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  • A Voice from the North Korean Gulag
  • Carl Gershman (bio)

North Korea is widely and rightly viewed as an extremely repressive authoritarian country, but the actual nature of the dictatorship that rules it remains something of a mystery even to most of those who follow international politics and human rights. One reason for this is that North Korea is the world’s least accessible country to journalists and human-rights monitors, which makes it hard to verify the many horrendous abuses that defectors and prison-camp survivors report.

Hiding what is happening inside North Korea is among the tools that the xenophobic communist regime of the Kim family uses in order to maintain its power. As Kim Jong Il (1994–2011), the son of dictator Kim Il Sung (1948–94) and father of current dictator Kim Jong Un (2011–), once said: “We must envelop our environment in a dense fog to prevent our enemies from learning anything about us.”1 This strategy of concealment has also been served by North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and missile launches, which have diverted international attention from the country’s internal problems and generated controversies that have overshadowed concerns about human-rights violations.

The North Korean system also is hard to understand because it is so different from ordinary autocracies. North Korea and its neighbor China are both called dictatorships and are rated “Not Free” by Freedom House, but North Koreans go to extreme lengths to escape to China. Is China an open country compared to North Korea? And if China is nonetheless a dictatorship, which it is, what then is North Korea?

Even Václav Havel, the great Czech leader and freedom fighter, had [End Page 165] difficulty understanding the real nature of the North Korean system. In September 2002, when he met with a South Korean delegation visiting Prague to prepare for an international conference on human rights in North Korea, he told them, “Our country had the same problem of oppression on people’s ideas not too long ago, which makes us pay keen attention to the problems in North Korea.” Havel added that “even a small-sized opposition group can trigger big changes when spurred and aided by . . . external supporters.” The South Koreans replied that the “formation of . . . organized dissident groups is almost impossible due to the regime’s tight control over the people and the vast and inhumane system of prison camps.”2 Havel soon learned that North Korea was very different from communist Czechoslovakia. He wrote an article comparing North Korea’s “system of concentration camps” to the Soviet gulag and calling Kim Jong Il “the world’s worst totalitarian dictator, a man responsible for the loss of millions of lives.”3

Over the past decade, as tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled the oppressive and famine-stricken country, information about North Korea and its prison camps has begun to reach the outside world. A growing number of reports have been published on conditions inside North Korea, many of them issued by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK). These include the second edition of The Hidden Gulag, HRNK’s pathbreaking report on the system of forced-labor concentration camps—called kwan-li-so—which hold as many as 200,000 inmates.4 It is based on interviews with more than sixty former prisoners and contains more than forty high-resolution satellite photographs identifying not just the prison camps themselves—whose existence the regime continues to deny—but specific facilities within them, from prisoner barracks and guard towers to coal-mine entrances and execution sites. Other important studies have also appeared, such as Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea and Cholhwan Kang’s prison memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang.5

The documentation contained in these materials has helped to spur greater international criticism of North Korea. Since 2005, the UN has annually adopted a resolution on North Korea—most recently by consensus—expressing “very serious concern” at reports of “systematic, widespread and grave violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights,” as well as of “the existence of a large number of prison camps and the extensive...