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Absolute Must Read: Washington Post on North Korea’s Concentration Camps

At last.  The Washington Post has done a truly detailed, comprehensive, well-researched story on North Korea’s concentration camps.  It’s a story that the Post wouldn’t have done had Anthony Faiola or Glenn Kessler been doing the reporting; Blaine Harden deserves much credit for writing what deserves to become a major exhibit in the indictment of our State Department for its culpable complicity.  The satellite imagery of the camps features prominently in the story.

(Disclosure:  I provided Mr. Harden and one of the Post’s News Designers with research assistance for this story — imagery, coordinates, put them in touch with David Hawk, and engaged in much discussion with them about what the evidence does and does not support.  You’ll see OFK and also, our good friend Curtis, linked and credited at this excellent interactive graphic, which may be the best part of the story.)

This is one you’ll want to read in its entirety.

I’ll add just two observations.  First, does this sound like someone who ever had any business being in charge of America’s leading organization advocating human rights in North Korea?

Containing that crisis has monopolized the Obama administration’s dealings with North Korea. The camps, for the time being, are a non-issue. “Unfortunately, until we get a handle on the security threat, we can’t afford to deal with human rights,” said Peter Beck, a former executive director of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

This is tough.  I know Peter well, and I also like Peter a lot personally despite our disagreements on policy matters, but really, no person who feels that human rights should take a back seat to everything else should ever have sought or held a position of leadership in the world’s leading organization advocating human rights in North Korea (Peter has since gone on to a great gig at Stanford, and I wish him well there).  Didn’t it ever occur to Peter that we couldn’t inspect North Korea’s nuclear test site, for example, without asking who dug the tunnels, or how many of them there are?  Or why we ought to be distrustful of what North Korean scientists tell interviewers, or why else North Korea would be so resistant to inspections on demand?  There are defensible arguments for why discussions about human rights should be deferred, but you can’t lead HRNK effectively and still believe them.

I’ll close with a thought evoked by this quote:

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.

The first one to make that observation, of course, was Senator Sam Brownback, when he said that “Google Earth has made witnesses of us all.”  Brownback was the first person of any national prominence to see the moral and policy significance of these images, and it’s not as if flogging this issue is going to get Brownback any votes in Kansas.  We’re a schizophrenic country to ask ourselves, as we often do, why more politicans don’t lead on matters of principle when we so seldom reward those who do.  Yet the vast majority of journalists, bloggers, and commenters who’ve covered Senator Brownback’s one-man delaying action against the State Department’s attempts to sideline any discussion of these death camps have treated Brownback with a snark that’s been out of its depth both factually and morally.  What Brownback has done is in America’s very best, most conscientious traditions, and it’s worthy of our profound admiration.  That’s no less true of those of us who don’t share all of his views on social issues.  Events have redeemed Sam Brownback, and the least that Chris Nelson, Joe Klein, and the rest of them should do is admit that it was they who were wrong about how to deal with North Korea.

Clarification: By crediting Senator Brownback for being the first to recognize the significance of these images, of course, I mean these specific images. I certainly don’t mean to take anything from David Hawk, who paved the way for all of this.


  1. Fantastic review of this article.
    I must admit I was wondering why this article was written. HRNK published a booklet with satellite imagery of all the gulags several years ago. However I am glad it was written and thank you so much for contributing to it.
    I’ve been a huge fan of Senator Brownback since I saw him in Seoul Train.


  2. beggars can’t be choosers and i’ll take whatever i can get.

    i hope the spotlight on NK’s brutal gulags don’t die down. we need more awareness. and just like the blaine harden’s article says, we don’t have the glamorous actresses/actors creating publicity about this horror.

    i would have loved it if oprah would have brought it on her show about this topic to help her friend Lisa Ling, but obviously her ‘godson’ Obama and the State Dept. wants to keep wraps on this.

    i remember when i was a kid and i put a ‘free mandela’ sticker on my surfboard. why? because my favorite professional surfer at that time had one on his and my favorite band at that time, U2, also supported it.

    i just wish that type of awareness would grow.

    it’ll probably die down and the normal person will be ignorant about it, but there is hope.

    at least there was a good op-ed on it in the latimes too.,1,5946688.column



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