Unsung Misery

From the London Telegraph comes the story of Hyok Kang, a resident of Onsong, quite possibly the most miserable quarter of North Korea that isn’t a concentration camp, in its extreme northeast.

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Kang speaks of a hellish everyday life in which people were publicly executed for stealing copper wire to sell:

When the time came, the condemned man was displayed in the streets before being led to the place of execution, where he was made to sit on the ground, head bowed, so everyone could get a good look at him. He was dressed in a garment designed by army scientists for public executions, a greyish one-piece suit made of very thick, fleece-lined cotton. That way, when the bullets are fired, the blood doesn’t spurt out but is absorbed by this fabric, which turns red. The body is thrown on a cart and then abandoned in the mountains for the dogs to eat.  [The Telegraph, Interview with Hyok Kang]

Kang explains why anyone who take such a risk.  Copper is valuable, China is just across the river, and food was desperately scarce:

At school, as time passed, there were fewer and fewer of us at our desks. The teachers sat shapelessly in their chairs, cane in hand, while we repeated by heart lessons we had already learned about the childhoods of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Yet work in the fields was still compulsory despite the fact that the remaining pupils and teachers were extremely weak. We actually went there not to work, but to glean anything we could find to keep from starving to death.

In the end, just before I escaped to China with my family in 1998, there were only eight or nine of us in class. The rest were too weak even to walk.

Given the death-stalked state of existence in Onsong and its proximity to China, you may wonder why anyone sticks around.  People cross the border anyway, some to trade and earn money, and others to leave for good.  The North Korean regime stops at nothing to prevent its subjects from escaping.  The first odd thing you notice about this large town, located beside a river that forms an international border, is that no bridge crosses it.  Long ago, one did.  In this image, you can see the pilings of a bridge still jutting out of the Tumen River.


The bridge was probably blown during the Korean War.  The North Korean regime, obsessed with secrecy and isolation, never rebuilt it.  Incidentally, I believe this New York Times article incorrectly identifies the bridge pictured here (more photos here) as crossing into Onsong.  Based on this map, this article, and this article, I believe that this bridge actually span the Tumen River between Tumen, China and nearby Namyang, North Korea, approximately eight miles to the west.  Google Earth shows no bridge crossing the river at Onsong, although it is a much larger city than Namyang.

In Onsong, the illusions of the state coexist uneasily with the grim realities of life and death.  What North Korean city would be complete without a grandiose political monument and a hill covered with shallow graves?

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Onsong is only visible in medium resolution.  The graves are faint and barely visible, but compare them to what you see here.  South of the city, you can see a string of coal mines, as Kang describes:

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To halt a burgeoning traffic in refugees, smugglers, and food traders, the regime was recently reported to have built a tall wire fence across most of its border.  But the fence wasn’t all:

Side by side with building the wooden fence, North Korea is also preparing traps at strategic spots along Yalu and Tumen rivers that are frequented by people.

A defector who recently crossed the border said, “The traps set up by the border guards are about 3 to 5 meters deep and have sharp metal or wood spikes at the bottom so people are killed or seriously injured when they fall into them.”

These traps, which were installed outside political prison camps to stop inmates from escaping, have now made an appearance along the national border.  [Chosun Ilbo]

More recently, border guards summarily executed 15 people, most or all of them women, for trying to cross the border.  The mass execution contributed to a rare display of public anger by residents, though there have been other reports of discontent in Onsong for years.  The few outsiders who have heard of Onsong probably remember it for the 1987 massacre of 5,000 prisoners of a nearby concentration camp who rose up against the guards there.  After the guards machine-gunned the prisoners and retook the camp, they leveled it.  I have been unable to locate the site of the former camp.


  1. I cannot tolerate this any longer. It is up to us, the United States, to invade North Korea and end the suffering of her people and the threat of a nuclear Kim Jong Il. If President Obama refuses to act, I pray Kim Jong Il will force him to act and free those people in Onsong and all over the country.


  2. I, too, caught the London Telegraph’s interview of Hyok Kang – compelling to say the least – as Jon Snow said, Hyok Kang provides a rare and precious insight through the observant eyes of a former thirteen year old boy who not only escaped but survived to tell the world of the hellish life in the northeastern part of the DPRK, with the kind of detail that is all the more powerful for its quiet understatement.