:::: MENU ::::

The Sultan Center for World Affairs

  • Diplomacy

  • Friendship

  • Cooperation

Thursday, March 16, 2006

  • 6:38 AM

In his 1997 history Korea’s Place in the Sun, Bruce Cumings predicted, “... if and when the [North Korean] regime falls, we will probably learn of larger numbers [of people held in prisons and reform-through-labor camps] and various unimaginable atrocities...”4

Korea specialists Kongdan Oh and Ralph Hassig have noted that increasing diplomatic ties “are not accompanied by people-to-people relations as North Korea’s borders remain closed. In North Korea it is an article of faith to keep outsiders guessing about what is happening in the country.... This lack of transparency forces outsiders to draw conclusions based on fragmentary evidence.”5

Since the turn of the millennium, a growing number of North Korean defectors and escapees have obtained asylum in South Korea. A small number of these desperate, famine-fleeing North Koreans received media and diplomatic attention in 2001 and 2002, when they broke through gates or climbed the fences of various embassies, consulates, and missions in Beijing. Much larger numbers of North Koreans have fled to China across the Yalu or Tumen rivers into the area of northeast China formerly known as Manchuria and reached South Korea via an extraordinary 4,000- to 5,000-mile trek involving some combination of bus, train, car, motorbike taxis, and walking. They travel south to Beijing, Shanghai, or Kunming, and then down through Burma, Laos, or Vietnam into Cambodia before reaching Thailand, and then flying to Seoul. Other escapees reach Seoul by traveling to Mongolia or Hong Kong.

A number of these North Korean escapees and defectors6 were either prisoners or guards in a variety of prison camps and detention/punishment facilities in North Korea. Their fragments of information are accumulating and now afford a closer look at the North Korean system of forced-labor camps and the unimaginable atrocities taking place under the rule of Kim Jong Il. This report is based on a review of materials written in English and on thirty in-depth interviews with former North Koreans who found asylum in South Korea. These interviews were conducted largely in Seoul in August 2002, November–December 2002, and February 2003.

Most of the information in this report comes from former prisoners, who during their interviews described in detail the situations of their imprisonment, their living and work units, and their treatment and observations while imprisoned or detained. These prisoners’ accounts are corroborated and amplified by accounts from former prison guards, who saw larger areas of the prison camps, as the prisoners were usually confined to cells and worksites. The perspectives of the prison guards are further amplified by a former prison-system official “defector,” whose account provides additional information on the workings of the prison-camp system. (See the Information Base for an overview of the prison camps and detention facilities where individuals interviewed for this report were incarcerated or employed.)

From the accumulated information, it is possible to outline two distinct systems of incarceration in North Korea. Both of these exhibit exceptional violations of internationally recognized human rights: an extremely brutal gulag of sprawling political penallabor colonies, called kwan-li-so in Korean, and prison-labor facilities, called kyo-hwa-so; and a separate but also extremely brutal system of imprisonment, interrogation, torture, and forced labor for North Koreans who are forcibly repatriated from China. This latter incarceration system includes police jails, called ka-mok, and police detention facilities, called ku-ryu-jang, along the North Korea–China border, and short-term detention/forced-labor centers, called jip-kyul-so, and even shorter-term, more localized detention/forced-labor training camps, called ro-dong-dan-ryeon-dae.

The kwan-li-so include the repressive phenomenon of lifetime sentences for perceived political wrongdoers paired with guilt-by-association imprisonment for up to three generations of the supposed wrongdoers’ families. Whatever the category, all the prison facilities are characterized by very large numbers of deaths in detention from forced, hard labor accompanied by deliberate starvation-level food rations. Incarceration of Koreans repatriated from China includes routine torture during interrogation and the practice of forced abortion or infanticide inflicted upon babies borne by pregnant repatriates.

