Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ask a Korean! News: North Korean Riot in 1998

It has been a while since the Korean translated from Nambuk Story, a North Korean blog run by Mr. Joo Seong-Ha, a Kim Il-Sung University graduate who defected from North Korea. The Korean has been translating his incredible stories and invaluable insight partly because they are informative, and partly because of a sense of duty that the world needs to know what has happened in Korea, and what is happening now. This story  is long, but the world must know. Incredibly, although this happened more than 10 years ago, the story is only getting told now from a defector through Mr. Joo. Below is the translation.

*            *           *

My name is Lee Choon-Gu, 35 years old. I escaped from North Korea and defected into Republic of Korea, my dream world. I am from Hwanghaebuk-do Hwangju-gun.

At this point, I have largely forgotten the hunger and struggle I experienced in North Korea before I defected. But I can never forget the laborer's riot at Hwanghae Steel Refinery at August 1998, in Hwanghaebuk-do Songrim-si. North Korean regime's inhuman barbarism that quelled this riot will forever stain the pages of history.

In early August of 1998, I came to stay with my aunt at Songrim-si to get through the dire food shortage. Songrim-si is known for having one of the largest steel refineries in North Korea. My family came to rely on my aunt's because her little business of carrying around and selling things was doing ok at a place with a high density of laborers, nearly 100,000 employees of the steel mill. The three of us -- myself, wife and child -- abandoned the house at Hwangju-gun, got to help my aunt selling fish and eat what little food available. I was so thankful for my aunt and uncle then. My uncle was working at the automated line within the Hwanghae Steel Refinery.

At this time, the situation was the same everywhere in North Korea. Even in Songrim-si filled with laborers, the monthly food ration amounted to corn power worth a day or two. The laborers did not show up to work, severely dropping the factory's productivity. The factory officials visited my aunt's house several times to persuade my uncle, who could not report to work. The officers said a few words like "Let's try to overcome this difficulty and be loyal to the Dear Leader," but my uncle hardly cared.

I think it was around August 10, 1998. There were rumors all over Songrim-si that there is a public execution by a firing squad, executing eight Hwanghae Steel Refinery officers at the public stadium. Apparently the manager and the secretary of the steel mill began discussing how to feed the laborers, and the assistant managers participated. The conclusion was to sell pressed steel plates to China in exchange for corn.

The manager and the secretary of a steel mill are candidates for Labor Party Central Committee and members of the elite power structure. They were supposed to report something like this to the Central Party, but decided to handle within the steel mill. They knew that the higher-ups would not approve because the steel plates were for the military, etc. At the meeting, the secretary and the manager explained, "We are not being reactionaries; we are trying to produce steel by feeding the laborers and have them participate in production." At the same time, they pleaded the officers to keep it secret.

The steel mill's boat at Nampo seaport took the steel plates to China to be exchanged for corn. The steel mill's assistant manager and other officers were on the boat to negotiate with the Chinese. Of course, the laborers on the boat would not know the specifics of this transaction. They returned with a boat full of corn exchanged with the steel plates, and were about to moor the boat at Nampo.

Suddenly, young men in plainclothes jumped on the boat brandishing handguns, and showed their identification. The ID said Pyongyang Chief Security Bureau Inspection Division, the embedded enforcers who are known to operate through direct orders from the North Korean regime. They arrested everyone on the boat, tied them up and took them away somewhere in a car -- a rare thing to see in North Korea. Apparently, the arrest happened because someone snitched. All this I heard from the laborers from the boat, who were let go because they did not know anything. The streets were filled with indignant murmurs wondering who snitched. The murmurs also voiced the people's praise for the officers' brave decision for the laborers.

Next day at 9 a.m., the city public stadium was filled with laborers and residents with heavy hearts. With my uncle, I saw the eight people to be executed getting dragged out from a truck. Probably because of torture, they could not walk; the plainclothed young men of Pyongyang Chief Security Bureau Inspection Division dragged them to the stakes. Even as they were being tied to the stakes, my uncle who worked at the steel mill could not tell who was who. Although it was summer, everyone was wrapped in thick cotton winter clothes with their eyes covered.

Then the people from some kind of central tribunal read the sentencing statement for death penalty. It said for the treason that violated the Party's sovereign leadership and sold the republic's supplies to a foreign country, the assistant manager and head of sales who were arrested on the boat, and other related assistant managers and head of production -- eight officers -- are to be executed immediately. Suddenly the murmurs grew, expressing a sense of injustice. "Execution is too much; it's not like they were trying to feed themselves."

