July 20, 2009

The Gulag of Our Time

I'm about a third of the way through Bradley K. Martin's epic tome Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.

Under the Loving Care.jpg

Just about everything you ever wanted to know – and a whole lot more – about the most oppressive country on the face of the earth can be found in that book. Sometimes it's hard to believe a country so thoroughly totalitarian still exists in this world.

Not much journalism comes out of the so-called "hermit kingdom." The Washington Post, though, just published a gruesome expose on its forced labor camps.

A distillation of testimony from survivors and former guards, newly published by the Korean Bar Association, details the daily lives of 200,000 political prisoners estimated to be in the camps: Eating a diet of mostly corn and salt, they lose their teeth, their gums turn black, their bones weaken and, as they age, they hunch over at the waist. Most work 12- to 15-hour days until they die of malnutrition-related illnesses, usually around the age of 50. Allowed just one set of clothes, they live and die in rags, without soap, socks, underclothes or sanitary napkins.

The camps have never been visited by outsiders, so these accounts cannot be independently verified. But high-resolution satellite photographs, now accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, reveal vast labor camps in the mountains of North Korea. The photographs corroborate survivors' stories, showing entrances to mines where former prisoners said they worked as slaves, in-camp detention centers where former guards said uncooperative prisoners were tortured to death and parade grounds where former prisoners said they were forced to watch executions. Guard towers and electrified fences surround the camps, photographs show.

"We have this system of slavery right under our nose," said An Myeong Chul, a camp guard who defected to South Korea. "Human rights groups can't stop it. South Korea can't stop it. The United States will have to take up this issue at the negotiating table."

But the camps have not been discussed in meetings between U.S. diplomats and North Korean officials. By exploding nuclear bombs, launching missiles and cultivating a reputation for hair-trigger belligerence, the government of Kim Jong Il has created a permanent security flash point on the Korean Peninsula -- and effectively shoved the issue of human rights off the negotiating table.

"Talking to them about the camps is something that has not been possible," said David Straub, a senior official in the State Department's office of Korean affairs during the Bush and Clinton years. There have been no such meetings since President Obama took office.

"They go nuts when you talk about it," said Straub, who is now associate director of Korean studies at Stanford University.

Nor have the camps become much of an issue for the American public, even though annotated images of them can be quickly called up on Google Earth and even though they have existed for half a century, 12 times as long as the Nazi concentration camps and twice as long as the Soviet Gulag. Although precise numbers are impossible to obtain, Western governments and human groups estimate that hundreds of thousands of people have died in the North Korean camps.

You can read the whole thing here. Even better, you can buy Martin's exhaustive book here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at July 20, 2009 2:21 PM

So, what if...

I doubt there's an openly Communist nation anywhere that could get North Korea's attention the way China could. What if China were to put it to Fatherly Leader that such over-the-top oppression is counter-productive to the Communist ideal of world domination?

Posted by: gus3 Author Profile Page at July 20, 2009 9:05 PM

Bradley Martin's book is great: I reviewed it here.

qus3: the crucial question is what serves Kim family domination, not any wider alleged purposes of revolutionary socialism. Now, if you could convince Kim II that the family domain could be better managed for the benefit of the Kim family, you might get somewhere. But it is hard to see how the Kim family could achieve any higher levels of luxury or control. You would have to work on fears of losing control, but change is probably much more frightening for that than leaving things as they are.

Posted by: Lorenzo Author Profile Page at July 21, 2009 5:46 AM

Just put in a request at my local library to reserve this book for me. Thanks, Michael!

Posted by: ElMondo Author Profile Page at July 21, 2009 5:54 AM

Although the administration has made a far bigger fuss about Honduras lately, I did read Hillary's concerns about the dangerous relationship between Burma and North Korea. If she is making this public we can imagine what is really going on.

UNfortunately, without any teeth to UN mandates, I don't see us interdicting delivery of illegal materials. I wouldn't call what we did to the last NK ship bound for Burma, "interdiction".

And we don't hear much about those two American reporters being held in North Korea anymore.

Human Rights don't matter like they once did to Democrats unless it figures into the partisan equation. Nor do we hear much from Ms. Power. I don't believe Jimmy Carter has paid North Korea a visit, though he has found time to speak to Assad, Hamas and Hizb'Allah after declaring his trip to Sudan had revealed no genocide.

Our concern for the plight of the North Koreans are hitting a low as anyting that hints of conflict is pushed far from the headlines.

Posted by: maxtrue Author Profile Page at July 21, 2009 9:37 AM

Andrei Lankov reccomends the book too. This is a very interesting interview with him (add the http prefix):



One of the peculiarities of North Korea used to be the existence of a clearly defined system of hereditary groups. For every North Korean his or her chances of social promotion, choice of residence, quality of job and so on was largely defined by his or her family background in this hereditary system. If your grandfather used to be a landlord under the Japanese, you would be discriminated against for the rest of your life. You wouldn’t be allowed to live in any big city and you would have serious trouble getting admitted to any prestigious college. In fact you would never be admitted at all. There used to be 51 groups. Membership to each group was defined by what the ancestors of a particular person used to do before 1945 or during the Korean war. There were privileged groups, like the descendants of the people who died during the Korean war. The most privileged group were descendants of the anti-Japanese guerrillas, members of the armed resistance to the occupation and at the same time there were groups that were reviled like the descendants of the landlords, descendants of the Catholics, of the local Shamans and the like.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn Author Profile Page at July 21, 2009 9:48 AM

This really is just repulsive.

Posted by: ikez78 Author Profile Page at July 21, 2009 10:09 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Read my blog on Kindle


Recommended Reading