resist. He didn’t look scared. He sort of half-smiled.”
The others in his tour group left the country without incident. His crime was described as “a hostile act against the state” by the North Korean news agency KCNA.
Warmbier was tried and convicted for the theft of the propaganda banner from a restricted area of the hotel. His trial included his confession, CCTV footage, fingerprint evidence, and witness testimony.
In a press conference on February 29, 2016, Warmbier repeated his confession that he had stolen the banner to take back to the United States. He said he stole it for the mother of a friend who wanted it as a souvenir to be hung on the wall of a church in his hometown of Wyoming, Ohio. He said that she offered him a used car worth $10,000 as payment, and that if he was detained and didn’t return, $200,000 would be paid to his mother in the form of a charitable donation. Warmbier said he accepted the offer because his family was
“suffering from very severe financial difficulties”.
He also said he was encouraged in committing his act by his desire to join the Z Society, a “semi-secret ring society” and philanthropic organization at the University of Virginia.
Warmbier read the following statement at his trial:
I never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country. I wish that the United States administration never manipulate people like myself in the future to commit crimes against foreign countries. I entirely beg you, the people and government of the DPR Korea, for your forgiveness. Please! I have made the worst mistake of my life! Please! Think of my family.
On March 16, 2016, two hours after U.S. envoy Bill Richardson met with two North Korean diplomats from the United Nations office to press for Warmbier’s release, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Human Rights Watch called the sentencing “outrageous and shocking”, while U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that it was clear that North Korea used arrested American citizens for political purposes despite its claims to the contrary.
Sometime in the month following his trial, Warmbier suffered an unknown medical crisis that caused severe brain damage. His condition was not conveyed to anyone outside North Korea, and Swedish envoys who represent the United States’ interests in North Korea were not able to see Warmbier after March 2016.
In May 2017, Warmbier’s father said he and his wife wanted their son to be part of any negotiations between the United States and North Korea.
On June 12, 2017, Rex Tillerson, the United States Secretary of State, announced that North Korea had released Warmbier. Tillerson also announced that the U.S. State Department secured Warmbier’s release at the direction of President Donald Trump. Tillerson said that the State Department continues discussing three other detained Americans with North Korea.
Warmbier’s parents told The Washington Post that Warmbier was medically evacuated, saying they were told by North Korean officials that Warmbier had contracted botulism sometime after his trial and had fallen into a coma after being given a sleeping pill. They learned he was in a coma only one week before his release. Richardson was in contact with the family and said Warmbier urgently needed medical attention.
Prior to his arrival, a doctor with the Cincinnati Health Department discussed Warmbier’s case and expressed skepticism over the claim that botulism or a sleeping pill caused the coma. His father reported that he had received a call from President Trump at his home asking about the welfare of his son and the family. He also reported that Tillerson and U.S. special representative Joseph Y. Yun had made the transition possible.
Warmbier’s father held a press conference that day, but declined to answer a reporter’s question as to whether or not the neurological injury was caused by an assault, saying he would let the doctors make that determination. He stated that they did not believe anything the North Koreans had told them.
Neurologist Daniel Kanter, director of the neurocritical care program at University of Cincinnati Medical Center, said on June 15 that Warmbier was in “a state of unresponsive wakefulness”—a condition commonly known as persistent vegetative state. He was able to breathe on his own, and blink his eyes, but otherwise did not respond to his environment. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed he had suffered extensive loss of brain tissue throughout his brain.
Kanter stated that Warmbier’s brain injury was typical of a cardiac arrest that caused the brain to be denied oxygen. Doctors also said that they did not find any evidence of physical abuse or torture; scans of Warmbier’s neck and head were normal outside of the brain injury.
Doctors said they did not know what caused the cardiac arrest, but that it could have been triggered by a respiratory arrest.
Brandon Foreman, a neurointensive care specialist at the hospital, confirmed that there was no sign of a current or past case of botulism, which can cause paralysis but not a coma.
Medical records from North Korea showed that Warmbier had been in this state since April 2016, one month after his conviction. During his release, the North Koreans provided a disk containing two MRI brain studies, dated April and July 2016 showing damage to the brain.
He seemed well nourished. Fred Warmbier expressed anger at the North Koreans for his son’s condition, saying,
“There is no excuse for any civilized nation to have kept his condition secret, and denied him top-notch medical care for so long.”
Warmbier died in the hospital at 2:20 p.m. on June 19, 2017, at the age of 22. His parents and two siblings survived him. His family issued a statement expressing their sadness, thanking the hospital staff for their actions.
President Trump later issued a statement regarding Warmbier’s death, “There is nothing more tragic for a parent than to lose a child in the prime of life. Our thoughts and prayers are with Otto’s family and friends, and all who loved him
Twenty-seven years ago, Shin Dong-hyuk was born inside Camp 14, one of five sprawling political prisons in the mountains of North Korea. Located about 55 miles north of Pyongyang, the labor camp is a ‘complete control district,’ a no-exit prison where the only sentence is life.
No one born in Camp 14 or in any North Korean political prison camp has escaped. No one except Shin. This is his story.
A gripping, terrifying memoir with a searing sense of place, ESCAPE FROM CAMP 14 will unlock, through Shin, a dark and secret nation, taking readers to a place they have never before been allowed to go.
