Category Archives: The Camps

N. Korean biowar researcher defects, will testify about human experimentation

[Update, 4 Aug 2015: I inquired with well-connected friends in Europe about when this testimony was likely to take place. Those friends instead questioned the accuracy of Yonhap’s report. Last week, I wrote to a Yonhap correspondent, and asked whether Yonhap stands by the story. Although the correspondent passed my question along to the author of this report, I have not heard back from Yonhap. The lack of a response is further reason to question the accuracy of Yonhap’s story.]

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A long-time reader emailed me this afternoon (thank you) to point me to this story in the U.S. edition of the Korea Times, which in turn cites a potentially explosive, game-changing report hiding in Yonhap’s business section. According to the report, a North Korean scientist has defected to Finland with some of his government’s most carefully guarded secrets: a storage device, probably a flash drive, filled with 15 gigabytes of “human experiment results.”

The 47-year-old researcher, identified only by his surname Lee, at a microbiology research center in Ganggye, Chagang Province, bordered by China to the north, fled to the European country on June 6 via the Philippines, said the source from a North Korean human rights group.

“His ostensible reason for defection is that he felt skeptical about his research,” the source told Yonhap News Agency.

Lee held a data storage device with 15 gigabytes of information on human experiments in order to bring North Korea’s inhumane tests to light, according to the source.

The North Korean defector will give testimony before the European parliament later this month. [Yonhap]

Depending on what the researcher’s information is and how credible it is, it could be of incalculable value to our understanding of Pyongyang’s asymmetric warfare capabilities—and also, of other, infinitely more important things about this regime.

For years, newspapers had published defectors’ unconfirmed allegations of chemical and biological experiments in North Korean prison camps (see here, here, here, and here). Of these allegations, the best known are the reports of a gas chamber at the since-closed Camp 22.

The account that Mr. Lee’s disclosure most closely resembles, because it alleges the use of biochemical weapons, is that of Lee Soon-Ok. I’d long harbored doubts about Ms. Lee’s account because of internal inconsistencies I saw in versions of her story I read at long-dead links. The new evidence may call for us to reexamine her story:

North Korea is suspected of having weaponized smallpox and anthrax, which is why your correspondent endured the small discomfort of seven anthrax vaccination injections (it would have been six had I not misplaced my shot record one day) and the low-grade fever that followed each of them.

If this witness presents credible evidence supporting North Korea’s responsibility for additional crimes against humanity, it will strengthen the calls for Kim Jong-Un’s indictment by the International Criminal Court, or failing that—and thanks to China, it will fail—the formation of an ad hoc coalition to raise the financial pressure on Kim Jong-Un and his regime. The revelations will give the UNHCR’s Seoul Field Office an important question to investigate, shortly after its opening. Politically, the EU’s active involvement in publicizing the new evidence would be a welcome departure from the ambivalence European nations have often harbored about holding Pyongyang accountable.

One wonders how much sooner this witness, and others like him, might have emerged from North Korea had Congress enacted the North Korea Freedom Act of 2003, with its informant asylum provisions in Sections 206 and 207. Perhaps that proposal could be revived if, one day, there’s still need for a North Korean Freedom Act of 2016.

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Forgive Shin Dong Hyok the man, but not Shin Dong Hyok the activist

What had always puzzled me the most about Shin Dong Hyok’s account of growing up in and escaping from Camp 14 was how someone raised in such isolation from the rules of North Korean society could have had the resources and survival skills to infiltrate all the way from the Taedong River to the Chinese border, and then successfully cross it. How did he replace his prisoner clothing? How did he find money to bribe railroad police and border guards? What did he eat?

In my post on Camp 14, I linked to a video where Shin was asked those questions (see 49 minutes in). I wrote that Shin’s answers didn’t quite satisfy me, but I offered no opinion as to the veracity of his account. Although those questions were never answered to my satisfaction, including in Shin’s book, I had no basis to call him a liar, either. I decided to let the readers judge for themselves.

