North Korean prisoners are forced to drink river water tainted with the ashes of their dead fellow inmates – and all for the crime of watching a foreign soap opera.
The horrific reality of life within Kim Jong-un’s gulags was exposed by former prisoners who survived the living nightmare of Chongori concentration camp.
It’s a camp where North Koreans can find themselves locked up for acts as innocuous as watching South Korean TV or following the Christian faith.
One former prisoner recalled: ‘Every Monday, we burned the corpses… there’s a place that looked like a house, and we piled the corpses in the round tank in it.
‘The facility was drenched in the smell of blood and rotting or burning corpses. ‘After burning the corpses, they stacked up ashes next to the cremation site. The ashes were used as a compost for farming.
‘When it rained, the ashes flowed into the river, and the prisoners drank the river water and used it to shower.’
They also recalled how, on rainy days, when the wood got wet, bodies would not burn as well.
On one occasion, the former prisoner even found themselves tripping over disembodied toes.
They said: ‘I fell on something. At first, I thought I was stuck on a tree, but when I looked closer, it was a toe.
‘I climbed the mountain following the ash and there were five toes right in front of me. I was so surprised.’
Conguri has a high mortality rate due to ‘injury, illness, or physical and mental abuse by prison officials’.
The escapee, whose identity has been protected, made their horrifying disclosure in a new report published by the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).
The report also revealed that the bodies of dead prisoners were piled in a storeroom prior to cremation, where they would be partially eaten by rats and decay would set in.
In addition, HRNK have used satellite imagery to reveal the location of the crematorium, the prison buildings and forced-labour worksites.
One of these worksites is a copper mine, which is believed to be further contaminating the river water that prisoners have to drink.
Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr. the lead author of the report, said: ‘We know people are suffering beyond imagination.
‘The atrocities committed throughout North Korea’s vast system of unlawful imprisonment require the immediate attention of the international community.’
Amanda Mortwedt Oh, who co-authored the report, added: ‘The lack of human dignity afforded to prisoners is beyond repugnant, and the Kim regime must be held to account for such actions.’
Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of HRNK, revealed the nature of the so-called crimes many inmates were accused of.
He said: ‘Behaviour that is perfectly normal in most other countries is criminalised in North Korea.
‘This includes practising religion, especially Christianity, and possessing a Bible, and accessing information from the outside world, in particular any South Korean material like soap operas.
‘It even includes “mishandling” or “disrespecting” a newspaper page containing the picture of the North Korean leader or his father or grandfather.
‘Anything along those lines results in imprisonment at a North Korean detention facility.’
Chongori concentration camp – officially called Kyo-hwa-so (reeducation camp) No. 12 – is in North Hamgyong Province, in the north of the country, roughly 15 miles from the Chinese border.
As many as 5,000 people are imprisoned there, with some 60% incarcerated for illegally crossing the border while the other 40% are being punished for offences like watching foreign TV.
Inmates are used as slave labour, with women manufacturing wigs and false eyelashes, and raising livestock, while men are put to work manufacturing furniture, mining copper and processing ore.
One former prisoner estimated that, during his eight months of detention at Chongori, 800 fellow inmates died as a result of hard labour and malnutrition.
An estimated 120,000 people are believed to be imprisoned across North Korea. The Kim regime denies any human rights offences within the camps and only admitted such facilities even exist in 2014.