‘This is a story unlike any other’ Barbara Demick, author of Nothing toEnvy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
This extraordinary story lifts the lid on the secretive and brutal totalitarian regime of North Korean ‘s labour camps and the forgotten political prisoners and their families whom are destined too suffer unbelievable inhumanity and are subject to summary execution at the whims of their “guards”.
Shin Dong-hyuk ‘s story appalled and horrified me and I’m still trying to work out how such a place and regime could still exist in the 21st century and why the world is not doing more to eradicate the brutal and oppressive abuse of over 23 million North Korean people.
North Korea is a problem that the world will have to face up to at some stage and whilst the supreme leader Kim Jong-un is obviously mad as a march hare and insane , his quest for nuclear weapons is not just a threat to his neighbour – but to the world in general and the stability to the entire region.
Shin Dong-hyuk (born 19 November 1982 or 1980 as Shin In Geun) is reputed to be the only known prisoner to have successfully escaped from a “total-control zone” grade internment camp in North Korea.
He was the subject of a biography, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West, by former Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden. Shin has given talks to audiences around the world about his life in Camp 14 and about the totalitarian North Korean regime to raise awareness of the situation in North Korean internment and concentration camps and North Korea.
Shin has been described as the world’s “single strongest voice” on the atrocities inside North Korean camps by a member of the United Nations’ first commission of inquiry into human rights abuses of North Korea. In January 2015, he recanted aspects of his story but a majority of experts continued to support his credibility as a victim of North Korean human rights abuses.
Camp 14: Total Control Zone
The following is Shin’s biography as told by him prior to 2015 which he later partially recanted.
Shin Dong-hyuk was born Shin In Geun at the Kaechon internment camp, commonly known as Camp 14. He was born to two prisoners who were allowed to marry as a reward for good work, although:
“neither bride nor groom had much say in deciding whom they would marry.”
Shin’s father, Shin Gyung Sub, told Shin that the guards gave him his mother, Jang Hye-gyung, as payment for his skill in operating a metal lathe in the camp’s machine shop. Shin lived with his mother until he was 12. He rarely saw his father who lived elsewhere in the camp and was allowed to visit a few times a year. According to Shin, he saw his mother as a competitor for their insufficient food rations, and consequently had no bonds of affection with his parents or his brother, Shin He Geun.
The North Korean government officials and camp guards told him he was imprisoned because his parents had committed crimes against the state, and that he had to work hard and always obey the guards; otherwise he would be punished or executed.
Shin went to primary and secondary school while in the camp. The secondary school was “little more than slave quarters from which he was sent out as a rock picker, weed puller and dam labourer.” At one point, a young girl was beaten to death by the teacher for hoarding a few kernels of corn. His education did not include propaganda or even basic information about North Korea. The personality cult around Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il was also absent; for example there were no portraits of the Kim leaders on display.
The camp was near a hydroelectric dam and mines in which the prisoners were forced to labour. In one of Shin’s prison cells, where he was held during an interrogation, he said he had electricity and running water. Shin’s mother lived in a house with multiple rooms in a “model village” in the camp, given to women who had children.
Shin experienced considerable violence in the camp, and witnessed dozens of executions every year.Part of Shin’s right middle finger was cut off by his supervisor as punishment for accidentally breaking a sewing machine. He witnessed adult prisoners and children beaten every day, and many prisoners dying of starvation, illness, torture and work accidents. He learned to survive by any means, including eating rats, frogs, and insects, and reporting fellow inmates for rewards.
Mother and brother plan to escape
When Shin was 13 years old, he overheard his mother and brother planning an escape attempt. Shin had just finished eating watery corn porridge, and was trying to sleep until he overheard that He Geun, his brother had run from the cement factory. Shin’s mother, Jang was preparing rice, a symbol of wealth in North Korea for the escape from Camp 14. Shin was jealous his brother was getting rice. Shin’s teacher was already in the gated Bowiwon village, so Shin told the night guard of his school with another boy, as informing was something he was taught to do from an early age, and he hoped to be rewarded. However, the school night guard took full credit for discovering the plan, and rather than being rewarded, Shin was arrested and guards tortured him for four days to extract more information, believing him to be part of the plan to escape.
According to Shin, the guards lit a charcoal fire under his back and forced a hook into his skin so that he could not struggle which caused many large scars still visible on his body.
On 29 November 1996, after approximately seven months spent in a tiny concrete prison cell, he was released and joined by his father, who had also been imprisoned. They were driven back to the main camp wearing blindfolds and their hands tied behind their backs. Camp officials then forced Shin and his father to watch the public executions of Shin’s mother and brother; he then understood he had been responsible for the executions.
Shin stated that at the time of the executions of his brother and mother, in his teenaged mind he felt they “deserved” their fates for both breaking prison rules and, conversely, not including him in the escape plan. Shin has since expressed remorse over his actions, saying in an interview with Anderson Cooper for the CBS television show 60 Minutes
, “My mother and brother, if I could meet them through a time machine, I would like to go back and apologize”.
In interviews to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and others, and in his Korean language memoir, Shin had said that he had no prior knowledge of the escape. It was only when talking to Harden that he revised his story and said that he had informed on his mother and brother.