But some dozen shooters lined up in front of the prisoners with automatic rifles, and sprayed bullets on command. The shrieking sound of bullets lifted up and put down the small stadium, and the shot prisoners all squirted blood, slumping forward. Facing this enormous scene of murder, the people fell quiet. But after the storm passed, the outraged yell of the people began to burst out here and there, swaying the stadium. My uncle and I were also agitated, and joined voices to hurl curses of whose meaning we did not even know.

As if to represent them, a middle-aged woman jumped in front of the microphone that was used to read the sentencing statement. The people around me all pointed to her and said she used to be a nurse for the Great Leader (Kim Il-Sung). My uncle said the woman was a designated nurse for Kim Il-Sung at Bonghwa hospital at Pyongyang, who came back to her hometown Songrim-si to live a high life while earning the trust of the central party. I could feel my gaze sharpening as I heard my uncle, thinking that woman would spout some garbage to justify the execution. I could feel the other people also sending her a hateful glare. But the woman's voice reverberating from the mic was completely unexpected:

"How dare you execute in this barbaric manner? The steel mill officers tried to get the corn only to produce and please the Dear Leader. They should be punished if their method was wrong, but they did not deserve execution. The executed officers tried to feed the laborers to get them to work. They weren't trying to feed themselves. Killing them like this was barbaric ..."

Before she could finish, the plainclothed young men rushed in, dragged the woman away from the microphone. They kicked her with their boots, and put a gag in her mouth. Then they tied her up, dragged her to the stake where one of the prisoner just died. They kicked away the slumped body of the executed prisoner, and tied the woman on the stake. Then a middle-aged, plainclothed man -- not the judge who read the statement -- stepped up. He was directing the men from the Inspection Division. He said icily, "Anyone who disobeys our socialist sovereign system is executed immediately. Everyone behave accordingly." Before he even finished, three shooters fired nine shots at the woman.

As the woman, who was alive just earlier, fell into a pool of blood, the people were petrified as if their mouthes froze over. Shivering with terror, they could not even breathe loudly; not even a rustle could be heard in the stadium full of people. My uncle and I, shocked with fear, left the stadium and came home. Even at home, no one -- including my aunt and my wife, who were there also -- tried to say anything. It felt as if the moment we say anything, someone will rush in and bury bullets in us again.

The next day afternoon, the rumor began to spread in Songrim-si that the outraged steel mill laborers risked death, rushed the factory and began protesting. Several thousand laborers gathered to conduct a sitting protest at a road within the factory, chanting, "No more purges of officers" and "Officers who tried to feed us for the mill did nothing wrong." The Songrim-si people did not spare the words of encouragement: "The laborer class is truly a class of their own," "Laborers are fearless." A protest like this in North Korea could not even be dreamed of.

The protesters decided to occupy the factory sitting down, until a representative from the regime heard their demands. As they heard no word until dark, they continued to protest over the night. We fell asleep as we heard news about their protest.

I woke up as my wife was shaking me. As I was opening my eyes, I was startled by the eardrum-piercing noise. The dull roar of caterpillar rang the windows and shook the floor -- it had to be tanks. They must have been moving so closely together that I could not tell how many there were. I looked at the clock; it was nearly 4 a.m. My aunt and uncle, both awake, stared at the outside noise with bewilderment.

"Is there a war?" "I think so." My aunt and uncle spoke to each other. My wife and I looked at each other, widening our eyes with agreement. Korean War started in early morning also; the dark blue daybreak with the sounds of tank seemed like war.

"What do we do? Go find out what happened. We might have to make a run." My uncle and I hurriedly put on our pants as my aunt nagged. Once outside, we began running after the tanks that already passed by. Other people were running in front of and behind us. They were running toward the mill. The steel mill was about a mile and half from our house. We kept hearing the tanks in the mill's direction. The streets were filled with people running toward the mill. As we were running, I asked my uncle -- aren't the tanks going to the protesters? My uncle glanced at me and dismissed the notion right away, saying "What would tanks do there?"

Suddenly, the people stopped running, frozen where they were standing to hear the blasting guns. Hundreds of blasts were mixed with shrieking screams. It was like a dream, as if those screams were piercing my heart. After about ten minutes, the sound of guns and the laboring sound of the tanks stopped, only the sound as if the stationary tanks were starting up again. Then the chaotic sound of crying, inside the mill. The people rushed into the mill, and then stopped, shocked at the scene before them.

The asphalt-paved road inside the steel mill had a river of viscous, dark dead blood. In the middle of every person who cried together, dozens of horrendously squashed dead bodies were strewn about, next to messy piles of severed arms and legs. The rising stink of blood was retching. Hundreds of soldiers were haughtily aiming their guns at a group of men, who appeared to be the protesters. All the bodies looked like they were run over by the tanks or shot.

