For 65 years the North Korean people have suffered under perhaps __the__ most regimented and repressive political system of the last century. The Kim dynasty, which has ruled North Korea since the end of World War II, has perfected a system of control even the great totalitarian states of the 20th century—Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—would envy. What is more, the Kims created it and ran it without much notice by the outside world. Human rights organizations and the western media were for many years reluctant to expose the crimes of the North Korean state against its own people. Much of this reluctance was a function of how closed and isolated the North is from the outside world and the difficulty of getting any authoritative information on conditions inside the country, while others believed North Korea had created an egalitarian society which cared for its people, even if at a cost of individual freedom.
The scarcity of information on human rights in North Korea began to change over the past decade as more than 20,000 defectors made their way to South Korea and because a bipartisan group formed of diplomats, Korea experts, and human rights specialists founded the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea to conduct meticulous research and produce dispassionate reports on the North Korean system (full disclosure: I serve as co-chair of the committee). Earlier in 2012 the committee released its 13th report—this one on the prison system of North Korea which houses between 150,000-200,000 people who belong to the disloyal class suspected of political crimes. Three generations of each suspected family may live out their lives in these camps because one of their ancestors fought for South Korea during the Korean War 60 years ago, had an ancestor who was a businessman or large landowner before the Communist state was created in the 1940s, or who committed a political crime such as not treating a photograph of a member of the Kim dynasty with sufficient awe. As many as 100,000 people have died in the camps from summary executions because of an infraction of camp rules, from starvation deaths because food rations are below survival levels, or from the frequent beatings or torture.
At the same time this report on the camps was released, a book came out— Escape from Camp 14 —written by Blaine Harden, a former Asia Bureau chief for the __Washington Post.__ It is the extraordinary account of a 30-year-old man, Shin Dong-hyuk, who is one of the few people to escape from these camps to freedom through China to South Korea. The book had been on the __New York Times__ best seller list and is being translated into other languages.
Shin was born and bred in the camps by prison guards as one of a group of child informants and spies they use to catch troublemakers among the inmates. Sex between prisoners is punishable by execution, unless arranged by the guards who chose prisoners’ mates. Any woman who gets pregnant without approval—and many do from being raped by the guards—is executed, as is her new born child. Couples chosen by the guards to mate because they are particularly hard working are allowed to sleep together four or five times a year, and any children they produce are essentially brought up by the guards as informants. Shin was one of these child informants.
He saw nothing wrong when an 8-year-old girl in his school was exposed for taking five kernels of corn off the ground and putting them in her pocket. She was dragged before the class and beaten to death with a stick by the teacher for stealing food which is a capital crime. When Shin overheard his mother and brother plot to escape from the camp, he turned them in to the guards. He told Harden that his first loyalty was to the guards not to his family members who he had no relationship with. He and his father with other inmates were forced to watch as his mother was hanged and brother was shot for their plan to escape. The guards then interrogated and tortured Shin by beatings—he was 13 years old at the time—to get more information about his mother and brother. He was suspended over hot coals until he passed out from the burns.
Harden wrote of his own initial skepticism about Shin Dong-Hyuk’s story, but began to believe him after repeated interviews: None of the details changed save one. Shin only reluctantly admitted later that he had turned in his mother and brother which resulted in their execution. He had initially kept this secret because of the potential reaction by South Koreans and because of the gradual emergence of his own overwhelming guilt. Harden corroborated conditions in the prisons from the accounts of other former prisoners who had been released from the camps and escaped from North Korea.
I have met and heard Shin speak on two occasions where he explained that he only learned how to be a human being after he escaped. Inmates were treated as animals, he dispassionately reported. Prisoners were allowed to bathe once every two years, and given one new set of clothes once every six months. The only way they avoided starvation was by eating insects, rats, and wild greens harvested from the prison grounds.
I would have been skeptical of Shin’s stories had I not interviewed North Korean refugees myself to collect material for a book I was writing on the famine that consumed the country during the 1990s. In November 1998 I traveled under cover to the Chinese border with North Korea to interview North Korean food refugees escaping the famine. In those interviews refugees reported horrific conditions in a separate system of detention camps set up to imprison those caught crossing the Chinese border. Since then the North Korean and Chinese governments have increased their efforts to seal the porous border between the two countries. Now instead of temporary detention and beatings to control these escapes, the regime more readily executes or sends them to the political prison camps. The Chinese government, fearful the escapes will turn into a mass exodus that could lead to the collapse of the Kim dynasty, has intensified its efforts since last December to round up refugees near the border and send them back to North Korea.
Satellite photographs of the camps show some signs of activity. Perhaps because of the growing media coverage of conditions in the prisons, the authorities appear to be closing some of the camps, as they are sensitive to publicity around their existence. Human rights observers do not know what is happening to the inmates.
What can be done? For 18 years the U.S. government and South Korea have engaged with the North Koreans on their nuclear weapons development programs. The talks have been an abysmal failure: They have produced little or nothing. It is time the United States and South Korea expand the agenda for any talks with North Korea to include its horrific treatment of prisoners, conditions in the North Korean penal system generally, and the appalling human rights record of the regime. On the few occasions when U.S. diplomats have brought up the subject of human rights in meetings with their diplomats, the North Koreans have been known to storm out of negotiations. Let them do it. In every meeting with the North Koreans regardless of whatever else is on the agenda the United States and any other democracy dealing with them should add human rights to the list, until at some point the camps are shut down and the prisoners released. The international community should not be naïve, however, about its ability to stop the abuses, but at least the world can put the spotlight on the Pyongyang’s crimes against its own people.