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Testimony on the Human Rights Violations that take place in the Protection Center for North Korean Defectors by the Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS):
Mr. Hong Gang Chul
* Mr. Hong testified the followings in the prayer gathering recently organized by the NCCK Human Rights Center.
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.
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.
Almost all North Korean men smoke cigarettes. In press releases we could frequently see scenes of North Korean leaders smoking with lower class people. Thus it drives many people mad as they have once enjoyed smoking quite a lot. Smoking was allowed even in Thailand's immigration center. But such was banned the moment we boarded the plane to South Korea. Thus unable to smoke, the "Waiting Class" defectors all enviously look at the "End Class" people smoking after meals, and the relieve their stress by pretending to smoke with pens.
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.
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 and 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 take 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.
[First Round of Inspection]
Upon receiving the inspection, the inspector presents a letter of oath which says, "according to the North Korean Defector Protection law, those who try to receive protection with wrong intentions will be sentenced to five years of prison, and fined ten million Won. Based on the settlement subsidy clause, those who provide false information regarding their North Korean identity, escape reasons or who refuse to give information will have their subsidy reduced by 50%". I was read the letter and signed with my thumbprint.
Men in the "Waiting Class" are able to smoke when they enter the inspection room. The NIS CJIC abuses the right to smoke to force the refugees to make confessions.
As I had a record of working as a North Korean army border control colonel, I received my first-round inspection from an inspector dispatched from a Defense Security command and that inspector, giving me a cigarette, told me to acknowledge that I worked as an Intelligence Security agent back in the North. When I replied that I have never worked as an Intelligence agent back in the North, the inspector said, "There are many agents like you here among the defectors. If you tell the truth that you worked as an information agent, you will not be punished. At least pay the price of the cigarette you are smoking right now". The inspector was smoking "This Plus" and when going out, I asked him the price, thinking of paying him back. Because the inspector consistently requested me to acknowledge my past, I came to think that one gets some kind of incentive for discovering if one of the defectors worked as an intelligence agent back in the North. So I replied that I did work as an intelligence agent before. Little did I know that this was what they were going to use to accuse me of being an "intelligence agent spy".
But it does not seem to be a big problem here in South Korea whether or not you worked as an "intelligence agent" back in the North. The NIS members informed me how during inspections, they come across many intelligence agents and hence it is not much of a big problem. Nevertheless, they made a spy out of me by forcibly making me to acknowledge something I did not do. They even threatened me that they will reduce my subsidy by half if I do not make this acknowledgement.
The inspection lasted from 9AM until 5:30 or 6PM, excluding a one hour lunch break. After that day's inspection, they assigned me "homework". That is what the NIS members call it. The "homework" is based on my statements and it is to further specify what I have said so that they could organize my replies. As an example, they would ask me to write about "what happened before your escape in January 2013. Talk about how you escaped and the aftermath." I have to hand in my homework by next morning. Because the duration of the inspection is wholly up to us, we have no choice but to do the "homework". If we do not do the "homework", it will lengthen the inspection time and since we don't want to stay in the cell room, we follow directly the orders of the NIS.
After fifteen days, the first inspections finally come to an end. There were already 250 pages of statements written just from the court-approved first inspection. After that, we stay about a month at the "End Class". Then around mid-October, we go back to the inspection center to receive our second round of inspections.
[Second Round of Inspection]
The room used during the second inspection had a bed to the left of the door and the 'inspection corner' to the right.
There was a CCTV that allowed no blind-spots. As the bathroom door was made of glass, the CCTV also looked into the bathroom. Hence, even the moments at the restroom were recorded.
The NIS told me that the room I was assigned was referred to as the "pleasant couple room". Why do they have a CCTV at a "pleasant couple room"? Do they want to record what North Korean husband and wife do at their beds? Besides, my room had a single-bed. How could you have a "pleasant couple" time sleeping at a single-sized bed?
There was a peephole at the entrance from which one can look into the room from the hallway. But during the field inspection, they said I lied after they purposely changed the peephole to look to the hallway. It was only until sometime later that it was revealed that the peepholes did look into the rooms from the hallway.
In the inspection room, there were two large desks and two computers for the inspectors to use. At one side of the wall there was a one-way mirror so that from the opposite side of the one-way mirror, one could keep note of the inspection room.
As the doors closed automatically, I could not go out unless someone opened the door from the outside. There was attendance check too and the NIS workers gave me just enough food so I didn't die of starvation. It was not until December, 2013 when I stopped changing my testimony that they began to give me some snacks as well.
