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The Guard

Esther Felden/anNovember 19, 2014

Ahn Myeong Cheol used to be a guard in a North Korean political prison until he fled the country 20 years ago. He hopes the human rights situation in his homeland will be brought to the International Criminal Court.

A North Korean army guard
Image: AP

"Prisoners are not people." This was drummed into Ahn Myeong Cheol and all the other guards working in the notorious North Korean prison camps for political prisoners over and over again. Ahn spent eight years working in various camps before he changed sides, fleeing from North Korea to the South in 1994, an offense for which, in his homeland, he would automatically be sentenced to death. He hopes that speaking out about the conditions in the camps might improve the human rights situation in North Korea.

While the United Nations is currently taking steps to take the leadership of the country to court over their disastrous human rights situation, Ahn is a guest at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to tell of his experiences under the regime. He recounted these to DW over the phone, the truth of which cannot be verified. But Ahn Myeong Cheol's story is just one of around 300 testimonies gathered by a UN commission, a report on which was published in early 2014. This document laid the foundation for potential criminal scrutiny of human rights violations and crimes against humanity in the isolated nation.

Ahn is considered a particularly important source for the UN because unlike most people his experience is not from the position of an ex-prisoner, but from inside the brutal system itself.

Former North Korean prison guard, Ahn Myeong-Cheol
Ahn's experience comes from inside the brutal system itself.Image: UN

From school to camp

Ahn Myeong Cheol says he did choose his job. "I was assigned on behalf of the regime," he says. After finishing school and military service he became a guard in a camp for political prisoners. He was just 18 years old. The rules were very strict, he says. "We were instructed to shoot at anyone who dared to try escape or rebel in any way. We were also told in case of a regime collapse we should destroy any evidence which could indicate the camp ever existed." Despite witness statements and numerous satellite images, the North Korean leadership steadfastly denies that such camps exist at all.

He admits he sometimes used force against detainees, such as beating them.

"Have you killed people?"

"No, I have never killed someone myself. But I have seen other guards kill prisoners."

This statement can also not be verified. Ahn says he feels guilty for what he has done. "I have violated the human rights of prisoners. Now I want to do everything possible to get them out of these terrible camps. That is why I am working as a human rights activist."

Prisoner of his own memories

For the past 20 years, Ahn has been living a new life in Seoul, but images from his past continue to haunt him. Like the story of a woman who was imprisoned in camp 22.

"What exactly happened to her?"

"She was raped by my superior. But then she was the one accused of sexual misconduct, and sent to a coal mine as punishment. She had an accident and lost both her legs. She survived, but I don't know if she is still alive today. I hope she is."

The woman's plight moved him, he says. "I felt sorry for her."

After spending eight years in various camps, Ahn fled North Korea to avoid ending up in a camp for political prisoners himself. One day Ahn's father dared to criticize the government in front of witnesses, putting his entire family in danger. In North Korea, so-called "guilt by association" means anyone who is related to someone accused of a crime is also presumed to be guilty.

The only way out: Escape

Ahn's father found himself in a hopeless situation and took his own life. His mother, sister and brother were sent to a camp. Ahn knew better than anyone what would await him in captivity. He decided to go on the offensive, speaking with superior guards about his father, trying to convince them that he too considered him a traitor and had nothing to do with his statements against the government. "But it didn't matter who I spoke to. I was kept under surveillance."

Ahn waited, hoping for an opportunity to leave. "One day, when surveillance was relaxed a little, I took two guns and ran away." He got into a car and drove off, taking two prisoners with him. As he was also often used as an official driver, Ahn knew his way in and around the camp, and didn't raise suspicion. He continued till he got to the Tumen River border, on the other side of which was China. The two prisoners became afraid and decided not to go with him. Ahn doesn't know what happened to them. He crossed the river and left North Korea forever. With the help of a Korean-born Chinese acquaintance, he made his way to Seoul. And he decided he was going to talk about what he had seen and experienced.

On a dangerous mission

In the eyes of the North Korean leadership, Ahn Myeong Cheol is a nuisance.

"What they are doing is dangerous. Are you afraid?"

"Yes, I am afraid. I keep getting threats because I talk about the prison camps in North Korea and reveal closely-guarded state secrets."

Yet he continues.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
Anyone related to someone accused of a crime is also presumed guilty.Image: Reuters/KCNA

Ahn has observed the developments in his country in recent years with great concern. "Since Kim Jong Un took power, the human rights situation has deteriorated even further. He has worked with Jang Song Thaek to even put his own uncle to death, which is something that would never have happened under Kim Jong Il or Kim Il Sung." Furthermore, Kim has instructed the border guards to immediately shoot at refugees. "Under him the number of people fleeing from North Korea has actually declined."

Ahn hopes that the North Korean leadership will one day have to answer for their human rights violations. This became a step closer to reality on Tuesday, November 18, when the United Nations' Human Rights Committee approved a draft resolution submitted by the European Union and Japan. The document aims to bring North Korea before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. 111 countries voted in favor; 19—including Russia and China—voted against; and 55 UN member states abstained.

Next the UN General Assembly will have to decide whether the case goes to the UN Security Council, although the vote is considered a formality. However, the Security Council—the only body that has the power to further refer the matter to the ICC—could be the end of the road for the resolution, as Russia and China are both permanent members of the council. And it is highly likely that Beijing, North Korea's closest ally, will come to Pyongyang's aide and veto the resolution.