Escape with Park
While working at a textile factory, Shin became friends with a 40-year-old political prisoner from Pyongyang (surnamed Park), who was educated and had traveled outside North Korea. Park had been to East Germany, and China. Park said that he shook Kim Jong Il’s hand. Park told him about the outside world, such as stories about food that Shin had not experienced before. According to Shin, nearly every meal he had eaten up to that point had been a soupy gruel of cabbage, corn, and salt, with occasional wild-caught rats and insects. He was excited by the idea of being able to eat as much food as he wanted to, which Shin considered to be the essence of freedom. “I still think of freedom as roasted chicken,” he later acknowledged.
Shin decided to attempt to escape with Park. They formed a plan in which Shin would provide local information about the camp, while Park would use his knowledge once outside the camp to escape the country. On 2 January 2005, the pair was assigned to a work detail near the camp’s electric fence on the top of a 1,200-foot (370 m) mountain ridge to collect firewood. Noting the long interval between the guards’ patrols, the two waited until the guards were out of sight, then made their attempt to escape.
Park attempted to go through first, but was fatally electrocuted climbing the high voltage fence. Shin managed to pass over the wire using Park’s body as a shield to ground the current, but still suffered severe burns and permanent scars when his legs slipped onto the lowermost wire as he crawled over Park’s body.
After escaping, Shin broke into a nearby farmer’s barn and found an old military uniform. Wearing the uniform, he was able to masquerade as a North Korean soldier at times. He survived by scrounging and stealing food.Shin was unfamiliar with money, but within two days of his escape, he had sold a 10 lb (4.5 kg) bag of rice stolen from a house and used the money to buy cookies and cigarettes. Eventually, he reached the northern border with China along the Tumen River and bribed destitute North Korean border guards with food and cigarettes.
Revision in 2015
In January 2015, Shin contacted Blaine Harden and recanted parts of his story.Harden outlined the changes to Shin’s account in a new foreword to his book, Escape from Camp 14, but did not revise every detail. He said a complete revision of the book would have taken months and he wanted to publish the new version as soon as possible.
Shin told Harden that he had changed some dates and locations and incorporated some “fictive elements” into the story. Shin said that he did not spend his entire North Korean life at Camp 14. He said that he was born there, but when he was young, his family was transferred to the less severe Camp 18, and spent several years there. He said that not only did he inform on the escape plan of his mother and brother, but also falsely implicated them in murder. He said that he twice escaped from Camp 18. The first time, in 1999, he was caught within days. The second time, in 2001, he said he crossed into China, but was caught after four months by Chinese police and sent back to North Korea. He said that he was tortured in Camp 14 in 2002, when he was 20 years old (not 13, as previously stated), as punishment for his escape. He said he was repeatedly burned and tortured in an underground prison for six months. As a result of education in Camp 18, and his previous escapes, he said he wasn’t as naive about the outside world when he made his final escape from Camp 14 as he had previously described.
In Escape from Camp 14 Blaine Harden commented that, “Shin was the only available source of information about his early life.” In his new foreword for the book in 2015, he described Shin as an “unreliable narrator” and commented that, “It seems prudent to expect new revisions”, but also clarifying “I don’t know if that’s true (that the story will change)”. Harden theorized that “Shin appears to have been exposed to prolonged and repeated torture. We can expect that this would have a major impact on every aspect of who he is, on his memory, his emotional regulation, his ability to relate to others, his willingness to trust, his sense of place in the world, and the way he gives his testimony.”
A Russian-born Korean specialist Andrei Lankov commented that “some suspicions had been confirmed when Shin suddenly admitted what many had hitherto suspected”, described Harden’s book as unreliable, and noted that defectors faced considerable psychological pressure to embroider their stories.
Shin explained he did not tell the full story because he wished to hide “that my mother and brother were executed because of my report,” saying “the most important reason why I could not reveal all of the truth was because of my family.” He went on to say:
“All I did until last September was discuss the camps as they were, but once the video was released [of his father], the nastiness of North Korea infuriated me. Then I realized I should not hold anything back.”
Post-North Korea life
After spending some time working as a laborer in different parts of China, Shin was accidentally discovered by a journalist in a restaurant in Shanghai, and the reporter recognized the importance of his story. The journalist brought Shin to the South Korean embassy for asylum, and from there he traveled to South Korea, where he underwent extensive questioning from authorities to determine if he was a North Korean assassin or spy. Afterwards, his story was broadcast by the press and he published a Korean language memoir.
Shin later moved to southern California, changing his name from Shin In Geun to Shin Dong-hyuk in “an attempt to reinvent himself as a free man,” and worked for Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a non-profit organization that raises awareness of human rights issues in North Korea and provides aid to North Korean refugees. Shin moved back to South Korea to campaign for the eradication of the North Korean prison camps.
In August 2013, Shin gave several hours of testimony to the United Nations‘ first commission of inquiry into human rights abuses of North Korea. A member of the UN commission described Shin as the world’s “single strongest voice” on the atrocities inside North Korean camps.