On the first day of the second inspection, two inspectors came to my room and took me to the room on the second floor. It was a very gloomy room. There were three desks for the inspectors where two faced me directly and the other from the side. They told me to sit and they said that they would talk down to me as I was younger than them. A while later, the person in charge came and he walked back and forth around me. Then he said looking at me, "The men here are all members of the Special Forces so don't think of anything foolish." Later, it was in this room where my first NIS interrogations took place.
When I failed to listen to them, the inspectors swore at me and made me stand and they kicked the desk legs in frustration. Today even at school the students talk about rights violations when they are asked to stand as a punishment. Back in the North, I grew up as a first son, I did my studies well and rarely was I punished in school and home. It was at this country that they call the "free South Korea" that I got my first standing punishment.
I cried while standing up. I truly regretted it. "Even if I had to die, I should go back to the North." I was so shamed that I even once said to the inspectors to send me back home so that I could die without disgrace. My legs were swollen from standing so long, so I begged them to let me sit. The inspector yelled, "It doesn't matter if bastards like you die. You need to be taken to Korean gangs and they will know what to do." And they said that if I did not acknowledge that I was a spy, I would never be able to go out of this room.
At the court trial, the inspector that gave me such a hard time testified, "I did make him stand but it was so that he would regain his senses. I did talk down on him but I did it softly." Why does one have to stand to gain their senses? Is there such a thing as 'soft' mockery and 'harsh' mockery?
The head of the NIS frequently came into the inspection room and asked whether I did something bad here in Korea. I asked them how could it be possible for me to do something bad when I came straight to the NIS building from the airport. To my reply, he said that if you did not do anything wrong, just acknowledge it and go. He also talked about Kim Hyunghee, the KAL (Korean Airline) bomber and Kim Shinjo, the Blue House intruder, the survivor of a commando team from North Korea sent to assassinate president Park Chung Hee (1968). “Even if Ms. Kim blew up an airplane and killed 115 people, she has married and got children with the help of the NIS” and he explained how Mr. Kim shinjo became a pastor. Mr. Kim recently stopped by the CJIC to give a lecture with a newly bought car.
At the CJIC, there is a comic book entitled, "The Shadows of Progress". This is a book that almost all defectors who stayed at the Center read. I read in this book that Kim Hyunhee, even after blowing up an airplane and killing 115, and then sentenced to death, was released after her court trial by a presidential pardon. Hence it was hard for me not to believe what the NIS had to say about Kim Hyunhee. Is it not a big crime to explode an airplane and take the lives of 115 people? I almost believed that I, who have done nothing bad, should make a false confession that I was spy because such a terrorist like Ms. Kim is so well-off here in Korea.
The inspectors, knowing that I am a smoker, smoked right in front of me. I desperately wanted to smoke. When I begged them for one smoke, they would only let me when I promised I would listen and behave. I was so ashamed and tired after getting that one smoke, and I thought that compared to Kim Hyunhee and Kim Shinjo, the false accusations that I would agree to would be nothing, and so I did as I was told and acknowledged that I was a spy. It was only then that the inspector said it is enough for the day and wait to have dinner.
A while later the inspector came back and brought soju (Korean wine), bosam (pork), kimchi, bread and sundae with him. Back in North Korea, I used to drink, but I was not able to have a single drink since July 2, 2013, when I entered the Thai police station. As it was my first drink in a very long time, I became oblivious to my current state and began drinking busily.
The inspection went on while I was still drinking. The inspector said that spies from North Korea are usually ordered to research on the defectors or the "pro-North" behavioral trends and he asked what my mission was.
As told, I stammered that my mission was to research the behaviors of the defectors and the pro-North groups. The inspector then asked who such 'pro-North' people were. Back when I was in North Korea, I saw in the news that Rev. Moon Ikhwan, Fr. Moon Gyuhyun, Ms. Lim Sookyung, and Mr. Lim Jongseok worked for unification and so I gave their names. The inspector said that Rev. Mook Ikhwan died so long ago so I excluded him. I was not even aware that Rev. Moon had passed away.
The inspector asked me whether the North use the same words about pro-North groups, and told me to use the words as they use. So I said they use the word "democratic forces" and when they asked again, why would the North use the word "democratic", I changed the answer to "unification patriots". This is why it is recorded that I had a mission to research the behaviors of the "unification patriots". Likewise, when I followed what the inspectors asked me to say, they would reward me with cigarettes and alcohol. Little was I aware of the trouble ahead and foolishly acknowledged all the false things the inspectors asked me to.
Even when I was falsely testifying, I could not properly answer the inspectors' questions. I replied as told but it was hard for me to remember something I had not done, something that came from the imaginations of the inspectors. So there were moments when the inspectors swore at me as there was no consistency in my testimony. That was when I realized that even false statements needed to be consistent.
