The communist regime in North Korea has been expanding space for women in its notorious prison labor camps to accommodate the number of Koreans forcibly returned from China, where they had sought the economic means to survive.
The atrocities that await inmates in the North Korean gulag include forced labor, savage beatings, starvation, episodic executions and other crimes against humanity, according to a new report by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (CHRNK), a Washington-based non-profit group.
The most recent changes in North Korea’s remote and extensive secret prison network is documented in The Hidden Gulag IV, an update of the Committee’s decade-long examination of the North Korean system, published on Friday. The report is buttressed by a separate analysis of satellite photographs and based on interviews with inmates who endured stays in the horrific system and subsequently escaped to South Korea after their release.
The Kim regime steadfastly denies the existence of any and all of the camps.
The Committee report is an attempt to document changes in North Korea’s gruesome prison landscape since early last year, when a U.N. appointed commission issued its own report on North Korean widespread and savage repression of its own citizenry, and the U.N. Security Council for the first time debated whether to refer the Kim regime’s human rights atrocities to the International Criminal Court as crimes against humanity. (The Security Council discussion is ongoing.)
“What we are trying to do is track changes in the prison camp system since then,” David Hawk, author of the CHRNK report, told Fox News. The effort, however, is slow, difficult and almost always lagging behind events, as it can take “two, three or four years” for camp survivors to successfully escape to South Korea after enduring their horrifying experiences.
The CHRNK report focuses specifically on changes at a labor camp in a mountainous region of North Korea’s coastal North Hamgyong province, and at a notorious political prison in neighboring South Hamgyong that is often used for political purge victims from the capital of Pyongyang, and where one section, known as a “re-revolutionizing zone,” was recently demolished—a sign that its inmates have been relocated or otherwise disappeared.
Among other things, the 1,000-women expansion of space at a formerly all-male labor camp likely means that other prisons for women “are overflowing with the arrival of larger numbers of North Korean women forcibly repatriated from China,” Hawk said.
The women are imprisoned for the “crime” of leaving North Korea in the first place, Hawk said, and their return by Chinese authorities is itself considered by the Committee to be a contravention of international humanitarian law, as the women face certain punishment for something normally considered a human right in leaving North Korea in the first place.
The prison expansion is also a sign of the ugly choices facing North Korean women in general. In the past they fled to China largely to escape outright starvation at home, Hawk said. Now some also leave for the less desperate reason of pursuing marginal economic opportunities. Once in China, they are often picked up randomly by police, and detained until “a bus-load” can be driven back to North Korea.
Once back, they are “interrogated, often brutally,” Hawk said. If police decide they have committed no “political offense”—which can include any contact with South Koreans, or with any Christian churches—they are sentenced to anywhere between six months and three years of hard labor and placed in the labor camp system.
That fact alone can be a life-saver, as the families of inmates in the “normal” labor camp system are actually informed of the existence and location of their loved ones, meaning that they can receive additional food supplies when possible—though often it is not.
More importantly, they can eventually be released to their families. In fact, the Committee’s report grimly notes, “many prisoners are released before their sentences are complete, often because of severe malnutrition, so that the prison authorities do not have to dispose of so many dead bodies.”
Others might be released to celebrate such festivities as a Kim family member's birthday or the founding of the Korean Worker’s Party—but more likely, the report notes, to relieve rampant prison overcrowding.
Among the rest, one survivor interviewed for the report relates, “many died of malnutrition and related diseases.”
At the North Hamgyong camp, female prisoners ate starvation-level rations while cutting trees, hauling logs, tending farm animals and, bizarrely, filling orders from Pyongyang for wigs and false eyelashes, using hair that one prisoner thought came from China.
“When they had a ‘production order,’ the wig-sewers would work non-stop day and night until the order was completed,” the report notes. Only the most productive workers were allowed to rest between “production orders.” The rest were sent back, unrested, to heavier tasks.
One former prisoner interviewed for the Committee report helped raise corn by creating fertilizer from human waste mixed with dirt. She ate soup made from corn stocks and beans, and left prison, near death, weighing about 60 lbs.—less than half her arrival weight.
On the other hand, the fact that the Kim regime has been reducing the size of its even more draconian political prisons is not necessarily better news, but possibly worse—and in any case completely unknown.
Detainees in North Korean political prisons are literally non-persons. Their arrest and detention is almost never discussed, and most never leave the prisons once they enter—and even if they do, the fact is marked by silence.
In the case of the South Hamyong prison, however, the section that was demolished in late 2014 was identified by survivors as a “re-revolutionizing zone,” meaning that inmates could eventually return-- if judged to have endured their beatings and hard labor stoically enough-- to North Korean society.
Along with ordinary North Koreans who had run afoul of the regime, it was the most common catch-pool for bureaucrats, army officials and other regime loyalists who had been caught in the regime’s murky internecine squabbles, rivalries and vendettas, and thus stood some chance of being recycled in the next twist of any factional power struggles.
The Committee’s report offers a rare but highly limited insight into the prison section’s population through the recollections of Jung Gwang-il, a North Korean who was sent to the camp in 2002-2003 on suspicion of spying for South Korea while exporting high-quality mushrooms. He was tortured, starved and beaten until he confessed, then released after 10 months.
As it happened, Jung had a photographic memory, and the Committee report includes a list of 181 political prisoners who Jung itemized after his release. In a handful of cases, they are known to have returned to regime jobs. Some died of malnutrition. The majority are simply marked as “unknown.”
As the Committee’s satellite analysis notes, however, the “razing of buildings, or even of an entire section of the camp, does not necessarily mean that the camp has ceased to function as a detention facility.”
Overall, the analysis notes, “up to 120,000 political prisoners detained in North Korea’s ‘hidden gulag’ continue to be subjected to induced malnutrition, forced labor, torture and extra-judicial killings.”
As a result, it adds, “scores of thousands” have died in the camps over the years.
If anything, the analysis notes, “the North Korean regime appears to be stepping up its efforts to conceal the ‘heart of darkness’ of its oppressive system, its political prison camps, from international scrutiny made possible by satellite imagery analysis.”
That sensitivity may be heightened by the fact that, as report author Hawk told Fox News, dictator Kim Jong-un, who took power in late 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, has been purging the ranks of the Worker’s Party, government bureaucracy and armed forces at a greatly increased rate.
His father’s top loyalists have been among the main victims—including Kim’s uncle by marriage, Jang Sung Taek.
Despite small measures of economic reform, Hawk says, the regime’s behavior “is as bad as ever. It’s still the same old system except more purges.”