Shin described some aspects of his personal life in South Korea in a Financial Times interview, on popular culture saying that “I don’t really know anything about music. I can’t sing and I don’t feel any emotion from it. But I do watch lots of films and the one that moves me the most is Schindler’s List“. On food he says “I know everything is delicious. I look at the colours and the way the food is presented on the plate but it’s very difficult to choose. When I first came to South Korea, I was so greedy that I used to order too much food. Nowadays I try to order only as much as I can handle.” Although Shin lives in South Korea, he was informally adopted by an American couple in Ohio during his time in the United States. He says he maintains the relationship, “I have a good relationship with my US foster parents. I contact them often. Whenever I have a holiday, I visit them. I think of them as good parents and I try to be a good son.”
In December 2013, Shin wrote an open letter in the Washington Post to American basketball star Dennis Rodman who visited North Korea a number of times as a self-avowed “friend for life” of Kim Jong-un.
North Korean response
In 2012, when the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention asked the North Korean government about the status of Shin Dong-hyuk’s father, they responded that there was no such person. Then in 2014, after identifying Shin Dong-hyuk as Shin In Geun, the North Korean government produced a video which attempted to discredit Shin through interviews with his father and other supposed witnesses. His father denied Shin had grown up in a prison camp. According to the video, Shin had worked in a mine and fled North Korea after being accused of raping a 13-year-old girl. It also said that Shin’s mother and brother were guilty of murder. The video claimed he was now spreading “preposterous false information” about human rights. Shin confirmed the man was his father. He said that the rape allegation was a fabrication that he had heard before. He later confirmed that his mother and brother were convicted of murder, but stated they were innocent.
Shin said that he believed the North Korean government was sending him a message to be quiet about human rights abuses or his father would be killed, in effect holding his father hostage. The video prompted Shin to recant parts of his story.
Books and films
In 2012, journalist Blaine Harden published Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West, based on his interviews with Shin. Harden gave a one-hour interview about the book on the C-SPAN television program Q&A.
Executive Director of the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, Greg Scarlatoiu, said the book played “an important role” in raising wider public awareness of the North Korean camps. Dalhousie University issued a statement averring that Shin’s story, as told through the book, “has shifted the global discourse about North Korea, shining a light on the human rights abuses so prevalent within the regime.”
A German documentary, Camp 14: Total Control Zone, directed by Marc Wiese, was released in 2012. It includes interviews with Shin Dong-hyuk and two former North Korean officers: the first, Kwon Hyuk, was a guard in Camp 22 and brought out amateur film footage (the only known footage of Camp 22), and the second, Oh Yang-nam, was a secret policeman who arrested people who were sent to camps. Supplementing the film are animated sequences of the camp created by Ali Soozandeh.
On 2 December 2012, Shin was featured on 60 Minutes during which he recounted to Anderson Cooper his story of his life in Camp 14 and escape. Shin said “when I see videos of the Holocaust it moves me to tears. I think I am still evolving—from an animal to a human.”
Awards and honours
In June 2013, Shin received the Moral Courage Award given by UN Watch, a Geneva-based NGO (non-governmental organization).
In May 2014, Shin was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Dalhousie University (Nova Scotia, Canada). Students at the university “held a peace march and launched a social media campaign to raise awareness of human rights violations in North Korea. They then fundraised to bring Mr. Shin to Halifax, where his speech to an over-capacity crowd drew international attention
Kaechon internment camp
Kaechon internment camp (Hangeul: 개천 제14호 관리소, also spelled Kae’chŏn or Gaecheon) is a forced labor camp in North Korea for political prisoners. The official name is Kwan-li-so (Penal-labor colony) No. 14. It is not to be confused with Kaechon concentration camp (Kyo-hwa-so No. 1), which is located 20 km (12 mi) to the northwest. This place is commonly known as Camp 14.
Location of Kaechon camp in North Korea
The camp was established around 1959 in central North Korea near Kae’chŏn county, South Pyongan Province. It is situated along the middle reaches of Taedong river, which forms the southern boundary of the camp, and includes the mountains north of the river, including Purok-san. Bukchang, a concentration camp (Kwan-li-so No. 18) adjoins the southern banks of the Taedong River. The camp is about 155 km2 (60 sq mi) in area, with farms, mines and factories threaded through steep mountain valleys.
The camp includes overcrowded barracks that house males, females, and older children separately, and a headquarters with administration and guards housing.
Altogether around 15,000 prisoners live in Kaechon internment camp.
The main purpose of Kaechon internment camp is to keep politically unreliable persons classed “unredeemable” isolated from society, and exploit their labor. Those sent to the camp include officials perceived to have performed poorly in their job, people who criticize the regime and anyone suspected of engaging in “anti-government” activities. Prisoners have to work in one of the coal mines, in one of the factories that produce textiles, paper, food, rubber, shoes, ceramics and cement or in agriculture.
Human rights situation
Many prisoners of the camp were born there under North Korea’s “three generations of punishment”. This means anyone found guilty of committing a crime, which could be as simple as trying to escape North Korea, would be sent to the camp along with that person’s entire family. The subsequent two generations of family members would be born in the camp and must also live their entire lives and die there.
As reported by witnesses, the prisoners have to do very hard and dangerous work in mines and other workplaces from 5:30 in the morning until midnight. Even 11-year-old children have to work after school and may see their parents rarely. People are forced to work like slaves and are tortured in case of minor offences.
