North Korean Defector Says Gas Chamber Claims Were Faked

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - China evidently has handed over to North Korea a defector who leaked evidence about alleged gas chamber experiments in Pyongyang's prison camps, and the man now claims the evidence was faked.

Last February, a South Korean human rights group released a document which it said supported North Korean defectors' claims of human experimentation in the notorious camps, where researchers say hundreds of thousands of political prisoners and criminals are incarcerated

The paper, purportedly a secret, official document entitled "letter of transfer," referred to the transfer of a particular prisoner to prison camp No. 22 "for the purpose of human experimentation of liquid gas."

Its release came at a time the BBC aired a documentary in which a man claiming to be a former senior manager at camp No. 22 alleged he had seen prisoners gassed to death in experiments believed to be testing agents for non-conventional weapons.

The man, who defected to South Korea in 1999, said scientists had observed inmates through glass windows from above, as they were gassed inside a chamber. He said he watched a couple "vomiting and dying," even as they tried to save their two children by giving them mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

The BBC documentary also featured the "letter of transfer" document.

The reports prompted human rights campaigners to call - not for the first time - for North Korea's abuses against its own citizens to be included on the agenda at six-party talks on the Stalinist state's nuclear weapons programs.

The "letter of transfer" document was leaked to human rights groups by a North Korean named Kang Pyong-sop, an engineer at camp No. 22.

Kang had followed the route taken by many other defectors, slipping across the poorly-guarded border into China, from where he hoped to make it to a third country.

But the Chinese authorities have in recent years been clamping down on North Korean defectors and refugees, arresting and repatriating them. Rights campaigners and some members of the U.S. Congress have long been urging China to stop, saying the returnees faced imprisonment, torture and possibly death.

Kang was arrested in China last January, before he and his wife and son could cross the border into Laos, according to rights groups.

He apparently was handed over to North Korea, because official media in both communist countries reported this week that he had appeared at a press conference in Pyongyang, along with family members.

China's Xinhua news agency reported that Kang said that the "letter of transfer" was faked.

While in China he had met up last November with his eldest son - who had defected to South Korea seven years ago - and who suggested faking the document as a way to make money.

A report by North Korea's state-run KCNA news agency quoted Kang as saying he was sorry the faked material had been used by North Korea's enemies.

Also at the press conference was Kang's daughter, Kang Hye-yong, whom KCNA quoted as saying: "My motherland showed leniency to my family for our frank confession of crimes, and allowed us to live together as before after we returned home.

"I've been hearing about and experiencing the benevolent and all-embracing politics of the Workers' Party of Korea and the government of [North Korea] time and again but I've never felt it so keenly and deeply as now."

The KCNA report did not refer to the claims made in the BBC documentary by the man who said he had witnessing deadly chemical experiments.

See earlier story:
Activists Demand Talks on North Korean Human Rights Abuses (Feb. 04, 2004)

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow