Your Money or Your Life: WaPo on North Korea’s Gulag Shake Down

The Washington Post’s terrific Blaine Harden has written a must-read story, based in large part on the research of Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard, about an ugly new turn of events in North Korea’s gulag system.

North Korea’s infamous penal system, which for decades has silenced political dissent with slave labor camps, has evolved into a mechanism for extorting money from citizens trading in private markets, according to surveys of more than 1,600 North Korean refugees.

Reacting to an explosive rise in market activity, North Korea has criminalized everyday market behavior and created a new kind of gulag for those it deems economic criminals, according to a report on the refugee surveys. It will be released this week by the East-West Center, a research organization established by Congress to promote understanding of Asia.

The report says security forces in North Korea have broad discretion to detain without trial nearly anyone who buys or sells in the local markets, which have become a key source of food for a poor population that suffers from chronic malnutrition. Yet if traders can pay bribes, security officials will often leave them alone, the report says.

“This is a system for shaking people down,” said Marcus Noland, co-author of the report and deputy director of the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics. “It really looks like the work of a gang, a kind of ‘Soprano’ state. But it succeeds in keeping people repressed.”  [Washington Post, Blaine Harden]

What society has ever targeted the poor for extermination like this?  There certainly must be an element of individual extortion by corrupt men with absolute power here, but there is also a systematic element to it.  After all, someone is making the prison space available — one way or another — and clearly, there is a deliberate, politically motivated design to terrorize the population:

The system snares economic criminals for brief terms in makeshift labor camps where inmates often witness executions and deaths from torture and starvation, according to the report.

“People witness truly horrible things and are soon released back into the population,” Noland said in an interview here.

Revolving-door incarceration has spread fear of what goes on inside the camps, he said, creating “tremendous incentives for people to pay bribes to avoid them.”

Let’s unpack who the victims of this predatory new system really are.  Two kinds of people are trading in North Korea’s black market — low-songbun people who have been written out of the ration system and are just trying to survive, and people with connections to the state, who are essentially profiteers.  Presumably, if arrested, most of the latter group can afford to buy their own lives back from the security forces, while most of the former can’t.  A system that used to just starve the expendable, finding that process too inefficient, now murders them.  And whether this development is driven by a systematic top-down policy, individual corruption, or (most likely) a combination of both, that is the effect.

Harden refers to North Korea’s denial that the camps even exist, or that North Korea has any human rights problems at all, contrasting that with the existence of high-resolution imagery of the camps that’s “widely available on the internet.”  There will be more where that came from soon enough.  I’m pleased to say that I’ve been working closely with David Hawk and a terrific Korean-American researcher (I’m not sure she’d want me to print her name) to get witness confirmation for more camp locations and imagery.Here’s one that I’m particularly keen on confirming.  I suspect, but cannot yet prove, that this is kwan-li-so number 25, just outside the northeastern city of Chongjin.  Unlike the other five kwan-li-so camps, it’s built in the “penitentiary” style — walls and towers, rather than a large expanse of fenced countryside — that is usually seen with the smaller kyo-hwa-so camps.  Camp 25 is also the factory where kalmaegi (seagull) bicycles are made:

chongjin.jpg      chongjin-site.jpg

The North Koreans are nothing if not consistent in their prison architecture.  Note the walls and guard towers, and contrast them to the images of kyo-hwa-so number 1 at Kaechon, and kyo-hwa-so number 12 at Chongo-ri, my own recent discovery, which witnesses still have not corroborated, but which I believe they will.  We also chipped in and bought some high-resolution imagery of Camp 12, which show the walls and guard towers in much sharper detail:camp-12-joshs-guess-500-feet.jpg

The images come via Digital Globe.
A witness, when questioned about the Chongo-ri camp’s location, identified a different location on the same side of the same road, but 3 1/2 miles to the North.  On closer examination, that site simply didn’t match other detailed witness descriptions, nor did it contain buildings consistent with a prison camp.  I still believe this is the site, but it will take time to make contact with witnesses who claim to have actually been inside the camp.

In another case, however, the witnesses are not telling me what I’d expected to hear, and I think, on further consideration, that they are right and I was wrong.  At my request, Hawk asked a former resident of Hamhung to confirm that the objects I’d identified as graves really were graves.  The witness reported that he’d recently been to some of the locations and saw only orchards, not graves.  On further examination, I suspect he may be right.  As a result, I’m going to append a note to that post stating that I am no longer confident that all of the images in that post show graves at all.  Given the challenges of revealing what North Korea doesn’t want us to know about, I can only follow the best evidence available to me. I am confident, however, that by establishing new links to North Korean defectors themselves, I’ll be able to reveal more information, and what I reveal will be more accurate, more revealing, and more relevant to what our policy toward North Korea should be.