N. Korea Documents Suggest Political Prisoners Are Gassed

Times Staff Writer

Four crumpled pieces of paper smuggled last year out of North Korea have raised anew long-standing allegations that chemical weapons are being tested on political prisoners.

The documents are purported letters of transfer for inmates to be sent from one of North Korea’s most infamous prison camps to a chemical complex in South Hamgyong province for “the purpose of human experimentation for liquid gas.”

Kim Sang Hun, a respected South Korean human rights advocate, said he obtained the letters from a top engineer who was working at the chemical complex.

“I am absolutely convinced [the letters] are genuine, no doubt about it,” Kim said. He carefully studied the paper and the handwriting and official seal on the documents before deciding to release them, he said.


The documents have sparked a vigorous debate in Seoul within a small coterie of North Korea experts and defectors who say they can neither confirm nor disprove the papers’ authenticity.

Kim intends to release the letters Wednesday at a news conference in London along with written statements from the engineer.

The engineer, 57-year-old Kang Byong Sop, was arrested last month in China along with his wife and son as they attempted to flee from North Korea to Laos. Their whereabouts are unknown. Another son, who had been working in Bangkok, Thailand, was assaulted Jan. 25 in an incident that human rights advocates said was linked to North Korean agents.

“We believe this family has been identified and targeted by North Korea for having brought out the letters,” said Kim, who has known members of the family for years and was instrumental in persuading the engineer to take the letters.

“This is a case of a brave North Korean who has risked his and his family’s lives to inform the world of these horrendous crimes against humanity,” he said.

The existence of the documents was first reported this month by the British Broadcasting Corp.

The allegations, which evoke images of the gas chambers used in the Holocaust, have sparked renewed calls for international scrutiny of the North Korean gulag, which is believed to house about 200,000 people.

Human rights organizations have been frustrated for years in their attempts to investigate the treatment of political prisoners in North Korea. Although there are clear satellite images of the camps, the country’s authoritarian regime does not allow foreigners to visit them. As with allegations about the North Korean nuclear weapons program, defectors may be motivated to exaggerate or forge documents to obtain money or win asylum for their families.


The gassing allegedly took place at one of North Korea’s largest chemical complexes, the February 8 Vinalon Factory in Hamhung, which is believed to produce synthetic fibers, agricultural feed and insecticides as well as nerve gas and blistering and choking agents.

In his statement, Kang claimed to have been the chief electrical engineer, a position that gave him access to visit remote corners of the compound for emergency repairs. He said it was known that prisoners would arrive by trucks about twice a month and disappear into a secluded annex about four miles from the main complex. On one occasion, he was fixing a broken power line when he saw a chamber about the size of a large freezer.

“I saw human hands scratching a round glass window inside a chamber that was locked with a heavy metal door,” Kang said in the statement.

Kang said that last July he was in a State Security Agency office that had stacks of documents referring to prisoners. He snatched a handful of papers off a desk, crumpled them into a ball and threw them into the wastebasket. He later took the basket and hid the papers in his clothing.


The documents were essentially form letters on which someone had written the names, dates of birth and addresses of prisoners who were being sent for experimentation with chemical weapons. They bore the seal of the No. 22 prison camp, a facility for dissidents in North Korea’s far north, about 200 miles from Hamhung.

Ahn Myong Chol, a North Korean defector who worked as a guard and driver at Camp 22, said the official seal on the document appeared to be genuine.

“I’d say from the look there is a 70% chance it’s authentic. But it’s impossible to be certain. I find it hard to believe that anybody would be able to get out a document like that,” said Ahn, who is active in the human rights community in Seoul.

Kang Chol Hwan, a former North Korean political prisoner who is now a journalist in Seoul and co-chair of a human rights group, said: “It is widely taken for granted, especially among political prisoners, that tests are conducted on human beings. But it has never been proven. And nobody, neither former prisoners nor executioners, has credibly claimed to have seen it.”


The North Korean defectors, and other human rights activists working in Seoul, dismissed claims by a defector who gave the BBC a graphic description of watching a family being gassed to death as scientists watched. They said the man’s previous statements, including his claim to have been a top security official, had been discredited.

South Korean security officials also have cast doubt on the statements made in the television documentary.

North Korea’s official news service last week put out a statement denying the alleged gassing of prisoners.

“It’s a trite method for the present U.S. administration to invent lies and justify a war of aggression under that pretext,” an unnamed Foreign Ministry spokesman was quoted as saying.