Breaching the conspiracy of silence surrounding North Korea’s prison camps.
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Although Pyongyang steadfastly denies any human rights violations, Kim Il-sung publicly justified imprisonment of “class enemies” as “a legitimate measure to protect the country’s democracy from its hostile and impure elements who have abused democratic order and attempted to destroy our socialist system.”
Not surprisingly, the ever-vigilant Kim dynasty has found many, many “hostile and impure elements” requiring attention. Reports Hawk: “The kwan-li-so political penal forced-labor facilities consist of a series of sprawling encampments measuring many miles long and many wide. They are located in the mountains and valleys, mostly, in the northern provinces of North Korea. There are between 5,000 and 50,000 prisoners per kwan-li-so, totaling some 150,000 to 200,000 prisoners throughout North Korea.”
Apparently six are now in operation, down from a dozen. The closures do not reflect regime liberalization: some were shut because they were thought to be too close to the border with China, while Kim Il-sung decided to build a country villa near another one.
As in the Soviet system, successive political waves filled the labor camps. After the Soviets occupied the North, Kim Il-sung targeted regime opponents, which included everyone from Japanese collaborationists to Christian independence activists. After the Korean War Kim purged his internal rivals, including “Korean communist leaders who had been affiliated with the Chinese communist party and army” — which, of course, had saved his rule from defeat after American forces broke his invasion of the South.
In these efforts Kim took after Stalin. Reports Hawk: “These purges involved executing the leaders, initially after Stalinist-type show trials, and sending their networks of supporters in the party, the army, and the bureaucracy to the camps.” Kim’s later campaign to create a suffocating personality cult led to purges among the elite. Then the effort to anoint his son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor led to smaller-scale purges in the 1970s and 1980s. Little effective opposition to either Kim was apparent in later years. Thus, Hawk notes, “More recent deportations include those who complained about or sought to escape from the economic, social and political failures of the regime.”
Hawk buttresses his analysis with individual accounts. For instance, Shin Dong-hyuk was born to two “model” prisoners and spent 23 years in the camps; his father was incarcerated because two of the latter’s brothers had defected. Shin was tortured and forced to watch the execution of his mother and brother after they attempted to escape the prison.
Kim Yong ended up in the camps because his father and brother were accused of spying for the U.S. Yang Chol-hwan spent a decade in the kwan-li-so; he was incarcerated at age nine because his grandfather, a Japanese of Korean descent who emigrated to the North, was accused of treason. Only his mother, from an important political family, escaped prison after divorcing her husband.
Kim Young-sun was imprisoned for eight years because her husband apparently committed an unknown offense, which led to his disappearance, and apparently out of fear that she would talk about her knowledge of Kim Jong-il’s wife, who had been a classmate and fellow dancer. A decade later one of her sons was executed after attempting to flee North Korea.
Foreign nationals also were at risk. Venezuelan communist Ali Lamada and Frenchman Jacques Sedillot were recruited as translators, only to be accused of being spies and imprisoned. Japanese Shibata Kozo married a Korean living in Japan and moved to North Korea, later to be accused of being a spy and imprisoned; his wife and children also were sent to the camps.
The stories go on with a depressing uniformity. The nominal offenses vary, but the punishments invariably are arbitrary and brutal. The regime equally fears individuality and humanity.
Alas, the kwan-li-so are not the only fixtures in the North Korean gulag. Also common are kyo-hwa-so, which are more like prisons. They contain those guilty of criminal as well as political offenses and do not include family members. Most are subject to some form of judicial process and receive a fixed sentence. Moreover, explains Hawk: “Incarceration is not incommunicado. The families of the imprisoned persons know where their relative is being detained.”
Nevertheless, conditions are harsh, and do not begin in the kyo-hwa-so. Notes Hawk: “the brutalizations and inhuman treatment endured in the kyo-hwa-so prisons are preceded by months and months of pre-trial, pre-sentence brutality at one or more of the local police detention facilities.” He includes multiple testimonies about time spent in these facilities as well.
What makes the tale of North Korean repression even more shocking is China’s complicity. Hawk devotes an entire section to the maltreatment of those forcibly repatriated by Beijing. He explains: “Following interrogation and detention, which frequently includes beatings and systematic torture, many of the forcibly repatriated Koreans are assigned, often without judicial process, to short-term forced labor.” In more serious cases, especially those with political overtones, people “are sent to the longer-term, felony level, forced-labor penitentiary-like kyo-hwa-so prisons, or ‘re-revolutionizing areas’ of the kwan-li-so political penal labor colonies.” Here, too, Hawk adds anecdote to analysis, allowing the victims of Pyongyang’s and Beijing’s inhumane collaboration speak to us.
Repatriation includes other atrocities. Torture is pervasive throughout the system. The North Koreans also routinely employ forced abortion and infanticide, especially in the kwan-li-so — except among “model” prisoners essentially mated by the camp authorities. Particularly outrageous, however, is “the forced abortions and infanticide against and inflicted on women forcibly repatriated from China because of the racial and policy components of these atrocities. The women impregnated by Chinese men were routinely punished and their babies killed, accompanied by racial slurs and refusal to accept children who were part Han Chinese,” writes Hawk.
When one thinks of the term “crime against humanity,” one should think of the DPRK. Any engagement with Pyongyang should include discussion of its virulent assault on human rights. However, Washington’s (and the world’s) influence will remain limited.
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