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The Not So Hidden Gulag

Alicia Burns

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A brutality as great as Stalin's in North Korea today.

On October 22nd, the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea released a 120-page report on Communist North Korea's prison camps entitled "The Hidden " The report details the types of prison camps within the detention system and gives first-hand accounts of prisoner experiences in each type of camp. Infanticide, forced abortion, starvation, beatings, public humiliation, torture of various types, and hard labor lasting up to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week are the conditions prisoners suffer under, and some hope to die just to escape the misery. Professors Robert Scalapino and Chong Sik Lee first reported the existence of two camps in their 1972 textbook Communism in Korea, one for "perceived political wrongdoers" and the other for their families. Since then, the number and size of the camps has increased, and according to the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, there are two government agencies that handle the "penal institutions" as they are called. The In-min-bo-an-seong (People's Safety Agency) and the Kuk-ga-bo-wi-bu (National Security Agency) are responsible for overseeing the camps. These agencies seek out those who criticize, protest, attempt to effect change, or are simply guilty by association and sentence them to terms in prison camps they either do not live to finish out, or weaken them to the point of incapacitation so they cannot commit their crimes again. If they are lucky enough to be released, they usually attempt to flee again. The report details, especially testimonials from former inmates and prison guards are difficult to read, and in the Preface, the authors acknowledge:

...some...will avoid reading it, fully knowing that if they do read it, they will have to change their tactics, or at least think differently about the political problems posed by North Korea. Certainly after absorbing such details, it will be more difficult for Americans or Europeans to sit down and negotiate, coldly, with their Korean counterparts and not mention human rights violations...if these stories filter back to the North Korean police and administrators, those officials too will find it more difficult to justify their own behavior, or to claim that they don't know what is really happening in the country's concentration camps. And if the full truth about the camps becomes known to the wider population, then whatever support remains for the state constructed by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il will begin, even more decisively, to ebb away.

The full truth of the camps is laid out in painstaking detail. Part One of the report illustrates the conditions in the political penal-labor colonies, or kwan-li-so. The estimated number of prisoners is in the tens of thousands, an estimate that includes prisoners and up to three generations of their families, all serving life sentences for political offenses. Notions of "collective responsibility" and "guilt by association" espoused by dictator Kim Il Sung in a 1972 statement are used to justify keeping three generations of a family captive. "Factionalists or enemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations" is the slogan carved into a wood plaque at camp Number 11, according to a former guard. There are no trials for the accused, no arrests, no charges filed. For those who break the rules, food is withheld, and public executions occur for serious offenders, usually by firing squad or hanging. Unlike the other camps, there is no re-education in the political prisons, and lifetime sentences are the norm. Distrust and hostility among inmates is due to the scarcity of food, clothing and other necessities. Inmates fight each other over scraps of food as well as the clothing of dead inmates, and according to the report "the camps feature the gamut of abnormal and aberrant human behavior that results from treating people like animals."

Originally, North Korea's Communist government set up prison camps for "predictable or potential enemies of the revolution" after World War II. Landowners, Japanese sympathizers, religious leaders and suspected collaborators with the U.S and South Korea were originally imprisoned, but after Kim Sung Il tightened his grip on the country, the army, Korean Worker's Party and other bureaucratic agencies were purged, and those deemed to be disloyal to party objectives were imprisoned along with their families. During the 1950s and 1960s, the government expanded its structure of offenses with the three-tiered seongbun, which divided the population into three basic sections, "loyal, wavering, and hostile" and had numerous classifications and subdivisions. After the fall of the Cold War, those who had observed the world abroad after the collapse of the Soviet Union, such as students and diplomats became part of the prison population as well.

Witness testimonials from Part One of the report vary from the perspective of former guards, witnesses and prisoners. Perhaps the most intriguing testimonial from the section is the story of Lee Young Kuk, a defector from a loyal family. After witnessing the inconsistencies between life in Pyongyang and life in the countryside, Lee tried to flee the oppressive rule in North Korea, but was apprehended in China. Before his arrest in Beijing, Lee had made his opinions of the regime known, and prison guards punished him harshly for expressing his opinions. Imprisoned for six months in an underground detention cell, he was subjected to physical torture that has left him with permanent damage, as he suffers from double vision in his left eye and his shins are permanently black and blue. His family was not punished, and some of them remain loyal to current dictator Kim Jong Il. One of the lucky survivors of the hyuk-myung-hwa-kyuk camp, Lee believes that his family's loyalty to the regime paved the way for his January 1999 release. Soon after his emancipation, Lee once again fled and is currently in South Korea. Unfortunately, his attempts to contact his family have proved futile, and he fears they have been detained or worse.

