Inside the Gulag

Friday, October 30, 1998

North Korea is the world’s last true Stalinist regime. In most of the world, communism is dead, at least in everything but name. But in North Korea, totalitarian controls and a bizarre ideology have survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, the global wave of democratization and liberalization, the political transformation of South Korea, and the death in 1994 of dictator Kim Il Sung. Like almost everything else about the country, its very name—the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”—is a grotesque, Orwellian lie.

Human rights reports from the State Department, Amnesty International, and elsewhere portray a regime so paranoid and ruthless that capital punishment is prescribed for such petty offenses as slandering the Communist Party, attempting to defect, listening to foreign broadcasts, or writing “reactionary” letters. The domineering regime forbids the sale or ownership of any radio that is not preset to receive only North Korean channels. The North Korean government, obsessed with power, spends a quarter of its gross domestic product on its military. And it is the systemic irrationality and cruelty of the North Korean system, much more than the vagaries of weather, that account for the country’s current dreadful famine, in which hundreds of thousands are starving to death or have already perished.

In most of the world, communism is dead. But in North Korea, totalitarianism and a bizarre ideology have survived.

For some time now, policymakers in the United States, South Korea, and Japan have been debating what to do about North Korea—how to halt its nuclear weapons development program, how to prevent it from starting a war on the Korean peninsula, whether to comply with its conditions for the delivery of food aid, and whether and how to end its economic isolation.

These are grave and urgent issues. However, in the press of constant crisis, and in the thick fog of secrecy that shrouds the North Korean regime, an equally grave issue has been obscured and virtually ignored: the existence of a vast gulag of political prisons and concentration camps. More than ten political prisons and work camps now hold an estimated 200,000 North Koreans. As a result of the brutal conditions, punishing labor demands, severe nutritional deficiencies, and frequent arbitrary executions, the Center for the Advancement of North Korean Human Rights estimates that some 400,000 prisoners have died in these camps since they were established by Kim Il Sung in 1972.

North Korea’s gulag has a political purpose: to use torture, terror, imprisonment, forced confessions, and executions to silence even the slightest expressions of dissent or free inquiry. But victimization has gone far beyond any rational political purpose. As every previous totalitarian experience has shown, total concentration of power inevitably feeds limitless excesses of cruelty and terror. Absolute power goes paranoically mad. The North Korean gulag provides an instrument for any bloated party official to avenge the most trivial slight. In the camps themselves, sadistic officials and guards impose subjugation and brutality beyond imagination. From the whispers of a terrified populace, we know that when a North Korean is arrested and sentenced to a political prison, no one expects to hear from him or her ever again.

Beyond its political purpose of terror and control, North Korea’s gulag has an economic dimension of which the world has been previously unaware. This side of the atrocity has only come into focus as former North Korean political prisoners and prison camp guards have risked their lives to defect to South Korea in recent years. According to their eyewitness accounts (including three that I obtained personally during several hours of interviews in Seoul in May of this year), North Korea’s political prisoners are made to produce a wide range of products that the communist system is too inefficient to produce under conventional socialist means.

The North Korean economy has been caught in the crushing vise of its own contradictions. Total violation of individual freedoms and incentives has brought the North Korean economy ever closer to total collapse. For more than two decades, the regime’s desperate response has not been to liberalize the economy, as in China or Vietnam, but rather to expand state control to its absolute limit: slave labor. This system has been supported (even if unwittingly) by democratic nations in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere, which have purchased the exports made and processed by North Korea’s slave labor system.

For the cash-starved regime, political prisons and concentration camps have become a vital cog in the production machine. The prisons are each given specific monthly, quarterly, and annual production quotas that they must meet at any cost. Individual prisoners are given their own daily work quotas, which they must fulfill to exacting standards, working sixteen hours a day, on penalty of death. To fill their institutional quotas, prisons must obtain—by any means necessary—fresh supplies of prisoners to replace the considerable number who die under the draconian conditions. It is this constant need for fresh prisoners that renders any North Korean citizen subject to arrest on the flimsiest of charges.

