It seems that all eyes are on the secretive nation of North Korea lately, and no surprise. After the death of Kim Jong-il, his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, has stepped onto a brightly-lit global stage, complete with legions of extras (the Korean People’s Army) and extravagant props (missiles).
Now that North Korea is undergoing almost daily scrutiny, more exposure is being given to what could be one of its gravest crimes: its numerous political concentration camps, which, according to a 2012 Amnesty International annual report on North Korea, hold up to 200,000 prisoners. (A 2004 Human Rights Watch report came to the same conclusion).
Although North Korea’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric has focused on military matters, it has said little about alleged human-rights abuses in the country. In February this year, a UN special rapporteur submitted a detailed report on the situation of human rights in the DPRK. The report by Indonesian lawyer Marzuki Darusman describes some of the alleged conditions of the camps: 30 to 40 people are packed into 50-square-metre houses; no extra clothing is given, even in harsh winters; and prisoners “work long hours performing manual labour”.
Darusman’s report also identified other human-rights violations, including violation of the right to food, torture and inhumane treatment, and violations of the right to life.
North Korean Ambassador So Se-pyong told the UN Human Rights Council on March 21 that the country has “one of the best systems for promotion and protection of human rights in the world”. This came after a draft resolution was submitted to the council calling for an investigation into violations of human rights in the DPRK. During the session, the ambassador accused the draft of being “a product of political confrontation and plot”.
Later that day, delegates to the council agreed to convene a commission of inquiry into what it called “grave” and “widespread” abuses in that country.
North Korea denies the existence of such camps, and no human-rights monitors have been allowed to enter the country to confirm the allegations. In early 2013, though, Google used satellite photos to update its maps to include information on the previously blank area of North Korea, including streets, parks, train stops, and the prison camps. Other new information has provided compelling evidence. In 2012 and 2013, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea published several reports containing new satellite images of two alleged political-prisoner camps (the photos are available on the CHRNK website). These images supposedly show the locations of prisoner housing, perimeter expansions, and even crematoriums.
David Hawk, an international human-rights expert and a visiting scholar at Columbia University, interviewed dozens of former North Koreans (most of whom fled to China and made their way across the border into South Korea) for his 2003 book, The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps. In a CNN interview in 2012 (the year he updated his book for its second edition), Hawk said that he believed the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, a camp-born escapee and subject of a book by Seattle-based journalist Blaine Harden called Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West.
Although Shin’s story of his camp existence cannot be verified, Hawk said “his story is consistent with the testimony of other prisoners in every respect.” In addition, a 2007 medical report by Dr. Gill Hinshelwood, a former senior physician for the London based Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, details the various physical injuries that Shin had acquired in the camps and during his escape. Hinshelwood’s report, which describes scars such as healed burns on his lower back and the missing tip of his right middle finger, says that they are “consistent” with his history.
According to Hidden Gulag, both real and perceived dissidents and their families are “abducted” and put into the camps without a fair trial. The book also says that people are frequently tortured for confessions, and prisoners are deliberately kept in a state of semistarvation.
Yesterday (April 15) marked a national holiday for North Korea, with its capital (and largest) city Pyongyang holding colourful celebrations for the birthday of first leader Kim Il-sung, who reigned as prime minister and president from 1948 until his death in 1994. Any prisoner who has ever been incarcerated for merely being biologically related to a dissident can hold that “Great Leader” responsible. According to special rapporteur Darusman’s report, there are thousands of people who are interned in the camps for “guilt of association”, a practice introduced by Kim Il-sung in a 1972 statement: “Factionalists or enemies of class, whoever the are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations.”
In a 2012 radio interview, journalist Harden said that “it’s maddening” that the camps have not received greater international attention. By “making the Korean peninsula a permanent flash point for very serious security issues…human rights is often relegated to, you know, a tertiary issue”.
With North Korea’s nuclear and missile program now the main focus of international news, and with the DPRK’s refusal to cooperate with human-rights organizations and the UN, progress is slow. If little is done for the people inside the forced-labour camps, these prisoners risk fading into obscurity once global interest over North Korea dies down.