'No one remembers you' - Life inside a North Korean gulag

By Lauren McMah

A North Korean soldier looks out from behind a barded wire fence around a camp on the North Korean river banks across from Hekou, northeastern China's Liaoning province. Photo / AP
A North Korean soldier looks out from behind a barded wire fence around a camp on the North Korean river banks across from Hekou, northeastern China's Liaoning province. Photo / AP

American Kenneth Bae had been to North Korea 18 times - and it was his last visit that turned him from a tourist to a political prisoner.

Bae was working as a tour operator in the brutal communist country when he was accused of plotting to overthrow its regime.

He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in 2013, becoming the longest-held US citizen detained in North Korea since the Korean War.

Bae ended up serving 735 days in a labour camp - two years of his scheduled stay - before American authorities managed to secure his release.

But it was enough for Bae to experience the shocking reality of life as a prisoner in North Korea - an experience only a handful of others have discovered.

Now, in his first interviews since his release in 2014, and upon the release of his tell-all memoirs, Bae has lifted the lid about what life was like in a North Korean gulag.

Here is what he has revealed so far.

Hard labour

Bae, who was the first American ever sent to a labour camp in North Korea, was put to gruelling work between the hours of 8am and 6pm, six days a week, during his captivity.

"(I was) working on the field, doing farming, labour, carrying rocks and shovelling coal," the 47-year-old told CNN on Tuesday.

"All those things that were physically very demanding and were very difficult."

Bae said conditions were made worse because of a back problem he had sustained before his imprisonment.

But tougher still was the psychological toll of being treated like a political prisoner.

Kenneth Bae has been speaking for the first time about his two years in a North Korean hard labour camp. Photo / AP
Kenneth Bae has been speaking for the first time about his two years in a North Korean hard labour camp. Photo / AP

"There was one prosecutor assigned to my case for the last year of my imprisonment. He came to me almost every week, and he said to me, 'No one remembers you. You have been forgotten by your people, your government. You're not going home any time soon. You'll be here for 15 years. You'll be 60 before you go home'," Bae said.

"Obviously it was very difficult to take it in."

Bae said he shed about 27kg during his two years in the camp and was "pretty much living day to day, living one day at a time".

Bae said the prisoners were under 24-hour watch by 30 guards at the camp.

He was also interrogated up to 15 hours a day for the first four weeks of his incarceration, The New York Times reports.

Hard drive danger

Bae was running a China-based tourism company called Nations Tour when he was arrested during a tour to North Korea in November 2012.

Pyongyang officials accused the devout Christian of preaching against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in American and South Korean churches, plotting a religious coup, encouraging rebellion and carrying out an anti-regime smear campaign.

In a pre-taped interview released one month before his sentencing in March 2013, Bae admitted he made "a terrible mistake by carrying a portable hard drive containing hostile, anti-North Korean material by accident".

The hard drive contained prayers and pictures of starving North Korean children, CBS reported.

Bae has since said he went to North Korea - a strictly atheist country known to aggressively clamp down on religious expression - to do missionary work.

"They (the prosecutors) said, 'You attempted to overthrow the government through prayer and worship' and they really took prayer as a weapon against them," Bae told CBS.

Satellite view of Camp 16, one of the most notorious prisons in North Korea. No ground-level pictures of the camp are known to have made it out of the country.
Satellite view of Camp 16, one of the most notorious prisons in North Korea. No ground-level pictures of the camp are known to have made it out of the country.

"One of the prosecutors told me that I was the worst, most dangerous American criminal they had ever apprehended since the Korean War. I said, 'Why?' and they said, 'Because not only (did you come) to do mission work on your own, you asked others to join'."

But while his faith may have made him a target, Bae said it also helped him cope with life in the labour camp.

"Along the way, I found myself adjusting to life in the North Korean prison, just depending on God," he told CNN.

"And I knew the US government would do everything possible (to) bring me home."

Rodman effect

As authorities in Washington worked to secure Bae's release, former NBA star Dennis Rodman - an entirely unexpected player in the proceedings - also took up the cause.

Rodman created headlines during Bae's detention by publicly urging his "friend", North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to "do him a solid" and "cut Kenneth Bae loose".

Rodman reportedly criticised US president Barack Obama for not doing enough to free Bae - "Obama can't do sh*t," he was quoted as saying - and even offered to go to North Korea himself.

Dennis Rodman campaigned for Bae's release. Photo / Getty Images
Dennis Rodman campaigned for Bae's release. Photo / Getty Images

Rodman's interest in the case became more bizarre, however, when he appeared on CNN in January 2014, during Bae's captivity, and angrily suggested the American must have done something wrong to get 15 years' hard labour.

Later, Rodman backtracked on those comments and apologised to Bae's family.
Despite this, in his interview yesterday, Bae credited Rodman for helping him get out of North Korea.

"I thank Dennis Rodman for being a catalyst for my release," he said.
"Because of his rant the media attention on my plight increased."

Not the only captive

Bae was one of three American citizens held captive by North Korean authorities at the same time - the other two were Jeffrey Fowle and Matthew Miller.

Fowle, a father-of-three from Ohio, was arrested in 2014 for leaving a bible in a nightclub in North Korea's northern port city of Chongjin, and was detained for six months until a joint effort by the Swedish and US governments secured his release.
The committed Christian later admitted he knew exactly what he was doing.

"I did. I knew I was going against the laws of the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea)," Fowle told USA Today.

"Having seen the plight of the people, I knew about the severe Christian persecution. I wanted to help them."

The circumstances surrounding Miller's arrest were even stranger.

A placard of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un during a protest in South Korea. Photo / Getty Images
A placard of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un during a protest in South Korea. Photo / Getty Images

The Californian was arrested in 2014 at the age of 24 after he dramatically tore up his visa upon arriving in North Korea for a guided tour.

"I was trying to stay in the country ... I just wanted to speak to an ordinary North Korean person," he said in an interview with North Korean state media.
Miller was tried and sentenced to six years' hard labour for entering the country illegally and "hostile acts".

He was freed after 202 days - along with fellow prisoner, Kenneth Bae.

US blamed for everything

Bae's interviews came as he promoted the release of his memoir, Not Forgotten, in which he describes living conditions under North Korea's tyrannical regime, what it was like to visit the country, and of course, what it was like there as a political prisoner.

In the book, Bae said he believed he was used by Pyongyang as a "political pawn".
Going into more detail on CBS, Bae said it was because Kim Jong Un's regime blamed all its ills on the US.

"I believe that they blame everything wrong with their country (on) America," he said.

"They say the reason for poverty, the reason for their suffering, is all caused by US foreign policy against them.

"And therefore, by indicting me, they (were) indicting the US."

A Westerner who visited North Korea recently told news.com.au the country did blame poverty on US sanctions against Pyongyang.

In recent times North Korea has also tried to blame the US for internet outages and even suggested Washington "invented" ebola and used the virus to restrain the developing world.

Himself now free from the regime's tyranny, Bae admitted to CBS it was not easy coming to terms with the two years he spent as its "prisoner 103".

"It's still stuck in my head," Bae said.

"And I feel like I'm carrying this badge of 103 in my chest forever."

- news.com.au

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