Kim Young Soon, left, 73, who spent nearly a decade in the notorious Yodok… (John M. Glionna / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Seoul — For years, Kim Young Soon said, she struggled with a cruel uncertainty: She didn't know the crime that landed her in Yodok prison, the notorious penal colony in secretive North Korea.
One day in 1970,North Korean secret police agents came for Kim and her family: her parents, husband, three sons and daughter. They were taken to the gulag whose mere name stirs terror among many North Koreans.
Life under the regime took its toll on Kim's family. Her parents died of hunger at Yodok, she said. One son accidentally drowned there. Another was executed in 1989 while trying to escape from North Korea.
Kim's husband was taken to a separate camp, which she calls "a place with no return." She never saw him again.
"I spent years not knowing what the charge was," said Kim, now 73, who was released in 1979.
On Tuesday, Kim and two other former Yodok prisoners told their stories at a news conference in Seoul held by a coalition of human rights activists looking into the prison situation in North Korea.
The Antihuman Crime Investigation Committee has tried to shine a new light on North Korea's gulag system, especially the dreaded Yodok.
The activists in December petitioned the International Criminal Court at The Hague to put North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on trial for human rights violations.
Kim, who has run the isolationist nation of 23million since 1994, has sent an untold number of people to their deaths in prisons, activists say.
South Korea's National Human Rights Commission recently released the first study on conditions in North Korea's prisons. The findings were issued amid growing public pressure to monitor the fate of the North's prisoners. The study estimates that about 200,000 political prisoners are being held in six North Korean gulags, including Yodok.
Based on interviews with more than 370 defectors, including 17 who had been held in the gulags, the watchdog group concluded that the prisons -- which were set up in the late 1950s and numbered 13 in the 1970s -- have established team captains among inmates to pressure prisoners into doing even more labor.
On Tuesday, comments by the three ex-prisoners, who were not cited in the recent report, included details on the Yodok gulag's inner workings.
The former inmates said the North Korean regime often imprisoned the relatives of people it suspected of crimes, as in Kim's case. They said that at Yodok, relatives of suspected criminals outnumbered the accused.
The three said most of Yodok's inmates had been detained by public security police and sent to the gulag without trial or explanation of their alleged crime.
"There are guard posts every 200 meters, and even if you escape, the ground outside is filled with pits containing sharpened sticks," Kim said. "They are like traps in which you would catch animals."
The camps, the former prisoners said, are identified by numbers; they range from one where inmates are kept in maximum-security cells to those where the political elite are sent for months or years of political reeducation.
"Camp No. 15, if you are sent there, it is by the blessing of the Dear Leader," Kim Tae Jin, who was imprisoned for alleged espionage, said, referring to Kim Jong Il. "It means you might be free one day, and that you will be getting a second chance."
Those who end up in Yodok aren't usually so lucky. "I didn't know I was going to Yodok until I got there," said Jung Gyoung Il. "The place is the subject of terror for North Korean people.
"Its image keeps people from saying anything against the North Korean government. It's why democracy can't start there."
Even after his release and defection to South Korea several years ago, Jung says, he has nightmares that have led him to drink and seek counseling.
"It still haunts me -- the hunger and hard labor," he said. "More than 80% of the people there die of malnutrition and overwork. Just the other night, I had another nightmare of pulling a large tree with a huge chain."
For years, toiling in the Yodok camp, Kim Young Soon was left to wonder why she had ended up there.
"The reasons people are sent there aren't even crimes in other countries," she said. Some "were sent for eavesdropping on South Korean radio or watching a South Korean video."
She was freed without any explanation of why she was imprisoned for nearly a decade; at the time of her release, she signed a statement saying she would never discuss the goings-on behind the barbed wire.
Years later, Kim Young Soon believes she got her answer. She received a call from a North Korean intelligence agent saying that her problems stemmed from her high school and college friendship with Song Hye Rim, a mistress of Kim Jong Il whose secretive relationship the regime was trying to erase from the historical record.
Officials wanted to silence people like Kim. "If you say this woman existed, you will not be forgiven," she remembers the agent saying.
Yodok continues to cast a shadow long after Kim's 2003 defection to the South. Before leaving North Korea with her third son, Kim offered her only daughter up for adoption so she could escape the tarnish of a family imprisoned at Yodok.
Her family is gone now, she said. "I am alone here."
Ju-min Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.