Soon, the people surrounded the bodies of their family and began wailing. As if there was no protest to begin with, there was only a sea of tears. The people could hear from what the protesters said: a dozen tanks and hundreds of soldiers on trucks came before the sitting protesters. The laborers were ordered to scatter, but they did not budge. Then, following a signal, the protesters fell with the loud sounds of gunfire, and the tanks rolled into the protesting ranks. Dozens of sitting laborers in the front were suddenly swallowed up into the tank's tracks. The frightened protesters screamed and scattered.

The next day, bulletins from Social Security Bureau (currently People's Security Bureau) appeared on the streets. They said the leaders of the protest who threatened the socialist system and caused a disloyal incitement would be judged in the name of the people. It was like a state of martial law, as the young soldiers with guns prowled the alleyways.

Two days later, there was another public execution of three laborers, who were supposedly the leaders of the riot, with a middle school teacher and a young woman. The crime of the middle school teacher and the young woman was to steal a radio from a Korean-Japanese who returned to North Korea from Japan. They were unlucky -- during the state of martial law, they were caught by the security bureau agents who were looking for any excuse to execute someone.

My wife was sitting in the front of the public execution, and she said among the prisoners, her eyes were drawn to the frail-looking young woman. After their crimes and the judgment of execution by firing squad were read, the two plainclothes from the Chief Security Bureau approached the woman. They struck her jaw to dislocate it, and put in her mouth a small spring held in their hand. The small, round spring stretched up, pushing out her mouth. She writhed in pain. Then she was shot several times, dying at the stake. My wife was in shock. Trembling, she could not sleep for several days.

No one in Songrim-si dared to even breathe loudly for the entire August. This is the event that is known to have been suppressed by Pyongyang's Chief Security Bureau.

직접 목격한 북한 노동자 폭동, 탱크로 밀어버린 현장은 [Nambuk Story]

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Absolutely horrifying, even if you already knew things like that happened. Thank you for transcribing it.

  2. That was chilling...
    Thank you AAK, it's past 12 midnight, and I doubt I'll be able to sleep (or have the desire to). I'm worried I'll have nightmares of a post apocalyptic America with this kind of ruler running such a regime.

  3. I suspected things like this happen regularly in NK, but to actually read a real account is making me feel sick to my stomach. Thank you for helping to get the word out. The world needs to know... and care.

  4. I just can't understand how things like this have been going on for decades and we just let it happen. People think the Holocaust was the epitome of human evil, and yet things like this continue to this day and very few people seem to care. I find the whole thing really depressing and find myself struggling to find hope for humanity.

    Thank you for taking the time to translate and share this with us.

  5. Positively harrowing read. I can't believe this happened only 13 years ago. So much blood in recent history (Rwanda, Kosovo, etc...) around the world that's virtually unknown or not cared about by the vast majority of people.

  6. they treat human life as if it were garbage...

  7. Pathetic that our American leaders invade Iraq and act as if there justified yet do nothing about a country who already has nuke powers and do shit like this.

  8. I agree with everyone above. Thanks again for translating.

  9. That incident reminds me of Gwangju.

  10. What a tragedy. All those people wanted to do was provide food for their workers. In a totalitarian regime thinking outside the box is a crime even if it is a benevolent act that would ultimately help in the long run. No good deed goes unpunished.

    Are there more stories like this that the defector has written about?

  11. Just want to leave my thanks for your translation work.

    It's rare that we get to hear firsthand stories about the happenings in North Korea (sad that so few people actually live to tell their tales), so thanks for helping the rest of the world understand their neighbours better.

    I shudder at the thought of uncaring the North Korea leaders were (are?) of their people's lives. How could anyone act with so little regard for another person's life? Communism or not, it doesn't give anyone the right to kill at will.

    Anyway, thanks again.

  12. This was hardly long to read and thanks for translating. It felt like 1998 was this year just by reading it.The events were truly horrific,chilling and a barbaric display of cowardice by the military and government which makes you relate to why the author couldn't forget. Why cut off the hand that feeds you,'dumb great leader'? Everything is owed to its citizens yet they are treated worse than garbage.

  13. I remember reading another account of a revolt at a factory. This was during one of the extreme famine seasons. About 2000 factory workers rioted due to lack of food and hardship. Due to the high number of rioters, the security force brought in 20mm AA guns and fired into the crowd until every single one of them was killed. AA guns fire very rapidly and 20mm shell explodes when it hits.



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