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Lee was a manager in a North Korean government office that distributed goods and materials to the country's people when she was falsely accused of dishonesty in her job. She believes she was one of the victims of a power struggle between the Workers' Party and the public security bureau police.
Following her arrest, she was severely tortured and threatened for months but maintained her innocence. However, a promise made by an interrogator to not take any punitive action against her husband and son if she confessed—a promise that she would find out to have been false—finally convinced her to plead guilty to the charges.
For six years, Lee was imprisoned in Kaechon concentration camp where she reported witnessing forced abortions, infanticide, instances of rape, public executions, testing of biological weapons on prisoners (see human experimentation in North Korea), extreme malnutrition, and other forms of inhumane conditions and depravity.
It is not clear why she was released, although Lee suspects that the officials responsible for jailing her were the subjects of investigations by higher-ranking members of North Korea's government.
Lee wrote several letters of protest to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il about her cruel treatment in the camp but never received a response and was eventually threatened with unspecified consequences if she wrote any more letters. She managed to reunite with her son and escape from North Korea soon afterward, converting to Christianity along the way. Her husband disappeared during her imprisonment and she has never heard from him since.
Since escaping with her son via China to South Korea in 1995, Lee has written Eyes of the Tailless Animals: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman, a memoir of her six-year imprisonment on false charges in Kaechon concentration camp. She has testified before the US Congress and at churches worldwide, estimating that in her camp alone there were at least 6,000 political prisoners. Ms. Lee has been partially disabled due to the physical torture she was subjected to for well over a year, including but not limited to water torture.
Along with fellow North Korean prison camp internees Kang Chol-Hwan and An Hyuk (both were in Yodok concentration camp), she received the Democracy Award from the American non-profit organization National Endowment for Democracy in July 2003.
- Hawk, David. "The Hidden Gulag" (PDF). The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Retrieved 10 January 2016.
- "A Survivor: Soon Ok Lee". NBC News. 15 January 2003. Retrieved 9 January 2016.
- Lee Soon Ok (June 2002). "Testimony before the United States Congress".
- Martin, Bradley K. (2004). Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. New York, New York: Thomas Dunne Books. p. 613. ISBN 0-312-32322-0.
- "Three N. Koreans Named Winner of NED's Democracy Award", Yonhap News, 2003-07-16, retrieved 2010-02-26
- United States Senate Hearings: Testimony of Ms. Soon Ok Lee – Lee Soon-oks testimony to the US Senate Judiciary Committee June 21, 2002
- Lee, Soon Ok. Eyes of the Tailless Animals: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman. Living Sacrifice Book Co, 1999. ISBN 978-0-88264-335-9 꼬리 없는 짐승들의 눈빛
- "Made in North Korea", Harper's Magazine Vol. 305 Issue 1830, November 2002, pp. 20–22.
- "A survivor: Soon Ok Lee", Crisis in the Koreas, MSNBC, 2003
- "Soon Ok Lee", World Christian Ministries
- "Interview: Soon Ok Lee", AsiaLink, 2003
- Martin, Bradley K. "Under the loving care of the fatherly leader", 2004; p. 611
- "The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps", Committee for Human Rights in North Korea
- "Praying for a Revolution in North Korea", Persecution.tv; pp. 6–7