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Letter from South Korea

A family and a conscience, destroyed by North Korea's cruelty

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Oh Kil-nam moved to North Korea in 1985 after he was promised medical care for his wife's condition. Instead, they were taken to an indoctrination camp. Oh was later granted political asylum on a trip to Germany, but has not seen his wife or daughters since.

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 22, 2010

SEOUL -- "I am fool."

That self-assessment comes from Oh Kil-nam, a South Korean economist who moved to North Korea a quarter-century ago, dragging along his unhappy wife and two teenage daughters. He then defected to the West, leaving his family stranded in a country his wife had called "a living hell."

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Oh lives alone now in a fusty, computer-filled apartment here in the capital of South Korea. At 68, he is retired as a researcher for a government-funded think tank. He says he drinks too much rice wine and dwells too much on what might have been.

His wife and daughters -- if alive -- are believed to be prisoners in Camp No. 15, one of several sprawling political prisons in the mountains of North Korea.

Nineteen years ago, North Korean authorities, via unofficial intermediaries based in Germany, sent Oh letters that were written in his wife's hand, saying she and the girls were in the camp. There were pictures of them posing in the snow -- and a cassette tape with voices of his daughters begging to see their daddy.

High-resolution satellite images of Camp 15 and several other political prisons have been widely circulated in the past year on Google Earth, arousing increased concern about human rights abuses inside the North Korean gulag, which has existed for more than half a century -- twice as long the Soviet gulag. But documentary evidence of life inside the North's camps remains exceedingly rare.

Oh is the only person known to have received this kind of evidence about inmates, according to Lee Jee-hae, legal advisor to Democracy Network Against the North Korean Gulag, a human rights group based in Seoul.

North Korea officially denies the existence of the camps and has never allowed outsiders to visit them. But about 154,000 people are being held in six large camps, according to the latest estimate by the South Korean government.

Defectors who have been released from Camp 15 say public executions are common there, along with beatings, rapes, starvation and the disappearance of female prisoners impregnated by guards. They say that prisoners have no access to soap, underwear, socks, tampons or toilet paper -- and that most inmates die by age 50, usually of illnesses exacerbated by overwork and chronic hunger.

The self-acknowledged foolishness of Oh began in Germany in 1985.

He was married with two young daughters and studying for a doctoral degree in economics at the University of Tuebingen. He was also an outspoken and left-leaning opponent of the authoritarian government then running South Korea.

His activism attracted the attention of North Korean agents, who approached Oh and offered help with a family medical problem. His wife, Shin Sook-ja, a South Korean nurse, was sick with hepatitis. The North Koreans convinced Oh that she would get free first-class treatment in Pyongyang and he would get a good government job.


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