North Korea’s large political concentration camps have rightly received outside attention, most notably in the work of David Hawk and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. However, one of the findings of our work on the North Korean penal system—in Witness to Transformation and in Political Science Quarterly—is the pervasive role of the labor training camps. In a fascinating new study for the Council on Foreign Relations called “Challenge to China”, Jerome Cohen—the dean of Chinese legal studies—and Margaret Lewis call on China to uphold the recent plenum pledge to eliminate their variant of the system. They do so by showing how Taiwan dismantled a surprisingly similar system, and only quite recently. (Cohen and Lewis offer a summary of their argument in the South China Morning Post.)
From a legal point of view, the central problem with the Chinese (and North Korean) labor training system is not only the mistreatment of prisoners, but the absence of judicial process. In China, the security forces and police have the authority to sentence anyone for as much as three years of detention—with possible extensions—without the approval of a prosecutor or any court. Abolishing the labor detention system would weaken the discretion of the security apparatus and strengthen the criminal justice system. Needless to say, the Ministry of Public Security has fought a rearguard action by offering up marginal reforms to pre-empt a shift in authority toward the courts.
The most striking feature of the Cohen-Lewis study is how long it took Taiwan—a thriving democracy—to eliminate its inherited variant of labor training. Taiwan’s “technical training institutes” were used for re-educating “hooligans” but had in the past swept up opposition figures as well. The battle to undo this system proved surprisingly long-lived, and took action by NGOs, increasingly independent legal professionals, and collaboration among Taiwan’s executive, legislative and judicial branches. In the end, it was a series of rulings by Taiwan’s constitutional court that contributed to the system’s unraveling; needless to say, neither China nor North Korea has a supreme judicial body capable of acting independently of the party. Whether the National People’s Congress endorsement of the plenum statement will constitute adequate authority to begin the process in China remains to be seen, but Cohen and Lewis are at least hopeful that the battle will now be joined.
The lower levels of the North Korean penal system are similarly rife with abuse. The so-called jip-kyul-so or “collection centers” house low-or misdemeanor-level criminals for periods of up to six months of hard labor. The cases handled by the “collection centers” include those whose crimes are not serious enough for the kyo-hwa-so penitentiaries for felons, but too serious to send off to to the lower-level labor training camps. Examples would include violating a designated or restricted area or overstaying travel permits.
At the very bottom of the penal system is the explosive growth of the ro-dong-dan-ryeon-dae or labor training centers, a network of facilities that dates to the 1990s. The labor training centers were not initially a statutory feature of the penal system. Rather, they emerged as an ad hoc response on the part of authorities to the fraying of socialist control during the famine and in its immediate aftermath, including unauthorized movement, black-market activity, border-crossing, and the other economic crimes listed above.
The ro-dong-dan-ryeon-dae labor training centers are operated at the municipal level and constitute mobile labor brigades of relatively small numbers of prisoners—30 to 60—typically held for less than six months in small, minimally guarded and fenceless compounds. If not apprehended locally, these prisoners have already been through interrogations and have been shipped back to their hometowns for final release. Detainees do road repair, construction, and substitute for the lack of other forms of energy and transport in the face of shortages, for example, by pushing train cars.
From 2001, this sort of labor training emerged as the preferred sentence for dealing not only with petty crimes but also for the growing range of economic crimes as well. Labor training centers have played a particularly important role in the management of those caught crossing the border or repatriated from China.
The most striking finding of our surveys was the level of abuse in these two lower tiers of the penal system. Nearly half of our respondents reported seeing executions, roughly three quarters report forced starvation, and nearly a third report witnessing deaths from beatings and torture. Moreover, these levels of violence were witnessed despite the generally shorter periods of incarceration in these lower-level facilities; the mean period of incarceration in both types of facility was in the range of one month to one year. The conclusion is clear: the large political concentration camps are only the tip of a very much larger iceberg.
We are not holding our breath on the reform of these systems; if anything, the new regime seems to be cracking down on certain offenses seen to carry risk, such as border-crossing. Nonetheless, this as an excellent issue for the Commission of Inquiry and the human rights community to press on North Korea. By telling the surprising story of Taiwan, Cohen and Lewis provide a roadmap for how this crucial aspect of the police state could be rolled back in favor of rule of law.