Food rations are very small, consisting of salted cabbage and corn, so that the prisoners are very skinny and weak. Many die of undernourishment, illness, work accidents, and the aftereffects of torture. Many prisoners resort to eating frogs, insects, rats, snakes, and even convert to cannibalism in order to try to survive. Eating rat flesh helps to prevent pellagra, a common disease in the camp which results from the absence of protein and niacin in the diet. In order to eat anything outside of the prison-sanctioned meal, including these animals, prisoners must first get permission from the guards.
In his official biography Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden, Shin Dong-hyuk claimed that he was born in the camp and lived there until escaping in his early twenties. In 2015, Shin recanted some of this story. Shin told Harden that he had changed some dates and locations and incorporated some “fictive elements” into his account. Harden outlined these revisions in a new foreword, but did not revise the entire book. Shin said that he did not spend his entire North Korean life at Camp 14. Though maintaining that he was born there, he stated that, when he was young, his family was transferred to the less severe Camp 18, and spent several years there. He said that he was tortured in Camp 14 in 2002, as punishment for escaping from Camp 18.
Kim Yong (1995–1996 in Kaechon, then in Bukchang) was imprisoned after it was revealed that two men executed as alleged US spies were his father and brother. He witnessed approximately 25 executions in his section of the camp within less than two years
From late 2010, Kim Jong-un was viewed as heir apparent to the leadership of the nation, and following his father’s death, he was announced as the “Great Successor” by North Korean state television. At Kim Jong-il’s memorial service, North Korean Chairman of the Supreme People’s AssemblyKim Yong-nam declared that “Respected Comrade Kim Jong-un is our party, military and country’s supreme leader who inherits great comrade Kim Jong-il’s ideology, leadership, character, virtues, grit and courage”. On 30 December 2011, the Politburo of the Workers’ Party of Korea formally appointed Kim as the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army. In April 2012, the 4th Party Conference elected him to the newly created post of First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
Kim was formerly known as Kim Jong-woon or Kim Jung-woon. His name was first reported as 김정운 (Hanja: 金正雲; lit. righteous cloud), possibly as a result of an error in transliteration; the Japanese language does not distinguish between 운 (/un/) and 은 (/ɯn/). The initial source of his name was Kim Jong-il’s former personal chef, known by the pen name Kenji Fujimoto, who was among the few who had access to information about Kim’s household from inside the government. Chinese media had named him as 김정은 (Hanja: 金正恩; lit. righteous grace).
In December 2014, South Korea’s KBS TV revealed that they had obtained an official “administrative order” originally circulated by Kim Jong-il in January 2011 mandating that anyone sharing Kim Jong-un’s name needed to formally change their name. Similar edicts were issued regarding the names of the regime’s previous leaders when they were coming to power. The 2011 document states, “All party organs and public security authorities should make a list of residents named Kim Jong-un … and train them to voluntarily change their names.”
Early life and education
The Liebefeld-Steinhölzli public school in Köniz, Switzerland, which Kim Jong-un is reported to have attended.
No official comprehensive biography on Kim Jong-un has yet been released. Therefore, the only known information on his early life comes from defectors and people who have claimed to witness him abroad, such as during his school attendance in Switzerland. Some of the information has been conflicting and contradictory, perhaps conflating him with his brother Kim Jong-chul, who was also attending school in Switzerland around the same period. Nevertheless, there has been some consensus on information about his early life. North Korean authorities have stated that his birthdate is 8 January 1982, but South Korean intelligence officials believe the actual date is a year later. Dennis Rodman said that the birthdate is 8 January 1983 after meeting Kim in September 2013. Kim Jong-Un was the second of three children Ko Yong-hui bore to Kim Jong-il; his elder brother Kim Jong-chul was born in 1981, while his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, is believed to have been born in 1987.
According to reports first published in Japanese newspapers, he went to school in Switzerland near Bern. First reports claimed he attended the private English-language International School in Gümligen near Bern under the name “Chol-pak” or “Pak-chol” from 1993 until 1998. He was described as shy, a good student who got along well with his classmates and was a basketball fan. He was chaperoned by an older student, who was thought to be his bodyguard.
Later, it was reported that Kim Jong-un attended the Liebefeld Steinhölzli school in Köniz near Bern under the name “Pak-un” or “Un-pak” from 1998 until 2000 as the son of an employee of the Embassy of North Korea. Authorities of Köniz confirmed that a student from North Korea, registered as the son of a member of the Embassy, attended the school from August 1998 until the autumn of 2000, but were unable to give details about his identity. Pak-un first attended a special class for foreign-language children and later attended the regular classes of the 6th, 7th, 8th, and part of the final 9th year, leaving the school abruptly in the autumn of 2000. He was described as a well-integrated and ambitious student who liked to play basketball. However, his grades and attendance rating are reported to have been poor. The ambassador of North Korea in Switzerland, Ri Tcheul, had a close relationship with him and acted as a mentor. One of Pak-un’s classmates told reporters that he had told him that he was the son of the leader of North Korea. According to some reports, Jong-un was described by classmates as a shy child who was awkward with girls and indifferent to political issues but who distinguished himself in sports, and had a fascination with the American National Basketball Association and Michael Jordan. One friend claimed that he had been shown pictures of Pak-un with Kobe Bryant and Toni Kukoč.
