Why North Korea's Hidden Gulag Matters

“The term ‘political prisoner’ does not exist in the DPRK’s vocabulary,” declared Ri Tcheul, the North Korean representative to the UN Human Rights Council, on December 7, 2009. “The so-called political prisoners’ camps do not exist.”

Because of the bold denial, the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea next week will release an update of “The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps,” first issued in 2003. Since then, the committee has gathered additional substantiation—from defectors and satellite imagery—of the horrific crimes that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea perpetrates on its own people.

As the new report shows, the North Korean gulag, a “network of prison camps, penitentiaries, police detention facilities and mobile forced labor brigades,” does indeed exist. And inside that network are scores of thousands of prisoners. They are held, brutalized, starved, and tortured for “crimes that are not really crimes”—the wrong thinking, the wrong knowledge, the wrong associations, the wrong class background. 

Take Shin Dong-hyuk, imprisoned in Camp 14 in South Pyong-an Province from the moment he was born in 1982, the result of a coupling of two model prisoners (inmates, except for a select few mated by the prison staff, are forbidden to have sexual relations). Shin thinks his parents were permitted to mate to ease a labor shortage that was the result of prisoner deaths from accidents and malnutrition.

His father’s family was rounded up in 1965, in a pre-dawn raid, because two of his uncles had defected to South Korea. In Camp 14, Shin saw little of his family: his father worked in another part of the camp and he was taken from his mother at age 12. He was forced to watch the execution of his mother, by hanging, and his brother, by firing squad.

Shin escaped in early 2005. During the attempt, a fellow prisoner was electrocuted on a fence encircling the camp; Shin then wriggled through it. He worked for a year and a half on a Chinese farm before eventually escaping to South Korea’s consulate in Shenyang. Shin was fortunate he was not caught in China. Beijing, in violation of its international obligations, routinely repatriates North Korean defectors, who are then imprisoned in the gulag.

And why do we care about Shin’s story? Many make the reasonable-sounding argument that we should be much more concerned about North Korea’s missiles and other weapons—chemical, biological, nuclear, and conventional. The assumption is that we stand a better chance of coming to terms with Pyongyang to limit its threat if we ignore the horrific treatment of its people, that it would be impossible to reach an agreement if we were to raise sensitive human rights matters.  

The Obama administration initially adopted this approach for China. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for instance, famously said in February 2009 that Washington believed there were more important matters to discuss with Beijing than its rights record. The soft approach did not moderate China’s behavior—on the contrary, Chinese leaders seemed emboldened by Washington dialing down on the issue. As a result, administration policymakers are now changing their minds as they realize that the nature of China’s government is relevant to its external relations.

The same is true for North Korea, even more so. The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea will hold a public event in Washington, DC, on April 10th to release its updated report on the gulag. Keep these human rights issues in mind when Pyongyang tests its most advanced ballistic missile later this month. 

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