In one way, Shin’s admission that he lied about growing up in Camp 14 might answer those questions. Shin now says that he was transferred across the river to Camp 18 when he was six. Until its fences were taken down, Camp 18, as horrible a place as it was, was the least brutal of North Korea’s largest camps. In Camp 18, or perhaps in another kind of camp called a kyo-hwa-so, Shin could have acquired the materials and survival skills necessary to infiltrate through the world’s most policed state. That Shin did that much is still beyond serious question. On balance, I still think it’s likely that Shin spent some time in a camp. People I trust have seen the scars on his back, and he has other injuries consistent with torture and child labor.

(Update: in the comments, Curtis points out that North Korea has unintentionally acknowledged that Shin was in Camp 18 as a child. Thanks to Curtis, as always, for his exceptional detective work.)

But none of that means we should ever trust Shin again. Once a witness perjures himself, no responsible advocate can ever call him to testify again, and most courts would instruct the jurors to disregard his testimony in its entirety. I’ve met Shin, and although I couldn’t bring myself to ask him about Camp 14, he’s clearly a bright and energetic young man. In some other capacity, he can still have a great future. As an activist, however, his credibility is gone. No man matters more than the truth itself.

What troubles me most about Shin’s admission won’t be Pyongyang’s crowings, or those of North Korea’s noisy sympathizers — the tendentious and unreadable Marxist academics, the cleverer ones who argue from ignorance, the mendacious profiteers, or the combustible know-nothings — although that’s something we can all look forward to. Smart and fair-minded people will continue to ignore these people, because they can see that the weight of the witness testimony and satellite imagery is still overwhelming. Shin isn’t the only witness from Camp 14, and his admissions don’t alter our understanding of the other camps in the slightest. Indeed, Shin’s account gained the prominence it did because it was an outlier.

Of course, not all people are smart or fair-minded, and the world’s more simplistic thinkers will conclude from this that all of the survivors are liars. Many of them already wanted to conclude as much.

As much as this troubles me, what troubles me much more is how much this admission will hurt the kind-hearted people I know and call my friends, who embraced Shin as a son or a brother. At this moment, they’re the ones whose pain I feel the most. Shin the man, the friend, the adopted son and brother, can be forgiven, but Shin the activist can’t be. And no matter how much of his account you’re still willing to accept as true, those he has hurt the most are the millions of North Koreans, including thousands of camp inmates, who remain in North Korea, and who might yet be saved if the world unites to act on their behalf.

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Update: To put a finer point on it, Shin is one of 25,000 refugees to come out of North Korea, including dozens who have described crimes against humanity in multiple prison camps. The U.N. Commission of Inquiry did not accuse North Korea of crimes against humanity based on the account of one man, but on the testimony of 80 witnesses and experts, and on 240 confidential interviews with victims and other witnesses. The press accounts suggest that it was some of those other witnesses who forced Shin to come clean. Good for them.

That doesn’t get Shin off the hook for lying to us, but it doesn’t get Kim Jong Un off the hook, either.

Update 2: Drop whatever you’re doing and read Curtis’s post on this. The splitting irony of it is that the North Koreans have actually done an excellent job of corroborating Shin’s new story — that he grew up in another camp, just not the same one he’d originally claimed. Had the North Koreans said nothing at all, I wouldn’t know what to believe. They probably didn’t count on Curtis’s extraordinary, encyclopedic knowledge of every second- and third-level administrative district in North Korea, or his ability to explain the significance of what Shin’s father said in the video it released, or to spot the inconsistencies that suggest that he was coached. But as I’ve said so many times before, never underestimate Curtis.

Update 3, Jan. 20, 2015:

Michael Kirby, chairman of the Commission of Inquiry into North Korea, said that Shin’s testimony consisted of only two paragraphs in the 400-page report and that he was only one of hundreds of North Korean witnesses.