In April 2012, new documents came to light indicating that Kim Jong-un had lived in Switzerland since 1991 or 1992, earlier than previously thought.
The Laboratory of Anatomic Anthropology at the University of Lyon, France, after comparing the picture of the boy Pak-un taken at the Liebefeld Steinhölzli school in 1999 with a picture of Kim Jong-un from 2012 came to the conclusion that the two faces show a conformity of 95%. The head of the institute, Raoul Perrot, a forensic anthropologist, considers it most likely that the two pictures show the same person.
It is believed that the student at the Gümligen International School was not Kim Jong-un but his elder brother Kim Jong-chol. It is not known whether the student known as Pak-un in Liebefeld Steinhölzli lived in Switzerland prior to 1998. All the children of Kim Jong-il are said to have lived in Switzerland, as well as the mother of the two youngest sons, who lived in Geneva for some time. The Kim clan is also said to organize family meetings in Switzerland at Lake Geneva and Interlaken.
Most analysts agree that Kim Jong-un attended Kim Il-sung University, a leading officer-training school in Pyongyang, from 2002 to 2007.
For many years, only one confirmed photograph of him was known outside North Korea, apparently taken in the mid-1990s, when he was eleven. Occasional other supposed images of him surfaced but were often disputed. It was only in June 2010, shortly before he was given official posts and publicly introduced to the North Korean people, that more pictures were released of Kim, taken when he was attending school in Switzerland. The first official image of him as an adult was a group photograph released on 30 September 2010, at the end of the party conference that effectively anointed him, in which he is seated in the front row, two places from his father. This was followed by newsreel footage of him attending the conference.
Kim Jong-il’s former personal chef, Kenji Fujimoto, revealed details regarding Kim Jong-un, with whom he had a good relationship, stating that he was favored to be his father’s successor. Fujimoto also claimed that Jong-un was favored by his father over his elder brother, Kim Jong-chul, reasoning that Jong-chul is too feminine in character, while Jong-un is “exactly like his father”. Furthermore, Fujimoto stated that “If power is to be handed over then Jong-un is the best for it. He has superb physical gifts, is a big drinker and never admits defeat.” Also, according to Fujimoto, Jong-un smokes Yves Saint Laurent cigarettes, loves Johnnie Walker whisky and has a Mercedes-Benz 600 Sedan. When Jong-un was 18, Fujimoto described an episode where Jong-un once questioned his lavish lifestyle and asked, “We are here, playing basketball, riding horses, riding Jet Skis, having fun together. But what of the lives of the average people?” On 15 January 2009 the South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that Kim Jong-il had appointed Kim Jong-un to be his successor.
On 8 March 2009, the BBC reported rumors that Kim Jong-un was on the ballot for elections to the Supreme People’s Assembly, the rubber stamp parliament of North Korea. Subsequent reports indicate that his name did not appear on the list of lawmakers, but he was later elevated to a mid-level position in the National Defense Commission, which is a branch of the North Korean military. Reports have also suggested that he is a diabetic and suffers from hypertension.
From 2009, it was understood by foreign diplomatic services that Kim was to succeed his father Kim Jong-il as the head of the Korean Workers’ Party and de facto leader of North Korea. He has been named “Yŏngmyŏng-han Tongji” (영명한 동지), which loosely translates to “Brilliant Comrade”. His father had also asked embassy staff abroad to pledge loyalty to his son. There have also been reports that citizens in North Korea were encouraged to sing a newly composed “song of praise” to Kim Jong-un, in a similar fashion to that of praise songs relating to Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. Later, in June, Kim was reported to have visited China secretly to “present himself” to the Chinese leadership, who later warned against North Korea conducting another nuclear test. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has strongly denied that this visit occurred.
North Korea was later reported to have backed the succession plan, after Kim Jong-il suspended a propaganda campaign to promote his youngest son. His birthday has since become a national holiday, celebrated on 8 January, according to a report by a South Korean website. He was expected to be named on 28 September 2010 as successor to his father as leader of North Korea.
Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter visited China in early September 2010, and discussed the issue of the North Korean leadership succession with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. According to Carter, Kim Jong-il had said to Wen that Kim Jong-un’s prospective promotion to paramount leader of North Korea was “a false rumor from the West”.
On 10 October 2010, alongside his father, Kim Jong-un attended the ruling Workers’ Party’s 65th anniversary celebration. This was seen as fully confirming his position as the next leader of the Workers’ Party. Unprecedented international press access was granted to the event, further indicating the importance of Kim Jong-un’s presence. In January 2011, the regime began purging around 200 protégés of both Jong-un’s uncle-in-law Jang Sung-taek and O Kuk-ryol, the vice chairman of the National Defence Commission of North Korea, by either detention or execution to further prevent either man from rivaling Jong-un. In the following months, Kim Jong-un was given more and more prominence as he accompanied Kim Jong-il during several “guidance tours” and received gifts from foreign delegations and personages, an honor traditionally awarded only to the living supreme leader.