Note on Sources
Many of the former prisoners interviewed for this report, believing their relatives to be dead or now living in South Korea, agreed to have their names and, in some cases, their photographs published. Many others, however, knowing that the North Korean government practices collective punishment, would agree to be interviewed and provide testimony only under condition of anonymity, lest relatives remaining in North Korea be punished for the interviewees’ crime of escaping to the Republic of Korea. Such individuals are identified in this report with a number rather than a pseudonym (such as “Former Detainee #6,” for example, or “Former Prisoner #13”).

For some prison camps and detention facilities described in this report, more than one source of information was available. In such cases, one person’s account could be checked against another’s. In other cases, the description of a particular camp or facility rested on the testimony of one former prisoner. In those cases, I had to rely on the coherence and internal consistency of the testimony, and my professional experience.7 In more than thirty interviews in and around Seoul, only one struck me as sufficiently garbled and inconsistent as to be unreliable and unusable — from a very recent arrival who wanted to make declarations against North Korea but whose story and factual assertions dissolved under close questioning.

The phenomena of repression, in this case terrible human rights violations, happen to individual human beings. Their personal stories are at least as important as the information their stories provide about the prison-labor camps. Many former North Korean prisoners have, like the Cambodian and Rwandan survivors I interviewed in the 1980s and 1990s, extraordinary stories. Thus, brief sketches of their personal histories are provided along with their descriptions of the prison camps they survived. To a large extent, this report uses the format of briefly profiling a witness (under the heading “Witness”) before providing his or her testimony about the particular camp or facility in which he or she was incarcerated and the phenomena of repression endured and observed there (under the heading “Testimony”). In cases where more than one witness account of a given camp or facility was available, each witness is profiled separately before their combined testimony appears.

This is not to say that the interviewees’ memories are always entirely accurate or that some details have not been lost in translation. There may be minor errors in the accounts that follow. Nonetheless, I am convinced that the overwhelming bulk of testimony is reliable. And the stories in this report create a fuller picture of the phenomena of repression in North Korea than has previously existed in English-language sources.

This report does not claim, however, to be comprehensive, as the presently available database is not sufficient for such purposes. For example, evidence has emerged from various sources about the “9/27” camps for kotjebi, the young street children orphaned by the breakdown of families caused by extreme famine. But as the interviewees for this report, most of whom were middle-aged or young adults, provided no information on “9/27” camps, information about such facilities is not included.

Another example of missing information: Anne Applebaum notes in her book Gulag: A History, that the Soviet prison-labor camp system “produced a third of the Soviet Union’s gold, much of its coal and timber, and a great deal of everything else.”8 Given the breakdown of North Korea’s production system, one wonders about the economic role and significance of the prison-labor camps in North Korea. Former North Korean prison camp guard AHN Myong Chol states that Kyo-hwa-so No. 22 supplies some forty percent of the corn consumed in North and South Hamgyong provinces. Women at the Kaechon prison-labor camp, Kyo-hwa-so No. 1, produce — under abominable conditions — textile goods for export to the U.S.S.R., Japan, and France. Other prisoners interviewed for this report mined gold, coal, iron, and magnesite in slave-labor prison camps, exactly the extractive industries cited by Selig Harrison for North Korea’s export potential.9 But, on the whole, to my knowledge, production data from the camps is not available; and the economic role of the camps is not discussed in this report.

Nor is there enough data to project trends over time or to extrapolate beyond the places specifically identified. While I consulted several Korea experts in South Korea and the United States, primarily to fill in some gaps in my own understanding of the North Korean system, the accounts that follow adhere very closely to the information provided by the former prisoners and guards personally interviewed for this report. That information is sufficient to pinpoint the terrible phenomena of repression that victimizes tens or hundreds of thousands of North Koreans.

North Korean authorities deny that the kinds of prison camps described herein exist and that human rights violations occur in North Korea. Such governmental denials cannot be taken at face value. The only real way for North Korea to contradict or invalidate the claims and stories in the refugee accounts is by inviting United Nations officials, U.N. Human Rights Commission representatives, or reputable NGOs such as AmnestyInternational or Human Rights Watch to verify or invalidate on-site the allegations of former prisoners. Otherwise the refugees’ testimonies stand.