Sun Ok Lee was one such victim. But she is a survivor, and it is partly because of her indomitable will and precise memory that we now have so much information about North Korea’s system of slave labor. For fourteen months in 1986 and 1987, Mrs. Lee (then thirty-nine) was relentlessly subjected to different forms of torture to force her to confess to a crime (embezzlement of state property) of which she had been falsely accused by a local police chief. At one point, her lip was torn half way to her ear. “They frequently poured cold water on my body and left me outside in freezing winter nights. Once I was left on the floor unconscious for many hours and woke up to find worms in my wounds.” Enduring daily torture and humiliation, she watched a number of her fellow detainees die under the same strain and was tricked into making a false confession in 1987. She then began a five-year term in the notorious Kaechon Prison.

Kaechon held its own horrors. “The prison uniform was almost a rag and the dirt on it made it stiff almost like a plank. I was kicked for every movement from one location to another. I was no longer a human but a beast.” Mrs. Lee estimates that 80 percent of the prisoners were ordinary housewives who had committed petty offenses.

Conditions in Kaechon were extremely harsh. Mrs. Lee explains: “The work begins at 5:30 in the morning and closes at 11:00 at night. You can go to the toilet only twice a day, once each in the morning and in the afternoon, at fixed times. There is only one toilet for every 300 prisoners. Eighty to ninety prisoners share a floor space of 5 meters by 6 meters. Sleeping there was torture in itself.” Life in the gulag revolved almost completely around work. A Stalinist slogan on the prison wall declared “Ideology reform through strengthened labor.” Mrs. Lee explained that there was constant pressure on the prisoners to meet daily production quotas on items intended for export. Failure to meet these quotas resulted in reduced food rations or other punishment.

Mrs. Lee recounted the story of one of her fellow prisoners, Young Suk Kim, thirty-five, who struggled with the instructions for knitting sweaters for export to Japan because she could not read. “Often she complained to herself in tears, ‘Why was there no school in my village? Why am I not able to read?’” A guard who overheard her became enraged: “What? Are you saying that there is anybody in North Korea who cannot read? You are defaming the state on purpose. You must be investigated.” Young Suk Kim was taken away to an “investigation cell” and was never seen again. A month later, Mrs. Lee heard she had been beaten to death during interrogation.

Sun Ok Lee was in a position to know much more than most prisoners. A statistician and accountant, her training proved highly useful to the prison administration. She was put in charge of making distribution lists and assigning specific work quotas and tasks. She was notified how many new prisoners would be delivered to Kaechon. She received the overall production quotas for the prison from the national planning bureau and had to figure out how they would be met. (Visiting officials repeatedly told her that the quotas had to be met because prison labor constituted 40 percent of the country’s production. This figure cannot literally be true, but it underscores the priority the regime placed on this source of production.)

With an accountant’s eye for detail, Sun Ok Lee remembered and eventually recorded what she learned:

In Kaechon prison, there is a separate building for production for overseas export. From March 1988 until January 1989 (I can remember the dates), we produced women’s brassieres for export to Russia. For the whole year of 1989 we produced all kinds of table mats, ashtrays, vases to be sent to Poland. In 1989, for export to France we produced artificial roses, one stem with twelve flowers put in a box. From the autumn of 1989 and all of 1990 we produced hand-knitted sweaters for Japan, for both men and women. Between 1988 and 1991 we produced all kinds of garments including summer shirts, sometimes fatigue clothes, white and blue, which I understand went to various countries in Europe. [Some] clothes went to Hong Kong first, for export on to different countries in Europe.

Mrs. Lee has no doubt that the use of prison labor continues in North Korea. “They were doing it still when I was leaving prison in 1992. And the economy has kept deteriorating since then. North Korea is in need of income from outside to sustain itself.” She explains that prison workers are motivated by terror. “In prison, the slightest mistake or fault could be cause for severe punishment, even killing. What they do in these meticulous jobs is a matter of life and death. So they are very, very efficient and careful to do it correctly.”

Other eyewitness accounts paint a similar picture. Chul-Hwan Kang, now thirty, was taken away to Yodok concentration camp with his family at the age of nine and held for ten years. Kang, too, was a survivor. “Few people at Yodok survived more than ten years. I had a strong will to survive. There was nothing I did not eat: snakes, rats, frogs, whatever I could lay my hands on. Some of us would find worms in the ground or from the river. Some could not do this. Those who could not eat anything just perished.”

