Saturday, April 21, 2012

North Korea’s gulag: Never again?

April 21, 2012

In labour camps across its remote northern reaches, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea detains an estimated 150,000-200,000 political prisoners. The regime claims to hold precisely none. Or rather, in the formulation of the late Kim Jong Il, punishing the enemies of the state protects the North Korean people’s human rights.

The gulag’s captives are not told of their crimes, though torture usually produces a “confession”—which might admit to defacing an image of the “Great Leader” or listening to a foreign broadcast. There is no defence, trial, judge or sentence, though most inmates remain in the camps for life, unless they escape. They are victims of forced disappearances, in that neighbours, colleagues and distant family members know nothing about the fate of those who vanish. Inmates are held incommunicado, without visits, food parcels, letters or radio. Chronically malnourished, they work in mines, quarries and logging camps, with one rest-day a month. Infractions of camp rules, such as stealing food meant for livestock, damaging equipment or having unauthorised sexual liaisons are punished with beatings and torture. Guards rape women prisoners, leading to forced abortions for the pregnant, or infanticide. Inmates are under pressure to snitch. Executions are routine—and fellow prisoners must often watch (see article).

Consider the case of Shin Dong-hyuk, the subject of a new book (Escape from Camp 14). He was born of “model” prisoner parents in Camp 14, Kaechon in 1982 and spent his first 22 years inside. As punishment for dropping a sewing machine, his finger was cut off. He was also suspended over a fire, and a hook was thrust through his belly, to make him “confess” to joining an escape supposedly being planned by his mother and brother. He was then made to witness their executions.