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.”
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 perkwan‐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.
The Kim regime exists only because of pervasive repression; those benefiting from Pyongyang’s totalitarian control are not going to yield power simple because they are asked to do so. Greater respect for human liberty and dignity will require a transformation from within — perhaps accelerated by action from Beijing, if the latter comes to believe that the DPRK would be a more stable and valuable ally if its conduct was less egregious.
Some day monarchical communism will disappear from North Korea. We can only hope that day comes quickly. Tomorrow would not be soon enough.