From the moment he arrived as a child, Kang was given a quota and put to work. Inexperienced, he had to work through the night to collect his quota of firewood, before he finally collapsed to the ground. Children were put to work sifting gold bits from sand in the river, planting corn, mining limestone, and, when they were older, logging:

When we worked to cut down trees, we were told by the guards, look you have to be careful, this is for export to Japan. We had ropes around the tree to make sure that they fell softly and weren’t broken. The guards told us the logs could not be exported to Japan if they were broken.

So many people were killed and crippled handling these trees. [People often] fell off the trees as they were trimming them. They had to bring the logs down to the foot of the mountain for inspection. If there was any slightest damage, the logs would not pass, then the prisoners would have to do the work all over again. So even on cold winter days we would cover the logs with our clothes, to make sure they arrived at the inspection point unharmed. But these were very heavy logs we were carrying; some undernourished prisoners would drop the logs and others would fall down with them, breaking their legs and arms or dying. So many prisoners were killed this way.

The Citizens’ Alliance to Help Political Prisoners in North Korea (a South Korean human rights group) has been working with North Korean defectors such as Sun Ok Lee and Chul Hwan Kang (and even former prison camp guards) to help them adjust to a new life in South Korea’s democratic and market-based society and to receive and publish their accounts. These eyewitness accounts are lifting the shroud of secrecy and forcing the West to confront a powerful moral and political challenge. Can we deal with a North Korean regime of this nature, or do morality and common sense demand that aid and engagement be conditioned on steps to open up and dismantle the gulag?

One thing that the former political prisoners and prison camp guards passionately agree on is the urgent need for international attention. The North Korean regime fears exposure of the crimes against humanity that are systematically committed in its political prisons and concentration camps. At first blink, this may seem strange for a totalitarian regime seemingly oblivious to international opinion. But every similar system in this century—from Stalin and the Nazis to Mao and the Khmer Rouge—has been obsessed with masking its crimes from the world’s view. Every regime craves international legitimacy of some sort. And even in the minds of the world’s most savage torturers and mass murderers, there still lurks some knowledge of global norms and even, perhaps, some faint awareness of good and evil.

The defectors are convinced that the gulag system cannot survive international exposure. They make one appeal above all others: that the United States, Japan, and other Western countries and international organizations demand comprehensive inspection of all of these sites as a condition for aid and more normal relations. As Tong Chul Lee (Sun Ok’s son, and a former prison camp guard) observed, “The unconditional provision of assistance from outside would result in strengthening the leadership, and the leadership is based on making slaves of the people.”

International attention and pressure have already forced the North Korean regime to reorganize the gulag, closing down a number of prisons close to the border with China or otherwise vulnerable to international scrutiny. In 1987, when North Korea was beginning to normalize its relations with Japan, Korean families in Japan were demanding to know what had happened to their relatives who had returned to North Korea. Kang believes this pressure led to the release from prison of his family and other returnees from Japan. “Now,” Kang observes, “North Korea wants to normalize diplomatic relations with the United States. Obviously, they are very concerned with outside pressure. I was told by recent defectors that this is why they are improving prison conditions and building model prisons for display to foreigners. The notorious Sunghori Prison that Amnesty International had identified has now been closed down. I believe that was where my grandfather was taken. Nobody ever survived that prison. No one was ever released.”

The defectors hope that truth and openness will somehow begin to penetrate the world’s most closed society. “When I was in North Korea,” Sun Ok Lee recalls, “I did not have the slightest idea of freedom and what it means, what human rights are. When I came to South Korea, it was the first time I learned about what freedom is: the right to make your own choices, to have free elections, to say bad things about the government if you want.

“North Korea’s whole population has been confined to their small territory and regimented for such a long time, they are completely ignorant of a free society outside North Korea. I am very anxious that international pressure break through these barriers, inform the North Korean population on how important democracy is, and give them knowledge to compare their present situation with what is going on in the rest of the world.”

Mrs. Lee plans to continue to do her part. Her account of the atrocities in North Korea’s gulag, Bright Eyes of Tailless Beasts, has sold widely in Japan, and she now hopes to publish an English-language translation. Most of all, however, she wants to tell her story in a public hearing before the United States Congress. It will probably not be long before she gets her chance.