Unseen by the outside world, North Korea runs vast prison camps of unspeakable cruelty
Life in North Korea's secret gulag is getting some overdue attention, however. In April, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights for the first time condemned Pyongyang for "systemic, widespread and grave" rights violations. A watchdog group, the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, is planning to highlight the abuses in an extensive report this summer, and the U.S. Senate held hearings this month that touched on the gulag. The Bush administration is also focusing on the camps--and uncovering new detail about their surprising scope. Despite North Korea's denials, says a senior State Department official privy to intelligence, "there's lots of proof."
Depraved. Early in the Bush administration, a U.S. spy satellite was assigned to shoot high-resolution pictures from space of one camp in mountainous northeastern North Korea. At first, officials were mystified: Where were the camp's fences? They repeatedly ordered the satellite to expand the frame of its pictures. Finally, a senior administration official tells U.S. News, the perimeter was located, revealing a camp larger in size than the District of Columbia, with clusters of buildings that look like villages. "If you look at a map of North Korea, it would not be just a dot on the map. It's a perceptible portion of the map," says the official. "There's a general lack of understanding of how depraved the human-rights situation in North Korea is," the official says, predicting that "the horrors that will come out" will rival those of Cambodia in the 1970s.
The camps have also grabbed the attention of President Bush--and seem to have buttressed his instinct for a hard-line response to North Korea's nuclear cheating. In an interview with Bob Woodward for his book Bush at War, the president vented an unusually visceral reaction toward North Korea's all-powerful leader. "I loathe Kim Jong Il!" he shouted, leaning forward in his chair. "I have seen intelligence of these prison camps--they're huge--that he uses to break up families, and to torture people." Bush's moral revulsion isn't a passing mood. It has come up as well in private conversation with Brownback. "I think it's why the president is after Kim Jong Il: It's how he [Kim] treats his own people," Brownback tells U.S. News. "It really galls him."
And yet, stories from the North Korean gulag receive surprisingly little attention in South Korea and elsewhere. Investigations by human-rights groups have been hobbled by the relative lack of witnesses and the barriers to corroborating reports of abuses. Of all the people who have been confined in or worked at the camps, only about 10 are known to have escaped the North and told their stories. And human-rights monitors, along with many South Koreans, feel burned by the manipulation of past reports on North Korea by South Korean intelligence.
The South Korean government has also turned the spotlight away from the North Korean gulag. The South's "sunshine policy" of reaching out to the North seeks to avoid confrontation with Kim Jong Il in favor of encouraging Pyongyang to open up to the world. When then South Korean President Kim Dae Jung flew to Pyongyang in 2000 for a groundbreaking summit with Kim Jong Il, the onetime political prisoner and later Nobel Peace Prize winner didn't say a word to the North Korean dictator about human rights. South Korea's new president, former human-rights lawyer Roh Moo Hyun, accepts that logic. The thinking, say aides, is that the North might cancel talks on nuclear and other issues if challenged on its political prisons. "This is not the right time to press upon Kim Jong Il," says Yoo Jay Kun, a legislator who has advised Roh. "The sunshine policy will provide a harvest later on."