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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Slave to the Blog: Prison Camp Edition

by | July 19th, 2013 | 07:00 am

We have noticed a few stories in recent weeks on the prison camp issue that warrant brief mention. Roberta Cohen has done a piece for the Asan Institute    suggesting that the most egregious violations of human rights—those taking place in the prison camps—should be the focal point for human rights policy toward the country. Documentation is one focus of such efforts. Tucked away in a little-noted State Department Report on International Prison Conditions released last month (.pdf here) was the information that State has partnered with an unnamed South Korean NGO to interview refugees specifically on prison camp conditions; the ultimate objective is to push a dialogue on the issue.

The relevant section from the report states:

“In addition, abusive authorities often intimidate or degrade prisoners as a technique to exert control over or punish political prisoners. In North Korea, political detainees are routinely subjected to systematic physical and psychological mistreatment. According to numerous defector accounts and NGO reports, prisoners experience severe beatings, electric shock, public nakedness, confinement in small immobile cells, and the coercion of mothers to watch infanticide of their newborns.

We forgot to mention the annual release in April of the Department of State Human Rights Report on the DPRK; it has chilling things to say as well and has more extensive treatment of the prison camp system as well as the risks of arbitrary detention at the hands of the police state. The following is well-known, but the conclusion of life expectancy bears restating:

“Reports indicated that conditions in the prison camp and detention system were harsh and life threatening and systematic and severe human rights abuses occurred. Many prisoners in political prison camps and the detention system were not expected to survive. Detainees and prisoners consistently reported violence and torture. Defectors described witnessing public executions in political prison camps. According to defectors in some places of detention, prisoners received little or no food and were denied medical care. Sanitation was poor, and former labor camp inmates reported they had no changes of clothing during their incarceration and were rarely able to bathe or wash their clothing.”

This information will no doubt feed into the UN Commission of Inquiry. We provided our analysis of the CoI here, but forgot to mention David Hawk’s excellent analysis that provides a background on the road to the CoI at 38North. Hawk was the author of The Hidden Gulag—the first report to exploit satellite imagery—which was updated last year. An interesting feature of the Committee’s work has been an ongoing partnership with DigitalGlobe Analytics, which has monitored developments in several of the camps using satellite imagery; those reports are available here.

In the meantime, Kenneth Bae continues to languish in North Korean captivity. Two weeks ago, he gave an interview to Choson Sinbo, a Japanese paper sympathetic to Pyongyang; VoA covered the story.  Such access was not doubt orchestrated by the regime to see if there was any market for yet another envoy; we have discussed the detainee-envoy dynamic before, but at the time there does not see to be much interest that we can see.

Cohen also reminded us that the flow of refugees out of the country has dropped dramatically, although we do not have any data from the MOU yet for 2013. In 2011, 2,706 refugees entered the South; in 2012 this dropped to 1,509. It is a virtual certainty that this has resulted from the crackdown on the border and that detention centers housing captured escapees are likely housing more detainees as a result. As we found in Witness to Transformation, conditions in short-term detention facilities and “labor training” camps can be as bad as in the larger political prison camps.

The challenge, however, is to figure out what to do about it. In a subsequent post, we will review a new book by Emilie Hafner-Burton called Making Human Rights a Reality. One issue raised by this must-read overview of the international human rights regime is the debate over the utility of  “naming and shaming.” On the one hand, documentation and memory are critical, even long after the fact; we need to have a record. On the other hand, in the absence of concerted pressure—which is frequently difficult to sustain—we need to be thinking about alternative processes of human rights engagement. One would be something like the Helsinki process that would address a full array of issues and have at least nominal buy-in from Pyongyang on human rights concerns. Another option would be raise the idea of a bilateral human rights dialogue, such as that which we now have with China. North Korea has already dismissed the CoI out of hand. But the process should continually stress the willingness of the international community to be proven wrong, which can only be done by providing access. The penal system—including not only the gulags but the “labor training” facilities—are a perfect place to start.