Close North Korea's Prison Camps

By David Hawk

Recent reports from North Korea about the new leader, Kim Jong Un, and his "openness" are tantalizing. Coming months will show if the optimism is warranted.

However, any possible transition in North Korea is not likely to follow the patterns of Arab Spring. Granted, refugees report that the citizenry in North Korea is under attack by state security and police agencies. But two key differences between North Korea and the Arab world stand out:

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First, attacks against citizens in North Korea do not take place in front of CNN or BCC cameras. North Koreans are not armed with mobile phones and internet connections. In the DPRK, only the political and economic elites have cell phones, and these cannot make international calls. North Korea has a nationwide intranet, but the few citizens with computers cannot access the internet. Civil society organizations and social media are prohibited, and interrogations and attacks take place in remote, extra-judicial political penal labor camps, prisons and police stations. The government prohibits access for tourists, reporters and North Koreans, except those who work as prison guards.

Second, the state-directed political violence in North Korea cannot be documented in "real time." The world often learns about brutalities of forced-labor camps and prisons two or even four years later.

The victims of regime violence must wait long after their release or the occasional escape to tell their stories. The former inmates spend months in North Korea planning escape to China, where once again they spend months or years earning the money and making connections for a long "underground" trek from Northeast China through Southeast Asia before claiming asylum at the South Korean, ROK, embassy in Bangkok, Thailand. Once in South Korea, the former North Koreans go through several months of intelligence debriefings with the South Korean government. Only then do journalists, scholars and human-rights investigators interview the victims of North Korean atrocities.

Notwithstanding the delays, knowledge of conditions in North Korea is growing exponentially. In 2002, some 3,000 North Koreans had fled to China and made their way to South Korea, including a score who had been imprisoned and subjected to forced labor under harsh conditions for political offenses. By 2010 and 2011, the number of North Koreans escaping to South Korea had exceeded 23,000, including hundreds who had been imprisoned, tortured and enslaved in violation of international norms and standards. Testimony from hundreds of former victims and witnesses about persecution, extra-judicial executions, slave labor, torture and other inhumane acts of comparative gravity reveal the severe repression that's the heart of the DPRK citizen-control mechanism.

Former North Korean state security agency officials and former prison camp guards who defected to South Korea report that some 150,000 to 200,000 North Koreans are sentenced to lifetime forced labor in the kwan-li-so political penal labor colonies - victims of a broad but brutal, preemptive cleansing campaign, based on politics and ideology. Deemed unfit for the "Kim Il Sung nation," the prisoners are persecuted for wrong-actions, wrong-thinking, wrong-knowledge or wrong- associations.

Persons suspected of real or imagined wrongdoing include those on the losing side of a dispute within the Korean Workers Party. Others failed to take proper care of mandatory Kim Il Sung photographs or went to China without authorization in search of food or employment.

Persons suspected of wrong-thinking can be Christians who oppose messianic deification of Kim Il Sung or orthodox Marxist-Leninists who oppose introduction of Juche ideology or dynastic succession as contrary to the tenants of Marxism.

Those guilty of wrong- knowledge include many of the Korean-Japanese who migrated to the DPRK from Japan in the 1960s or North Korean diplomats or students who observed the collapse of socialist allies in Eastern Europe. Awareness of capitalist democratic prosperity in Japan or the collapse of state socialism was deemed dangerous to the regime.

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David Hawk is a former UN human rights official in Cambodia and former executive director of Amnesty International USA. He currently is a visiting scholar at the Columbia University Institute for the Study of Human Rights and teaches human rights courses at Hunter College, CUNY. © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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