Part Two of the report describes the Kyo-hwa-so prison-labor camps, which are "re-education" or "re-socialization" centers. "Re-education through labor" is the theory behind these camps, but there is little in the way of education or rehabilitation for inmates. Run by the In-min-bo-an-seong, or People's Safety Agency, daily life for inmates is similar to life in the political prison camps, but those in the re-education camps are usually criminal offenders who have committed "heavy crimes" equivalent to that of a felony in the United States, and they are convicted in a judicial proceeding. However, other criminals in these camps have committed offenses not normally considered illegal, but that violate the Korean Worker's Party platform, such as defacing a picture of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. Inmates are not fed; they are forced to work in deplorable conditions and are deprived of basic medical treatment.

The story of former inmate Lee Soon Ok sheds light on the plight of citizens caught in the power struggle between the workers party and the People's Security Agency. Born into a loyal Korean Worker's Party family, Lee became an accountant and worked as a supervisor in center that distributed Chinese made fabrics to party officials and state workers. In 1986 she was arrested when the public security police were not satisfied with the goods they were receiving due to a power struggle between the police and party officials. Charged with bribery and theft, she was held for 7 months but refused to confess, and was tortured for an additional 7 months. In an attempt to spare her family of arrest and torture, she agreed to confess and was subsequently tried and convicted. Her account of life at Kyo-hwa-so No. 1 details the desperation of women unable to feed their families. Many of her fellow inmates were convicted of stealing food for their families, or were convicted of disobeying government orders, while others were in fact criminals. Assigned originally to the garment factory and then transferred to the administrative section, Lee's account depicts the deplorable conditions prisoners suffered through. Garment workers are forced to eat, sleep and use the restrooms in groups. When one worker misbehaved or made a mistake, the entire group was punished. New workers who had trouble adjusting to the bathroom break schedule would often soil their clothes and remain in their work-stations, unable to change.

The third aspect of North Korea's gulag system involves the incarceration of citizens repatriated from China. Usually those who are caught in China are returned and put in short term do-jip-kyul-so detention centers or ro-dong-dan-ryeon-dae labor training facilities. Starvation and death are as common in these camps as in the others, and many of those in prison are being punished for minor offenses, such as leaving one's village or traveling within the country without permission, or leaving the country without permission from the Communists in Pyongyang. Testimonials in this section of the report are anonymous, as many repatriated Koreans attempt to flee to China again after they are released from prison while their family members remain in North Korea, and they fear their loved ones will face retribution in their absence. Hard labor is a characteristic of these camps, and among the forms of torture experienced by inmates is the infanticide or forced abortion of newborn babies and pregnant women. Ethnic infanticide and abortions were performed on children who were believed to have Chinese heritage.

One interviewee, Choi Yong Hwa, was detained in a detention center with approximately 100 other inmates, most of whom were women between 20 and 30 years old. Choi, who had been repatriated from China, witnessed the deaths of two women in her facility due to malnutrition over a period of three to four months and the rape of another inmate. Additionally, three pregnant women were given a labor-inducing drug and after their babies were born, the infants were smothered with a wet towel in front of the weakened mothers. The reason given most often for the infanticide was that no "half-Han [Chinese] babies would be tolerated."

International efforts to effect change in the country have proved futile and a lack of international resolve to correct the situation is mainly to blame. In an MSNBC report from January 2003 on North Korean gulags, Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas called the situation "one of the worst, if not the worst situation - human rights abuse situation - in the world today." Media attention in the United States concerning the communist regime in North Korea deals mainly with nuclear weapons build up rather than the day-to-day situation its people face. Reports about prison camps have been circulating for over thirty years, but the west's response, mainly through useless United Nations ultimatums, has not helped the situation. The appendix of the report contains drafts of UN resolutions and an International Labor Organization (ILO) resolution, which have had as much effect as the verbal ultimatums issued by the western world; they are worth less than the paper they are written on. Looking the other way has never proven successful in effecting change, and appeasement is an even less enticing option. The aspirations of the U.S Committee for Human Rights in North Korea is on-target: by publicizing these atrocities word should spread, making it more difficult for the North Korean government to carry out such despicable crimes against its own people. However, until the mainstream policy makers of nations capable of making an impact are as outraged by these atrocities as groups like the U.S. Committee, the prisoners of these gulags will suffer in relative silence while their "dear leader" is treated like a legitimate head of state.

Read this article on the Digital Freedom Network website. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted: 12/8/03



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