A North Korean defector who survived 10 years in a prison labor camp said he told President Bush last month that the United States should do more to help those who flee the communist regime.
“The people who are at the camps, the [North Korean] government wants to kill them all,” Kang Chol-hwan said in an interview with The Washington Times. “Instead of executing them, they kill them slowly, making them work in forced labor. That was the hardest part.”
Mr. Kang, 37, said prisoners are fed very small portions of corn and salt that make it “impossible to survive” without additional food. As a result, prisoners survive by eating cooked rats and snakes, and live lizards, he said.
Nongovernmental groups estimate that as many 300,000 North Koreans are in China after fleeing across the border. About 10,000 have fled to South Korea.
Totalitarian repression and the collapse of the food production and distribution system in the late 1990s resulted in widespread starvation and forced many of North Korea’s 23 million people to risk being shot as they crossed the border into China.
Mr. Kang said that when he crossed in 1992, it was easier than it was today, when triple fences and more guards have been deployed to block the defections.
Mr. Kang said North Korea is becoming more unstable as food and energy shortages are growing. At least 1 million people are thought to have starved in North Korea as the result of famine and government mismanagement since the late 1990s.
Foreign aid — primarily from China, South Korea and Japan — is helping to keep the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il from collapsing completely, he said.
Mr. Kang said about 200,000 North Koreans are in the prison labor camp system throughout the country. All in the camps are malnourished, and unless their will is strong, they eventually die, he said.
Mr. Kang said he agreed to meet the president after a White House National Security Council official told him that Mr. Bush had read his book and became interested in the human rights problem there.
The book, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang,” is an account of Mr. Kang’s 10-year prison work camp experience from age 10 to 20. He disclosed in detail the systematic torture, beatings, public executions and starvation in his camp.
Mr. Kang said he never expected to meet Mr. Bush, but on June 13, he spent 40 minutes in the Oval Office discussing North Korea and human rights and other issues.
“I was nervous about meeting the most powerful leader in the world, but when I met him, President Bush was very casual and helped me relax. I had a great time,” said Mr. Kang, who is visiting the United States this week to take part in a conference on human rights.
Mr. Kang said he and the president discussed ways the United States could help provide assistance to North Korea without having to go through channels controlled by Mr. Kim.
Foreign assistance sent to the country is used by “elites” to keep the regime in power while most of the population is starving, he said.
“I suggested that the problem of North Korean defectors is a very urgent matter,” Mr. Kang said. “I emphasized that creating an environment where defectors can more easily get out of the country would eventually help bring down the North Korean regime, similar to what happened in East Germany.”
Helping refugees flee the communist state would be a more effective way of dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue, Mr. Kang said he told the president.
Mr. Bush responded by telling Mr. Kang that helping North Korean defectors is important, but that there are many diplomatic obstacles in the way of doing more to support them. The president agreed, however, the suggestions were “a great idea,” Mr. Kang said.
The president asked Mr. Kang whether the United States should get “directly involved” in helping people flee North Korea. And Mr. Kang said he told Mr. Bush that direct involvement would be important in helping change perceptions of the United States inside North Korea, where the people are “brainwashed with anti-Americanism.”
“If the United States pressures North Korea only on the nuclear issue, the North Korean government can utilize that to increase the level of anti-Americanism in the country,” Mr. Kang said.
He said the Kim regime is not open to democratic reforms.
“The whole country is focused on this one person, and unless the system changes, nothing will change,” Mr. Kang said. “Kim Jong-il does not intend to give up all the power he has, so there is no way this country will change by itself.”
Mr. Kang was 10 years old when his entire family — grandparents, parents and siblings — was arrested in 1977 and sent by truck to Yodak, a notorious prison labor camp about 65 miles northeast of Pyongyang.
Mr. Kang was released from the camp in 1987 and became a trader. In 1992, he bribed a border guard and escaped into China and eventually to South Korea.