The hidden gulag 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 kwan-li-so (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, or having a father or grandfather who was a landowner or defected to South Korea or worked for the Japanese, thereby placing the family in a “hostile” category under North Korea’s social classification or songbun system.

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 repatri- ated 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. Still another point of departure in North Korea is that all the residents of the kwan-li-so are denied any correspondence, visits or life saving parcels from family and friends. They are totally incommunicado.

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.”

This an extract from the preface to a new, second edition of a study called “The Hidden Gulag” published by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.


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