A Brief Look at North Korea’s Gulags

I wrote this piece about gulags when Kim Jong Il was still alive and in power. Today, the international community knows more about political camps, or gulags, in North Korea, and the information is appalling. Over the last couple of years, we now have access to satellite imagery that shows that perimeters of the political prison camps have expanded. For very current information, please look at a report by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and David Hawk, “The Hidden Gulag, Second Edition: The Lives and Voices of Those Who are Sent to the Mountains” and a report by DigitalGlobe Analytics and HRNK, “North Korea’s Camp No. 25.”

I recently spoke to a South Korean who said that gulags are likely considered the best example of crimes (against humanity) by the North Korean State from the perspective of South Koreans. This is because gulags are the most visible showing of atrocities against North Korea’s own people. I think this is understandable, don’t you? It seems that throughout history people need to see abuses before they can really start to understand them. North Korea’s tight control on information and limited foreign access makes it very difficult for the majority of the world to see, and therefore understand and care about, the incredibly egregious human rights violations and, arguably, crimes against humanity being committed by the Kim Regime.

North Korea: “The Last Worst Place On Earth”[1]

North Korean Defector Draws Gruesome Pictures Of Life In The GulagRead more: http://www.businessinsider.com/north-korean-gulag-concentration-camp-pictures-2012-6?op=1#ixzz2NKnVXrZ5

North Korean Defector Draws Gruesome Pictures Of Life In The Gulag
Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/north-korean-gulag-concentration-camp-pictures-2012-6?op=1#ixzz2NKnVXrZ5

Although Kim Jong Il’s regime is marked by serious and prolific human rights abuses, it has not attracted the attention of the international community as much as other parts of the world. Kim’s regime is surrounded by a state-sponsored veil of secrecy which makes it harder for the international community to document and respond to his abhorrent behavior. Recently, that veil has been slightly lifted by intrepid journalists and defectors allowing brief glimpses into the lives of North Koreans suffering under Kim’s vast oppression. The evidence indicates Kim Jong Il’s policies have caused the death of millions of his own people through deplorable human rights violations.

One of the most egregious violations of the Kim Jong Il regime has been the establishment of gulags, in which political prisoners are enslaved for any perceived threat against Kim’s regime. Defectors have told their stories and political prisons have appeared on satellite imagery – this evidence tells awful stories. For instance, the gulags, where political prisoners are starved, tortured, and worked to death, have accounted for over 1 million deaths.[2] This figure does not factor in recent intelligence and aerial satellite imagery that shows that the gulags in the DPRK are far larger than previously known. Amnesty International estimates conservatively that Kim’s gulags now imprison at least 200,000 people.[3] Recently, a newspaper article retold the account of a former political prisoner in DPRK’s increasingly-populated gulags. The prisoner said that due to the rampant starvation, prisoners were happy when one of them died because it meant more food for the others. He recounted having to eat rats and corn kernels from animal feces as well.[4] Another newspaper article tells of a prisoner’s tragic upbringing in a gulag:

“Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a prison camp in North Korea. ‘Guilt-by-association’ (with his parents) meant that he faced a lifetime of imprisonment. He was tortured along with his father. He was forced to watch the execution of his mother and his brother. He witnessed the deaths of many children under the impossible demands of forced labor.”[5]

Shin’s story is, unfortunately, just one person’s account of life under Kim. There are so many more examples in spite of Kim’s control.

Additionally, reports tie the population growth in the political gulags with the possibility that Kim Jong Il may be turning over the regime to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific director, stated, “‘As North Korea seems to be moving towards a new leader in Kim Jong-un and a period of political instability, the big worry is that the prison camps appear to be growing in size.’”[6]

The gulags are not the only place where human rights violations take place. Kim is accused of starving his own people and using international food donations to bolster the strength of his army. He restricts travel, denies free speech, the right to practice religion. Recently, Amnesty International reported Kim is responsible for the criminal abduction of 180,000 people.[7]


[1] Jack Rendler, North Korea: The Last Worst Place On Earth, Amnesty International: Human Rights Now Blog, May 11, 2011, http://networkedblogs.com/hJTyR.

[2] Grace M. Kang, A Case for the Prosecution of Kim Jong Il for Crimes Against Humanity, Genocide, and War Crimes, 38 Colum. Human Rights L. Rev. 51, 65 (2006).

[3] Rendler, supra note 1.

[4] Editorial, North Korean Political Prison Camps Growing – Amnesty, BBC News (Asia-Pacific), May 3, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13272198.

[5] Rendler, supra note 1.

[6] Editorial, North Korean Political Prison Camps Growing – Amnesty, BBC News (Asia-Pacific), May 3, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13272198.

[7] Id.

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