As I did not know what kind of people spies are, what education they receive and why missions they get, I just testified falsely according to the hints given by the inspectors which was why my statements lacked consistency (I could not remember what I said). Then again I would be sworn at, given no cigarettes, and they I would say that I am not a spy. Why would the North send a person like me as a spy? Ask any one at Musan and they would tell what kind of person I am.
When I was in North Korea, I often went astray thinking that I was not accepted. Such people are called 'gangsters' back in the North. They are those who don't adjust to the society, waste their lives and time. They drink a lot and often fight, too. Why would the North send a person like me, a bum, as a spy of all people?
When I changed my replies, they did not give me any cigarettes. At nights when I was really desperate, I would reply once again that I was a spy. Then at morning I would deny again. After such a vicious cycle, I could take it no more and thus decided to say that I was a spy once and for all.
[Third Round of Inspection]
The defectors are inspected by NIS members at the Thai immigration detention center. If I remember correctly, back in early November, the inspector who had been in charge of me back at Thailand came in. He asked if I remembered him and asked to move rooms. So we went into another room upstairs. The room was like the others but there were three desks for the inspectors. The previous rooms were equipped with only two deskss for inspectors but now there were three.
That room also had a CCTV that captured every corner and as there was no sunlight, it was very cold. Until then, I was wearing summer clothes, and when I said that I was cold, the inspectors handed me winter clothing, saying that they bought it especially for me with their own savings. Later, the NIS members confessed at court that all the clothing, food, cigarettes and alcohol that they provided me were bought with NIS budget. Once again I was very cold, tired and lonely.
When I was receiving my second round of inspections, I falsely testified that I was assigned a mission from the North Korean Intelligence Agency and accordingly, I was asked by the inspectors to fill out a "spy mission report." If I had actually worked as a spy, then it would have been no problem for me to write the report, but since I have never been a spy before, I just made everything up.
On the first day of the third inspection, the inspector who had interrogated me in Thailand informed me that from now on everything I say would be recorded and that I must sign a consent form. Later at court, when the judge asked for the recordings, the NIS replied that they don't have them as they delete such recordings every three month. Did they really fail to hand it in because they were deleted? Is the NIS such foolish to not keep their inspection records?
The inspector asked again of the things that I testified. Because I had been testifying by mouth and words day and night in front of the NIS, I could now falsely testify from memory. So when the inspector interrogated, I mumbled on without any meaning.
While listening, the inspector asked me to draw the "spy mission report" on the board. When I did, he asked if there were no photos in the report. I said there were none. Then he questioned how I, who would be presumed to be a top-class party member spy could not have a single photo. It was then that I realized that this was an inspector who was keen to see the real truth and crying, I confessed that I had falsely confessed to everything because I was so tired and ashamed.
Without a single word the inspector left the room.
After a while, my previous inspectors came in. They said, "Bastard, we knew that you would be like that. Enough for today, let's continue tomorrow."
Days of suffering and pain awaited me again. No matter how I tried to explain that I was not a spy, the NIS refused to listen. They said that if I kept on denying, they would cut back on my subsidy. Back then, the Hanawon (the Government Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees) provided four million won ($ 4,000) for a defectors’ settlement subsidy. If my subsidy was cut by half, I would have to start with two million won, and I thought it would not be enough.
The NIS head in charge of me changed and one day he came into my room with a pack of "Esse" cigarettes, four persimmons and a book called "Dongibokam" (a book about traditional Korean medicine). He said to take the easy way out not the hard one. Those confirmed as spies here all request for a press conference but the NIS refuses because then the North would be able to see it and would thus harm their family members. The NIS said that they could take me to see my family, as they lived near the border.
He then asked what I planned to do as a living here in South Korea. I replied that back in North Korea, I worked in the army and also I had experience in a construction site so I could plaster and weld things as well.
Almost everyone who used to be in the army back in the North are able to farm and build. I said I am willing to do anything and he replied that even South Koreans, who all have graduated from universities have trouble finding a job and that I too would eventually be unemployed. He continued on saying that my inspectors would have to be my guarantors and look after my life, but if I continued to change my statements, then no one would want to look after me and stand up for me so I should better behave from now on. I thought he was speaking the truth. It was a Saturday. So I said yes, and I compiled all the false testimonies I made so far and gave my final one. And I kept that false statement. It was about mid-December back then.
All the testimonies I have said and written that have been acknowledged by the court have piled up to be more than 1000 pages.
The moment I retained my testimony, they began to treat me well again.
