By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 22, 2010; A07
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."
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.
"My wife did not want to go," Oh said. "I ignored her objections."
Via East Germany and Moscow, the family arrived in Pyongyang on Dec. 3, 1985, Oh said, and was immediately taken to nearby mountains for indoctrination at a military camp.
"The moment we stepped into that camp, I knew my wife was right and that I had made the wrong decision," Oh said.
His wife received no treatment for hepatitis. Instead, she and her husband spent several months studying the teachings of Kim Il Sung, the "Great Leader" and founding dictator of North Korea. He died in 1994 and was replaced by his son, Kim Jong Il, who continues to run what is often called the most repressive state on earth.
Oh and his wife were given jobs working in a radio station broadcasting propaganda to South Korea. Soon, though, authorities ordered Oh to return to Germany and recruit more South Korean students to live in North Korea. His wife and daughters, he was told, could not go along. Oh recalls that he and his wife argued bitterly about what he should do.
"She hit me in the face when I said I would come back with some South Koreans," Oh said. "She said I could not have that on my conscience. She told me to leave North Korea and never come back. She told me to think of her and our daughters as being dead from a car accident."
En route to Germany, Oh turned himself over to authorities in Copenhagen and was granted political asylum. He was debriefed for several weeks in Munich, he said, by U.S. agents from the CIA.
Shortly after Oh defected, his wife and daughters were detained in Pyongyang and taken to Camp 15, a former North Korean prisoner told Amnesty International. Two years later, according to another former prisoner, the three were moved from a "rehabilitation" section of the camp, where prisoners are sometimes released, to a "complete control district," where they work until they die.
There has been no further information about Oh's wife and daughters since then.
In the early 1990s, Oh wrote a book, "Please Return My Wife and Daughters, Kim Il Sung." It did not occasion a response from North Korea. Oh said he sometimes believes his family is still alive, and sometimes he is convinced that they are dead. Either way, he blames himself.
Special correspondent June Lee in Seoul contributed to this report.