North Korea’s Gulags
“It is now known that every home in the country has a portrait of the “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung and the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il. Inspectors visit homes to hand out fines and admonishments if the portraits are not well kept. Every government building and subway car displays the two portraits, and every adult citizen wears a button of Kim Il Sung. Movies and propaganda constantly repeat the blessings bestowed on them by the two Kims. The veneration required is so complete that the former North Koreans interviewed for this report did not believe that religious activity was permitted because, among other reasons, it would be perceived as a threat to the government’s authority.” – Michael Cromartie, Commissioner of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom
OVERVIEW. Soon after the Korean War, Kim Il Sung, North Korean dictator from 1948 until his death in 1994 and father of Kim Jong Il, executed a number of Korean revolutionaries, establishing a zero-tolerance for dissent.23 Kim Il Sung established North Korea’s gulags or internment / concentration camps for similar reasons. These camps imprisoned alleged political traitors from the War and were used as both punishment and propaganda to terrify North Koreans into absolute commitment to the regime. State opposition became unacceptable.
Kim Il Sung also erected intricate loyalty groups that dictated an individual’s class and privileges by classifying individuals according to their national allegiance, lineage, ancestral actions during the Korean War, and familial actions at-present. These loyalty class categories included: the “core class” of elites (haeksim kyechung), the “wavering class” (ton’yo kyechung), and the “hostile class” (joktae kyechung).24
To this day, national surveillance systems constantly policed ideology, nationalism, and state reverence. Threats to the regime, no matter how minor or unfounded, included: hints of dissatisfaction, ungratefulness, individuality, or the non-reporting of family or neighbors exhibiting signs of defection. Even during the catastrophic famine in the 1990s, North Koreans were punished for hunger coping strategies, including searching for local food, migrating to areas with greater food access, and eating alternative food supplements, such as tree bark. Thus, movement was criminalized as political defection, likely because movement in search of food suggests a distrust of the “great leader’s” promise and ability to provide. Today, free movement outside of North Korea is restricted. North Koreans fleeing their country into China are arrested, deported, and either executed or immediately sent to North Korea’s gulags.
The internment camps operate under a “guilt-by-association” system (yeon-jwa-je), which means that extended family members of the accused – for up to three generations – are also punished.25 This punishment-by-lineage system exploits the significance of familial bonds and personal sacrifice within Korean culture, and empowers Kim Jong Il’s regime to persecute by birthright and to exert discipline and control through fear of such persecution.
There are several types of prisons that have fluctuated in capacity and severity over the past half-century. Satellite images of North Korea’s gulags are posted in NKN’s Film & Photo section, under Photographs of North Korea’s Gulags. These images were collected and published by David Hawk and the Commission for Human Rights in North Korea in 2003 (HRNK).
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THE KWAN-LI-SO. are gulags or concentration camps that, as of 2003, unlawfully detained approximately 200,000 North Koreans in a total of six to eight camps located in remote valleys guarded by high mountains, namely in the country’s northern provinces. The kwan-li-so violate international law on multiple grounds and constitute crimes against humanity through forced internment, as well as through the crimes that occur in the kwan-li-so, which include: forced labor, torture, rape, forced abortion, starvation, and death without charge or trial.
North Koreans are most commonly imprisoned in these internment camps for their alleged political defection, which includes the happenstance of an individual’s lineage or ancestry, flight to China, or for any perceived challenge to Kim Jong Il’s regime. Entire families may be abducted and imprisoned because of their biological relationship to an alleged defector. The process of imprisonment or internment thus violates international law by violating the basic human rights to liberty and security, non-discrimination, privacy, free thought, free movement, and judicial protection.
Once abducted and imprisoned, the accused are held for an undetermined period, often for life. Conditions within the camps have been that of near- or total-starvation, particularly in times of national food deficit. Prisoners are given just enough food to hover over starvation and death or they receive no food and scavenge the campgrounds for plants, grass, tree bark, rats, and snakes. The detained victims are forced into hard labor, such as mining, logging, and wood-cutting. Such intense and forced labor is nearly impossible for the detained victims, given their extreme malnutrition and hunger. Slowness of work or an inability to complete one’s task will increase a prisoner’s punishment. Similarly, any attempts to escape are met with torturous ramifications, including: additional reduction or elimination of food rations, public execution by hanging or firing squad, and prolonged detention in boxes so small that prisoners cannot lie down or stand up, causing loss of circulation or limb-atrophy that often leads to death within weeks.
Detained victims very rarely exit North Korea’s internment camps through escape or random release. Most commonly, their exit is by death.
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