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  • Voices from the North Korean Gulag
  • Chul Hwan Kang, Sun Ok Lee, Dong Chul Choi, and Myung Chul Ahn

Editors’ Introduction

For years, reports have circulated of the existence of North Korean labor camps where vast numbers of political and other prisoners are subjected to appalling abuses. Reports by the Minnesota Lawyers’ International Human Rights Committee in 1988 and by Amnesty International in 1990, 1993, 1994, and 1995 have indicated as much. 1 The U.S. Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1997 contains extensive references to reports and allegations of camps for political prisoners in North Korea. 2

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Figure 1.

At Camp Number 22. Camp Guards Using Prisoners As Martial-arts Targets, A Common Practice. North Korea produced two martial-arts movies in 1986, “Hong Kil Tong” and “Order No. 027.” Since then, it has become a common practice for guard units in all camps to reenact some scenes from these movies by practicing martial arts using political prisoners as targets. Officers encourage guards to use political prisoners for kicking and beating. Most prisoners bleed from the nose and mouth and they usually receive broken teeth and are not able to walk normally afterwards. I actually witnessed a scene as above at Camp Number 22. Casual conversations with my colleagues confirmed that, in fact, this was a common practice at all camps.

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Figure 2.

Typical Scenes at all Camps Appearances of Political Prisoners. Political prisoners detained at a young age are dwarfed, their growth retarded by the extended hunger and hard labor. The average height of political prisoners in all concentration camps would be perhaps 145–150 centimeters, an indication that many of them arrived there young.

Certainly, there is widespread international awareness that North Korea remains one of the most closed, rigid, and repressive political regimes in the world. The UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities adopted a resolution on 21 August 1997 expressing concern with “persistent and concordant allegations that grave violations of human rights are being committed” in North Korea, and called on the North Korean government to “ensure full respect” for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 3

To date, however, international public opinion has not been adequately informed of the scale and systematic character of human rights violations in North Korea. A key problem has been the lack of credible and specific information. That is changing, as a result of a growing number of defections from North Korea in recent years by former political prisoners and prison camp guards. While the closed nature of the North Korean regime makes it impossible to verify defector reports in detail, the eyewitness accounts and personal experiences of former prisoners and camp guards offer a shocking glimpse into a far-reaching system of terror, degradation, and slave labor that can only be termed a North Korean gulag. In May 1998, Journal of Democracy coeditor Larry Diamond conducted personal interviews in Seoul with former political prisoners and camp guards in North Korea and with activists of the leading South Korean civil society organization working [End Page 82] with these North Korean refugees, the Citizens’ Alliance to Help Political Prisoners in North Korea. They painted a portrait that he found consistent, credible, and compelling. Here are some of his findings:

  • • The North Korean regime uses torture, imprisonment, forced confessions, and slave labor on a grand scale to silence even the slightest form of dissent or free inquiry, and to produce a wide range of products both for domestic consumption and for export.

  • • The Seoul-based Center for the Advancement of North Korean Human Rights estimates that about 200,000 North Koreans are now being held in more than ten different prison camps in North Korea for such “crimes” as reading a foreign newspaper, listening to a foreign broadcast, complaining about the food situation, refusing an arbitrary request from an official, talking to foreigners, traveling outside North Korea without permission, or doing anything to “insult the authority” of the country’s dictator, Kim Jong Il. 4

  • • Crumbling under the weight of a half-century of grotesque distortions...