In the event that North Korean authorities decline to engage in the constructive and substantive dialogue with U.N. human rights officials requested in a recent resolution by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights,10 it can only be hoped that sufficient resources will be found to enable South Korean NGOs or independent human rights bodies to more thoroughly and systematically document the violations outlined in this report.

Not in a Vacuum
In 1988, the North Korean Ambassador to the United Nations wrote to the Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee that violations of human rights do not take place and are “unthinkable” in North Korea.11 In 1994, an official publication, The People’s Korea proclaimed, “...there is no ‘human rights problem’ in our Republic either from the institutional or from the legal point of view.”12 North Korean diplomats at the United Nations in Geneva continue to deny that there are any — any — violations of human rights in Korea.13

On the contrary, the extreme human rights violations documented in this report occur in an environment of the wholesale denial of fundamental rights and freedoms. For descriptions of the North Korean human rights situation generally, readers are referred to the 1988 Minnesota Lawyers/Human Rights Watch Report referenced above, the annual human rights reports by the U.S. Department of State, various reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and reputable web sites, including those of the Chosun Journal (chosunjournal.com), the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights (nknet.org), and the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (nkhumanrights.or.kr). By far the best survey of the overall human rights situation is the annual White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea published by the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), which covers the categories and provisions of the International Covenants on Human Rights, and references or incorporates up-to-date information and analyses from the U.S. Department of State, press, and NGO accounts.14

Note on Translations
In reviewing the North Korea prison literature available in English and after initially conducting interviews through multiple translators, it became apparent that there is no standard or consistent translation of Korean prison or police terminology into English. Further, North Koreans sometimes use the same word inconsistently. For example, the term ku-ryu-jang is used generically by some to mean “detention” and more narrowly by others to mean “a detention room within a police station.” In such cases, the usage employed by the interviewee was retained for this report.

There are also different ways that Korean terms are romanized or transliterated into alphabetically rendered versions of the Korean hangul characters.

More problematically, some Korean prison terms are frequently translated in ways that are technically, literally correct but either meaningless or, worse, entirely misleading in English. For example, the term kwan-li-so (alternatively transliterated as gwalliso) is sometimes literally translated — as in the White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea published annually by the Korea Institute for National Reunification — as “management center,” which sounds rather like a business-consulting firm and is a meaningless translation for a political slave-labor concentration camp. The term kwan-li-so is also variously translated as “political-detention camp,” “prison camp,” or “concentration camp,” which are better translations. In this report, the term kwan-li-so is translated as “political penal-labor colony,” a more descriptive English rendering.

If the term kwan-li-so is meaninglessly translated as “management center,” even more misleading is translating the term kyo-hwa-so (alternatively transliterated as gyohwaso) as “re-education center,” as was done in the November 2002 Human Rights Watch report, or even as “enlightenment center,” a translation used by some South Koreans. In reality, of course, there is nothing educational, enlightening, or remotely rehabilitative about these “long-term prison-labor camps,” as they are accurately called in this report, since many are characterized by staggeringly high rates of deaths in detention resulting from forced labor under brutal conditions combined with starvation-level food rations.

For ease of reference, this report includes a “Glossary of North Korean Repression” — that is, a chart of common North Korean prison and police terms, listing the Korean characters, the Chinese characters, the formal and common Romanized renderings of the Korean characters, and finally the literal and more descriptive English translations. For clarity, the running text of this report includes the Korean terms used by the interviewees as adjective in front of the descriptive English translation.

Korean names usually appear with the family name followed by the given name, except for a few individuals who have, for English usage, adopted the Anglicized form of their given names and followed these with their family names. For ease of reference, in this report the first time a Korean name is used, it appears with the family name in capital letters and in the form provided when persons were introduced to the interviewer, usually in the Korean fashion (with the family name first).

Former North Korean prisoners and detainees interviewed for this report were detained and/or imprisoned at the following places and times:15
A call-to-action text Contact us