Breaching the conspiracy of silence surrounding North Korea’s prison camps.
North Korea is, to put it mildly, a “problem.” The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea devotes much of its time to threatening other nations. Pyongyang spends money that it doesn’t have on nuclear weapons, missiles, and bizarrely choreographed and synchronized propaganda ceremonies. It has pioneered a system of monarchical communism, passing power from one idiot son to another.
Worse, at least for the North Korean People, the DPRK has created a genuine gulag state, with a smaller but still murderous “gulag archipelago,” as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously called Joseph Stalin’s creation. The most important political challenge facing Washington remains the North’s nuclear program. But the ultimate objective is to relax Pyongyang’s grip over the suffering population.
That the DPRK is repressive is hardly news. However, it is difficult for anyone in the West to imagine the full extent of repression in the North.
The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea recently issued the second edition of David Hawk’s The Hidden Gulag: The Lives and Voices of “Those Who Are Sent to the Mountains.” The study is grimly enlightening, relying on satellite imagery and personal testimony, ever more abundant now that there are more than 23,000 North Korean escapees now living in the South. The publication is a critical attempt, observes Roberta Cohen, who chairs the Committee, to breach “the conspiracy of silence surrounding the camps.”
The DPRK was a Cold War creation, established after Japan’s surrender in World War II left the Korean peninsula divided between hostile U.S. and Soviet client states. Moscow tapped Kim Il-sung to run the Soviet zone, which became formally independent in 1948. Kim learned well from Stalin, out-maneuvering internal opponents to win supreme power and creating a system of pervasive social control to terrorize the population. Kim’s horrifying twist to Stalin’s style was to punish three generations of a family for the “crimes” of any member. Children, parents, and grandparents routinely ended up in the North Korean gulag.
The entire North Korean system is built on repression. Explains Hawk, a long-time human rights researcher, “these severe human rights violations occur in an environment of large-scale denial of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Nowhere else on earth — though perhaps Eritrea comes close — does the state so completely control its people.
Everyone is at risk of brutal punishment. For instance, wrong-doing includes being on the losing side of a political battle or, notes Hawk, “skipping too many of the compulsory ideological education classes all North Koreans are required to attend, defacing or failing to take adequate care of photographic images of Kim Il-sung, complaining about conditions, expressing criticism of regime policies, or leaving the country without permission.”
Wrong-thinking encompasses everything from being a Christian to being an orthodox Marxist who opposed monarchical communism. Wrong-class means having been a landlord or “privileged bourgeoisie” under the Japanese.
Wrong-knowledge “includes the situation of North Korean students or diplomats who had been studying or posted in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s during the collapse of socialism, and who were recalled to the DPRK only to be immediately dispatched to labor camps to prevent their knowledge of the collapse of state socialism in North Korea’s allies from spreading to the North Korean population.” Finally, wrong-association includes having a close family member who falls in one of the forgoing forbidden categories.
As in Stalin’s Russia, in prison purged members of the elite mix with social outcasts and regime opponents. Moreover, explains Hawk, the camp system “became a convenient dumping-ground for other individuals or groups that do not fit in,” including unrepatriated South Korean POWs in the Korean War and South Koreans fighting with U.S. soldiers in Vietnam who were captured and then turned over to the North.
There is no pretense of legal process. The Nazis flaunted the facade of legality: the July 1944 plotters against Adolf Hitler were tried before the notorious Roland Freisler before being functionally murdered. Joseph Stalin enjoyed staging show trials on the most fantastic charges. However, the Kim family dictatorship does not bother with such procedural facades.
Hawk explains: “The presumed offender is simply picked up, taken to an interrogation facility and frequently tortured to ‘confess’ before being deported to the political penal-labor colony. The family members are also picked up and deported to the kwan-li-so.” The regime wastes no time detailing the alleged crimes, though questions from interrogators might suggest the general offense. All inmates are held incommunicado, in contrast to the Soviet system, which allowed most inmates at least occasional visits and parcels.
No surprise, inmates are systematically brutalized. Notes the author, “The most salient feature of the day-to-day prison labor camp life is the combination of below-subsistence food rations and extreme hard labor.” The semi-starved “prisoners are driven by hunger to eat, if they can get it (and avoid being caught) anything remotely edible: plants, grass, bark, rats, snakes, the food-stuffs of the labor camp animals.” This, plus the prevalence of informants, encourages inmate-on-inmate violence. Even child inmates, incarcerated for the actions or thoughts of parents or grandparents, enjoy no respite. Those interviewed by Hawk were frequently beaten.
Prisoners are slaves for the regime, managing crops, raising animals, mining and logging, engaging in wood-work, and making textiles. Such enterprises provide some economic benefits for the regime, but are notoriously inefficient. An even more important purpose of the system likely is punishment.
Working conditions are harsh and the death rate is very high, though unreported. However, surviving is a dubious benefit. Hawk observes that “The prisoners are covered in dirt from the infrequency of bathing privileges, and marked by physical deformities: hunched backs, from years of bent-over agricultural work in the absence of sufficient protein and calcium in the diet; and missing toes and fingers, from frostbite; and missing hands, or arms or legs, from work accidents.”
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