Unseen by the outside world, North Korea runs vast prison camps of unspeakable cruelty
That hope doesn't impress many human-rights activists. "The defectors are politically inconvenient," says Tim Peters, the founder of Helping Hands Korea, a Seoul-based group that helps North Korean refugees make their way to the South. "They're not consonant with the sunshine policy," a tenet of which, he argues, is "Don't offend the Kim Jong Il regime." One result is public indifference. Young South Koreans, Peters says, "are woefully ignorant of the gulag in North Korea."
But those who endured the camps are anything but indifferent. They describe a level of savagery that satellite photographs can never convey. Nor does the Orwellian terminology for the camps reveal much. Political prisons are called "management centers." Those centers, in turn, are divided into two categories: "complete control zones," with life imprisonment, and "revolutionizing process zones," from where some inmates, principally family members, might eventually return to society. The prisoners are banally referred to as "resettlers." Other camps, dubbed "re-education" places, lump together common criminals and political prisoners.
The horror of the North Korean gulag is compounded by the trivial offenses that can draw such punishment: listening to foreign radio, accidentally sitting on a newspaper photo of Kim Jong Il, or making a heedlessly candid remark. Most prisoners, recalls Ahn, "made one small mistake." One was arrested after singing a South Korean pop song titled, "Don't Cry for Me, Younger Sister." The unlucky woman, says David Hawk, a researcher for the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, learned the tune from watching a North Korean propaganda film but was nonetheless accused of disturbing the public socialist order. Often, individuals and even whole families are whisked away from their homes in the dead of night and packed off to camps. Says Hawk, a veteran of human-rights probes in Cambodia and Rwanda, "I don't know of a country in the world today that's as repressive as North Korea. I believe it's the worst."
Rule by terror. The camps serve as a frightening, if mysterious, deterrent to anti-Communist activity. North Koreans receive few details about the gulag--but enough is known that parents see fit to warn their children to keep family opinions to themselves. "There were rumors that nobody can get out," says Soon Young Bum, a 46-year-old fishing boat captain from North Korea who brought his family to freedom last August. Adds Benjamin Yoon, a leader of the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, "We call North Korea a prison state. It's rule by terror."
The camps also generate funds for a cash-strapped regime whose economy has shrunk by about half since 1990. Prisoners mine coal, harvest trees, and manufacture goods for export and domestic consumption--from snake brandy to bicycles. They gather the roots of plants used for traditional medicines, some destined for sale in Japan. The hot pepper sauce from Ahn's camp at Hoeryong sits on the tables at Pyongyang's Koryo Hotel, where westerners stay. Ahn likens the camps to Nazi-run Auschwitz. The survivors agree. "It was," concludes one, Lee Young Kook, "a system to kill us."