Every Friday dinner, they provided a feast with soju wine, beer, sashimi (raw fish), chicken, crab, fruits and so on. They let me smoke to my liking and gave me my own cigarettes and lighter and at dinner, before they went home, they never forgot to give me some soju.
I detested myself for living like that. On January 2014, after another feast, I sang a song called "I don't know why I am like this" and I suddenly broke into tears and so my female inspector had to help me back to my room.
As I was drunk the other day, I knew of such after the inspectors told me. At court, they testified that it was a male inspector that took me into my room, not a female. Why would they lie about such a thing?
I was no longer hungry after I retained my stance. I was provided with regular snacks and if I asked for more, they gave me more. When I asked for TV, they let me watch DVDs, but not ordinary channels. Because it had been a long time since I had a sexual relationship, they also gave me R-rated movies. The inspectors said that they are also willing to provide me with women. But I refused.
They were so desperate to earn my favor. Those who shamed me were now trying to call me their "brother". From this point on, I began to exercise an hour a day. As it had been a couple of months since my last exercise, a simple game of ping-pong tired me heavily.
I guess it was about mid-January, 2014. A female inspector came and told me how there was a spy who did not listen to them and instead listened to a crazy lawyer, called Minbyun (“Lawyers for Democratic Society”) and got a five-year sentence instead of a three-year sentence. The inspector told me that she had met the spy today. I heard frequently about those lawyers from the NIS inspectors.
The female inspector continued on saying how she used to refuse meeting the female spy, but went out today to meet her. She was greeted well. Out of curiosity, I asked how women like her behave and the inspector said that once spies like you write a "consent to change", they are granted subsidies and houses.
On January 20, 2014, the NIS investigation bureau came to interrogate the suspect.
Prior to starting the interrogation, I needed to re-write my testimonies in biography form. I had to work hard to remember what I said and I wrote about 100 pages.
A harsh looking investigator came to interrogate me and he looked just like a rather dumb gangster. Throughout the interrogation, he spoke down on me with his unique Kyungsang-do dialect. When starting the interrogation, I was told that I had the right to remain silent and the right to counsel. But if I refuse to say anything, they would cut back on my subsidy by 50% so I had no choice but to speak.
I had the right to counsel, but since the NIS did not provide me with one, I had to find one myself. I did not know anybody in South Korea. I could not have contact with anybody and thus could not receive any form of help. How then was I supposed to consult a lawyer? Hence what the NIS was really trying to say is that "you are completely under the control of the NIS, and if you don't listen you will never be able to go out." Not surprisingly, I testified as I had falsely memorized before. Back then, I foolishly believed that there would be no press conference, that I would be able to meet my family and be given money, housing and a job. During that time, there was once again another head inspector who consistently told me that after the interrogation, spies like me are well-taken care of in the future. How could I not believe the NIS?
[Inspection of the Warrant]
On February 11, 2014, I went to the Seoul District Court with the NIS workers for a warrant evaluation. That night, we held a "farewell party". The inspectors did not tell me where I would be going and said, although the NIS tries to care for me the best they can, if I meet a bad judge, I might get a three-year sentence. But still, I would be able to enjoy the national holidays and as there are hopes of getting pardoned, I should remain hopeful.
I believed them, as I read about the special pardons that the defectors get like in the book "Shadows of Progress." Never did they say anything about my going to jail, which was probably why I was confused.
On the morning of February 11, 2014, 7-8 Special Police officers along with my inspectors came into my room with their shoes on and cuffed my hands, telling that “this is a mere formality.” The inspectors from the JCIC brought my belongings and helped me put it in my bag. My worst inspector gave me 7~8 packs of "Esse" cigarettes along with a lighter in front of the Police officers and told me to smoke and that if I want, I could ask for soju. He also gave me a checkered shirt to wear when the spring comes. So I thought I would be going not to jail but some place where I would be able to freely smoke. Who would have imagined there being a jail where you can smoke, drink and wear a checkered-shirt?
Even if I was unfortunate to meet a bad judge like the NIS inspectors said and get a 3-year sentence, I still foolishly believed that I would be able to meet my family, get a job, a house and money. Hence without my noticing, I was locked behind bars in Seoul prison, and after reading a news article about me in Munhwa Ilbo, I realized how I was deceived by the NIS. And it was not until I met my Minbyun lawyer, Jang Kyeongook that I was declared innocent in the first and second trials.
I am a defector who escaped from the North. But I do not wish for the collapse of my country. Moreover, I do not wish for war. There are human beings, my people, who also live in North Korea. There are those I love back in my homeland.
I wish that all would reconcile and work together to build a peaceful unified country under God's grace. Thank you.