[Viewpoint] The hidden gulag of the North

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[Viewpoint] The hidden gulag of the North

This is the preface to the new, second edition of “The Hidden Gulag” by David Hawk, published by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Tomorrow’s extract describes the fate of North Korean defectors forcibly repatriated home.

Upon receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, In publishing the first and second editions of “The Hidden Gulag”, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea has assumed that mandate. By means of these reports, it gives voice to those silenced in the remote labor camps and prisons of North Korea.

There may be as many as 200,000 North Koreans locked away on political grounds behind barbed wire and subject to extreme cruelty and brutality. Many are “not expected to survive,” according to the State Department’s 2010 human rights report, in particular those incarcerated in the kwanliso (political penal labor colonies). Others are held in long-term prison-labor penitentiaries or camps, shorter-term detention facilities, mobile labor brigades and interrogation detention facilities.

The vast majority are arbitrarily arrested with no reference to any judicial procedure and for “offenses” that are not punishable in most countries, namely listening to a foreign radio broadcast, holding a Protestant religious service, watching a South Korean DVD, leaving dust on Kim Il Sung’s picture, exiting the country without permission, expressing critical remarks about government policies.

Starvation food rations, forced labor, routine beatings, systematic torture and executions put the North Korean camps in the ranks of history’s worst prisons for political offenders. Originally modeled on the Soviet gulag, the North Korean camps have developed distinctive features of their own for which no terminology has yet been devised. Particularly horrifying is the incarceration of entire families, including children and grandparents, in order to isolate them from society and punish them because of their relationship to family members accused of political crimes. Rooting out “class enemies for three generations” was specifically ordered by Kim Il Sung, which at times has led to comparisons with Nazi death camps.

An equally horrifying practice distinctive to North Korea is forced abortion regularly carried out and in the most brutal manner on women prisoners who illegally crossed the border into China, became pregnant by Chinese men and were forcibly repatriated to North Korea. In cases where the pregnancy is too advanced, guards beat the infants to death or bury them alive after they are born.

Estimates of the numbers who have died in the camps over the past 40 years have run well over one hundred thousand.

The existence of the political prison camps, however, is soundly denied by North Korean officials. “We must envelop our environment in a dense fog to prevent our enemies from learning anything about us,” Kim Jong-il reportedly said. Human rights specialist David Hawk in his first edition of “The Hidden Gulag” (2003) and now in its second edition (2012) challenges North Korea’s deliberate effort to hide the truth. With painstaking care he has unearthed and compiled evidence from the period 1970 to 2008 to demonstrate an extensive prison camp system hidden away in North Korea’s isolated mountains. Amassing satellite photographs and hand drawings of the different camps, testimonies from former prisoners and interviews with former guards, he has documented beyond a doubt the existence of penal labor camps and other political prisons. He has met with almost all of the former kwanliso prisoners who were either released or escaped to South Korea. Of the more than 23,000 defectors who have made the treacherous journey to the South over the past decade, hundreds are former prisoners.

It is worth recalling that some 45 years ago political prisoners in China were an undifferentiated mass of people unknown to the rest of the world. In fact, Andrei Sakharov, the renowned Soviet scientist and dissident, together with other Soviet dissidents in the 1970s publicly called on their Chinese counterparts to establish lines of communication with the outside world in order to prevent the authorities “from crushing them without a trace in the remote labor camps and prisons.” They pointed out that international exposure of human rights violations was an important way to deter governments and bring about change. Today, North Korean prisoners are the ones coming to the fore. Their country, now led by Kim Jong-un, continues to be closed to the world, but the conspiracy of silence surrounding the camps is nonetheless being breached.

More than 120 states at the UN General Assembly in 2011 expressed “serious concern” about the “the existence of a large number of prison camps and the extensive use of forced labor” in North Korea. This must be followed by bilateral and multilateral efforts to gain access to the camps so that international organizations can bring in food and medicine, help reduce the high death rates and end the horrifying isolation of these prisoners. For too long, it has been considered too difficult, too controversial and too confrontational to point to the camps in discussions with North Korean officials. That is precisely why the report’s recommendations are so important in calling for access to the starving, abused and broken men, women and children held captive. It is not just nuclear weapons that have to be dismantled in North Korea but an entire system of political repression.

*The writer of the preface is Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. The preface is contained in the report Hidden Gulag, by David Hawk.

by David Hawk
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