Ruler of North Korea
On 17 December 2011, Kim Jong-il died. Despite the elder Kim’s plans, it was not immediately clear after his death whether Jong-un would in fact take full power, and what his exact role in a new government would be. Some analysts had predicted that when Kim Jong-il died, Jang Sung-taek would act as regent, as Jong-un was too inexperienced to immediately lead the country. On 25 December 2011, North Korean television showed Jang Sung-taek in the uniform of a general in a sign of his growing sway after the death of Kim Jong-il. A Seoul official familiar with North Korea affairs said it was the first time Jang has been shown on state television in a military uniform. His appearance suggested that Jang had secured a key role in the North’s powerful military, which pledged its allegiance to Kim Jong-un.
North Korea’s cult of personality around Kim Jong-un was stepped up following his father’s death. He was hailed as the “great successor to the revolutionary cause of Juche“, “outstanding leader of the party, army and people” and “respected comrade who is identical to Supreme Commander Kim Jong-il”, and was made chairman of the Kim Jong-il funeral committee. The Korean Central News Agency described Kim Jong-un as “a great person born of heaven”, a propaganda term only his father and grandfather had enjoyed, while the ruling Workers’ Party said in an editorial: “We vow with bleeding tears to call Kim Jong-un our supreme commander, our leader.”
He was publicly declared Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army on 24 December 2011 and formally appointed to the position on 30 December when the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party “courteously proclaimed that the dear respected Kim Jong Un, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission of the WPK, assumed the supreme commandership of the Korean People’s Army”.
On 26 December 2011, the leading North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun announced that Kim Jong-un had been acting as chairman of the Central Military Commission, and supreme leader of the country, following his father’s demise.
On 27 March 2012, Kim was elected to the Fourth Conference of the Workers’ Party of Korea, that elected him first secretary, a newly made position, on 11 April. This position replaced the post of general secretary, which was awarded “eternally” to Kim Jong-il. At the conference, Kim Jong-un also took his father’s seats as Politburo Presidium member and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. In a speech made prior to the Conference, Kim Jong-un declared that “Imbuing the whole society with Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism is the highest programme of our Party”. On 13 April 2012, the 5th Session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly appointed Kim Jong-un Chairman of the National Defence Commission.
On 15 April 2012, during a military parade to commemorate Kim Il-sung’s centenary, Kim Jong-un made his first public speech. That speech became the basis of “Onwards Toward the Final Victory“, a repeatedly aired propaganda hymn dedicated to him.
During a 26 July 2012 performance marking the 59th anniversary of the armistice of the Korean War, security around Kim reportedly increased dramatically because Kim “is extremely nervous about the possibility of an emergency developing inside North Korea” caused by “mounting opposition to his efforts to rein in the military”.
In November 2012, satellite photos revealed a half-kilometer-long propaganda message carved into a hillside in Ryanggang Province, reading, “Long Live General Kim Jong-un, the Shining Sun!”. The message, located next to an artificial lake built in 2007 to serve a hydroelectric station, is made of Korean syllable blocks measuring 15 by 20 meters, and is located approximately 9 kilometers south of Hyesan near the border with China.
Kim Jong-il’s personal chef Kenji Fujimoto stated, “Stores in Pyongyang were brimming with products and people in the streets looked cheerful. North Korea has changed a lot since Kim Jong-un assumed power. All of this is because of leader Kim Jong-un.”
Model of a Unha-9 rocket on display at a floral exhibition in Pyongyang, 30 August 2013
Officially, Kim Jong-un is part of a triumvirate heading the executive branch of the North Korean government along with Premier Pak Pong-ju and parliament chairman Kim Yong-nam (no relation). Each nominally holds powers equivalent to a third of a president’s powers in most other presidential systems. Kim Jong-un commands the armed forces, Pak Pong-ju heads the government, and Kim Yong-nam handles foreign relations. Nevertheless, it is generally understood that Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather before him, exercises absolute control over the government and the country.
In 2013, Kim re-established his grandfather’s style when he made his first New Year’s address, a break from the approach of his father. Kim Jong-il never made televised addresses during his 17 years in power. In lieu of delivering a speech, Kim Jong-il contributed to and approved a New Year’s Day editorial, jointly published by Rodong Sinmun (the daily newspaper of the Korean Workers’ Party), Joson Inmingun (the newspaper of the Korean People’s Army), and Chongnyon Jonwi (the newspaper of the Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League). At the extraordinary meeting with his top defense and security officials on 26 January 2013, Kim issued orders on preparations for a new nuclear test and introduced martial law in North Korea effective from 29 January.
In May 2014, following the collapse of an apartment building in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un was said to be very upset at the loss of life that resulted. A statement issued by the country’s official news agency the Korean Central News Agency used the rare expression “profound consolation and apology”. An unnamed government official was quoted by the BBC as saying Kim Jong-un had “sat up all night, feeling painful”. While the height of the building and the number of casualties was not released, media reports described it is a 23-story building and indicated hundreds of people may have died in the collapse.
On 9 March 2014, Kim Jong-un was elected to the Supreme People’s Assembly. He was unopposed, but voters had the choice of voting yes or no. There was a record turnout of voters, and according to government officials, all voted yes. The Supreme People’s Assembly subsequently elected him chairman of the National Defense Commission.
In August 2012, Kim Jong-un announced economics reforms similar to China. Kim began to be mentioned by the North Korean state media as “supreme leader” (chego ryongdoja) at this time.
