[Viewpoint] Corridors of forced repatriation: Pathways to painThis is an excerpt from the new, second edition of “The Hidden Gulag” by David Hawk, published by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
North Koreans typically go to China by walking across the frozen surface or fording the shallow stretches of the Tumen River separating China from the DPRK. Denied the protection offered by international law, they are forcibly repatriated by van or bus across the bridges that connect the two countries.
Interviews for this report included fourteen persons repatriated at Onsong, six at Sinuiju, six at Musan, and one each at Hoeryong and Hyesan. Reportedly, there are also repatriations at Manpo, and small numbers of repatriations at Rason, Saeypol, Samband and Samjang, but no repatriated persons from these places were located or interviewed for this report.
On the Chinese side of the repatriation corridors are detention facilities where the North Koreans are held until a sufficient group is collected for repatriation by bus or van. On the Korean side of the repatriation corridors there are police stations for detaining and interrogating the repatriated Koreans. They are from the two major police agencies in North Korea: one run by the Kukgabowibu State Security Agency police, commonly shortened to “Bowibu,” which administer the kwanliso prison camps described above and another interrogation/detention facility administered by Inminboanseong People’s Safety Agency police (commonly referred to as “Anjeonbu”), which run the kyohwaso prisons described above.
According to the testimony of former Bowibu agents who defected to South Korea, and who were interviewed for a report by this author for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Bowibu interrogation-detention facilities at the repatriation corridors are run by the counterintelligence (“anti-spy” bantamgwa) department of Bowibu.
Their ostensible concern is that the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) is running spy networks into North Korea from the China border; and it is Bowibu’s job to disrupt those networks. However, it is clear from the statements made by DPRK diplomats at the United Nations that North Korean concern is far wider than “counterintelligence” as normally understood. Rather, the concern encompasses contact with or exposure to “foreign forces.”
And this includes virtually any contact with South Koreans or Korean-Americans or exposure to any artifact of South Korean culture (radio, TV, movies, songs, videos, etc). The testimonies of formerly repatriated North Koreans indicate that prior to 2000, persons forcibly returned from China could be sent either to a Bowibu or Anjeonbu detention-interrogation facility. Since 2000, forcibly repatriated persons are sent first to the Bowibu interrogation/detention facilities.
Whether conducted by the Bowibu State Security Agency police or the Anjeonbu police, the interrogations described by former prisoners all follow a pattern clearly outlined by Former Detainee No. 22, a young man originally from Kaesong. Essentially, the authorities ask: “Why did you go to China, where did you go, and what did you do in each place?”
And then, more ominously: “Did you meet any South Koreans?” “Did you go to a Christian church?” “Did you watch or listen to South Korean TV or radio?” and “Were you trying to go to South Korea?” All the former detainees interviewed for this report firmly believed that an affirmative answer to any of these questions would result in execution or their being sent to a kwanliso or kyohwaso.
Therefore, they typically denied any contact with South Koreans or Christians while in China. Their denials, however, were not considered credible by their interrogators, who attempted to starve and beat admissions out of the detainees. Some of the former prisoners interviewed for this report stuck to their denials; others, broken by hunger or torture, admitted that they had met South Koreans or gone to a Christian church. One interviewee said she was in such pain that she begged her jailers to kill her to end her suffering.
At the Bowibu detention-interrogation station, a determination is made if the person had simply gone to China for food or employment, in which case the detainee is transferred to Anjeonbu. If the case has a political facet - if the person admits to having met South Koreans or watched South Korean TV or movies, or sometimes having gone to a Korean-Chinese church - the Bowibu police retain the detainee.
Presently, after interrogation by Bowibu (which can last a matter of days, or many months) the detainee is transferred to one of four places: (1) the nearby Anjeonbu interrogation/detention police stations; (2) the “re-revolutionizing” zones of kwanliso Camps 15 or 18106; (3) one of the kyohwaso or kyoyangso prison; or, (4) one of the rodongdanryeondae labor training centers/mobile forced-labor brigades, described further below.
Sometimes detainees are sent temporarily to other interrogation/detention police stations located in their hometown for additional questioning, prior to being sent to one of the four forced-labor facilities named above. On the basis of presently available testimony, determinative criteria that govern whether the detainee is sent to a kwanliso or a kyohwaso cannot be discerned. It appears to be essentially arbitrary. This is both in the legal sense of arbitrary and capricious (extrajudicial and without any “due process”), and arbitrary in the sense that the police agency interrogators seem to have considerable discretion over the prisoners’ fate.