A set of comprehensive economic measures, the “Socialist Corporate Responsible Management System”, were introduced in 2013. The measures increase the autonomy of enterprises by granting them “certain rights to engage in business activities autonomously and elevate the will to labor through appropriately implementing the socialist distribution system”. Another priority of economic policies that year was agriculture, where the pojon (vegetable garden) responsibility system was implemented. The system reportedly achieved a major increase in output in some collective farms.
North Korean media were describing the economy as a “flexible collectivist system” where enterprises were applying “active and evolutionary actions” to achieve economic development. These reports reflect Kim’s general economic policy of reforming management, increasing the autonomy and incentives for economic actors. This set of reforms known as the “May 30th measures” reaffirms both socialist ownership and “objective economic laws in guidance and management” to improve living standards. Other objectives of the measures are to increase the availability of domestically manufactured goods on markets, introduction of defence innovations into the civilian sector and boost international trade.
At a plenary meeting of the WPK Central Committee held on 31 March 2013 in the wake of war threats with South Korea, Kim Jong-un announced that North Korea will adopt “a new strategic line on carrying out economic construction and building nuclear armed forces simultaneously”.
Ri Yong-ho, Kim Yong-chun, U Tong-chuk and Kim Jong-gak were handpicked to groom the young leader and were close confidants of Kim Jong-il. They have either been demoted or disappeared. One South Korean government official said Kim Jong-un is trying to “erase all traces of his father’s rule” eleven months after stepping into power and “replacing top brass with officers who are loyal to him alone”. By the end of 2013, three defense ministers and four chiefs of the army’s general staff had been replaced and five of the seven men who had escorted his father’s hearse two years earlier had been purged, with his uncle Jang Sung-taek one of the most prominent. Jang Sung-taek is believed to have been executed by machine gun.
Kim Jong Uns Uncle Jang Song Thaek gets publicly arrested
Execution scene of Jang Sung-taek, North Korea
North Korea Defence Chief Hyon Yong-chol ‘executed’
It has been claimed that Kim Jong-un has also put to death members of Jang’s family. According to multiple sources, Kim is attempting to completely destroy all traces of Jang’s existence through “extensive executions” of his family, including the children and grandchildren of all close relatives. Those reportedly killed in Kim’s purge include Jang’s sister Jang Kye-sun, her husband and ambassador to Cuba, Jon Yong-jin, and Jang’s nephew and ambassador to Malaysia, Jang Yong-chol. The nephew’s two sons were also said to have been killed. At the time of Jang’s removal, it was announced that “the discovery and purge of the Jang group… made our party and revolutionary ranks purer…” and after his execution on 12 December 2013 state media warned that the army “will never pardon all those who disobey the order of the Supreme Commander.”
Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese chef who used to work as Kim Jong-il’s personal cook, described Kim Jong-un as “a chip off the old block, a spitting image of his father in terms of face, body shape, and personality”.
In July 2012, Kim Jong-un showed a change in cultural policy from his father by attending a Moranbong concert. The concert contained several elements of pop culture from the West, particularly the United States. Kim used this event to debut his wife to the public, an unprecedented move in North Korea.
In a 2012 news story, Business Insider reported, “Signs of a rise in luxury goods have been creeping out of North Korea since Kim Jong-un took over as last year. Just recently, Kim’s wife Ri Sol-ju was photographed holding what appeared to be an expensive Dior handbag, worth almost $1,594 — an average year’s salary in North Korea.” According to diplomatic sources, “Kim Jong-un likes to drink and party all night like his father and ordered the [imported sauna] equipment to help him beat hangovers and fatigue.”
During Dennis Rodman’s 26 February 2013 trip to North Korea, Vice Media correspondent Ryan Duffy observed that “the leader was ‘socially awkward’ and didn’t make eye contact when shaking hands”.
Kim Jong-un did not appear in public for six weeks in September and October 2014. State media reported that he was suffering from an “uncomfortable physical condition”. Previously he had been seen limping. When he reappeared he was using a walking stick.
One report by the Japanese Asia Press agency in January 2013 claimed that in North and South Hwanghae provinces more than 10,000 people had died of famine. Other international news agencies have begun circulating stories of cannibalism. One informant, based in South Hwanghae, said: “In my village in May, a man who killed his own two children and tried to eat them was executed by a firing squad.”
Portraits of Kim Jong-un’s father and grandfather (Arirang Festival mass games in Pyongyang)
On 25 July 2012 North Korean state media reported for the first time that Kim Jong-un is married to Ri Sol-ju (리설주). Ri, who appears to be in her early 20s, had been accompanying Kim Jong-un to public appearances for several weeks prior to the announcement. The BBC, quoting an analyst who spoke to The Korea Times of South Korea, reported that Kim Jong-il had hastily arranged his son’s marriage after suffering a stroke in 2008. According to some sources, the two married in 2009 and Ri gave birth to a daughter in 2010.
Kim Jong-un has one half-brother, one half-sister and an older full-brother (see below). He also has a younger full-sister, Kim Yo-jong, who was believed to be about 23 in 2012. She sometimes accompanies him.
In March 2013, former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman visited Kim Jong-un in North Korea and on his return reported that Ri had given birth to a daughter named Ju-ae in 2012.