The designated additional detentions appear largely a matter of happenstance. It is possible that some repatriated detainees are sent away to the lifetime imprisonment, “total control zone” areas of Kwanliso 15 or 18, or to one of the prison-labor camps that only have lifetime “total control zones” such as Camp 22. But there is no direct testimony on this. It is also sometimes asserted that some repatriated persons are taken away for execution.
But no such direct, eyewitness testimony on such executions was obtained during the research for this report. In news accounts, some publicly executed persons are denounced as “traffickers” by North Korean police officials prior to execution. It is not known if persons publicly executed for “trafficking” had been previously processed at the police stations that abut the repatriation corridors. Detainees who are transferred from the Bowibu to the Anjeonbu facilities are subjected to additional interrogation. Then, they are commonly transferred to police stations in their home towns. They are then transferred again to: (1) a kyohwaso or kyoyangso prison, described in Part Three; (2) a jipkyulso, short term labor-detention facility; (3) a rodongdanryeondae labor training centers/mobile forced-labor brigade; or, (4) on occasion to the “re-revolutionizing” section of a kwanliso political penal labor colony.
Jipkyulso literally translates as a “gathering place.” A dojipkyulso is a provincial detention center. In reality, these are short-term, hard-labor detention facilities for those serving up to six-month sentences. Several interviewees reported the police use jipkyulso detention centers for “small-crime” persons and for North Koreans forcibly repatriated from China.
Jipkyulso are characterized by hard labor, like construction work or brick-making and below-subsistence food rations, a combination that causes numerous deaths in detention, notwithstanding the short period of incarceration. Alternatively, prisoners receive “sick-releases,” so that gravely ill prisoners will either die at home, reducing the number of deaths in detention, or, via the help of their families, recover at home before returning to the jipkyulso to finish the sentences.
Rodongdanryeondae literally translates as “workers training corps” or “labor-training center.” A descriptive translation for the rodongdanryeondae labor training centers would be “mobile corvee (forced-labor) brigades.” The labor-training centers for mobile labor brigades are even shorter-term jipkyulso, initially set up to accommodate the overflow from the established detention centers caused by the glut of repatriated North Koreans.
One interviewee for the first edition of “The Hidden Gulag” described the labor-training centers as localized “feeder” facilities for the jipkyulso. Another interviewee for the first edition described the labor-training centers as a “not-in-the-statute-books” response to the burgeoning numbers of North Koreans traveling without authorization. These North Koreans work at enterprises other than their assigned occupations at idled state-run factories, or flee to China in response to famine in North Korea.
One interviewee stated that it was becoming the practice to have separate facilities for Koreans forcibly repatriated from China because the repatriated prisoners were telling the common “light crime” criminals in the jipkyulso about the “freedom and prosperity” in China.
The labor-training centers are local, subdistrict facilities where various labor or production functions are not performed on-site, but where the corvee labor brigades are housed overnight. Every morning the detainees are made to march rapidly or jog to their various and changing worksites - chanting political slogans or singing what they describe as “silly songs” praising Kim Jong-il as they move along.
However, it now appears that recent revisions to the DPRK legal codes have recognized the labor-training centers as part of the North Korean penal system. Some of the repatriated persons going through this series of detention facilities have legal proceedings brought against them, although those “trials” would not meet international standards for “fair trial” or “due process.”
However, many of these detentions and incarcerations are entirely extrajudicial and without any legal process. On the basis of available testimony, it cannot be determined why some prisoners are given a trial while others are not. This too appears to be arbitrary, and apparently at the discretion of local police authorities.
It should not be assumed that the lif-time prison camps or the longer-term penitentiaries are “worse” or more brutal than the short-term interrogation/detention facilities and the short-term forced-labor facilities to which the detained repatriated North Koreans are subjected. As can be seen in the testimony, much of the worst and most systematic torture occurs in the Bowibu facilities to which repatriated North Koreans are routinely subjected.
Nor should it be assumed that the repatriated persons deemed to have committed a political offense, such as meeting South Koreans, exposure to South Korean films, songs or TV programs, or having attended Korean-Chinese churches, are treated “worse” or more brutally than those North Koreans deemed “nonpolitical” or “nonpoliticized,” who went to China for food or employment. Indeed, some of the most demeaning, inhumane and brutal mistreatments are inflicted in the in Anjeonbu detention facilities.
*The author is consultant on human rights and international affairs and senior advisor to the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
by David Hawk
More in Columns
A cautionary tale
A government in disarray
China’s thin skin
The Korean War from China’s view
Who’s laughing now?