“It’s a very small part of a very long story. And it really doesn’t affect the credibility of the testimony, which is online,” he said. “Lots of people took part (in) this inquiry. Their stories are powerful and convincing, and these stories do not only represent Shin but other people in North Korea.”

In a reversal of his story told for years, Shin told Harden on Friday that he had been transferred to another prison, Camp 18, when he was 6, instead of spending his entire life inside North Korea at the total control zone Camp 14, the author says on his website.

The distinction of whether Shin was imprisoned in Camp 14 or 18 was not a deal breaker for Kirby.

“It seems as if the issue is whether he was in the total control zone, or whether he was in an ordinary prison camp. In another words, it’s whether triple horror or double horror,” Kirby said. [CNN]

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NK Econ Watch on Camp 15

For several weeks, we’ve read reports that North Korea had razed Camp 15 to “prove” to foreign visitors that survivors’  accounts of the camp were false. Curtis has since examined imagery from October 20th, and declared himself “unsure of the recent status of the camp.”

Clearly, reports that said no trace of the camp still existed were incorrect. That story never made sense to me, for two reasons. First, North Korea understands that the whole world is watching it on Google Earth. Razing the entire camp couldn’t convince us of anything except that a sham was underway. Subtler changes, including gutting and renovating existing structures, would be a more effective strategy if maskirovka were its intention.

Like a lot of reports about North Korea, this one remains a mystery for the time being, and the full truth may have to wait for a new government of North Korea to let it be told.

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Kang Chol-Hwan does a Reddit AMA

“One of the biggest misconceptions I think people have of North Korea is that they are simple and naive,” he said. “But I feel that North Koreans as a group of people have gone through a lot of hardship, and their ability to survive in difficult situations are a lot higher that what people think. People think that unification will be a basketcase for North Koreans, but they will definitely be able to manage. People also think North Koreans will have a hard time adjusting to the market economy, but the black market is also growing under the regime’s nose, and people are used to working in this environment.” [The Atlantic]

Kang is a survivor of Camp 15, which some unconfirmed reports say has been dismantled as part of a hoax to fool the United Nations–reports I’ll believe when I see satellite imagery that proves it. You can buy Kang’s memoir, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, here; his AMA is here.

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KINU survey: Conditions in N. Korean labor camps worsen

So apparently, that was still possible, then:

The heinous conditions faced by malnourished and overworked North Korean inmates in reeducation camps has led to a growing number of deaths, according to a report released on Thursday. Data from the paper reveals that prisoners within these facilities may be living in an environment prone to egregious human rights violations– just as in political prison camps.

Findings from the report were announced by Lee Keum Soon, Director of the Center for North Korean Human Rights Studies at the Korean Institute for National Unification [KINU], during a session on the state of human rights in re-education camps at the 4th Chaillot Human Rights Forum in Seoul.

The report is based on in-depth interviews with 97 defectors who had been incarcerated at Chongori Re-education Camp in Hoeryong, North Hamgyung Province, or Kaechon Re-education Camp in South Pyongan Province up until 2013. [Daily NK]

Someone tell Don Gregg. You can see imagery of Cheongo-ri here, and some of the other labor camps here and here.

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Camp 15: The Theresienstadt ploy?

The Daily NK reports that Camp 15, described by refugee-journalist Kang Chol Hwan in The Aquariums of Pyongyang and by more recent witnesses to The Washington Post‘s Chico Harlan, is no more, and that the prisoners have been sent to other camps:

Detainees held until recently at North Korea’s notorious political prison camp in Yodeok County have been moved to two alternate camps, an inside source from North Hamkyung Province has alleged to Daily NK.

“That political prison camp that used to be in Yodeok County in South Hamkyung has already been broken up. There’s not a trace of it left,” the source, who is with the military in the northerly province, claimed in conversation with Daily NK on the 7th. However, the disbanding of Camp 15 does not seem to have brought liberty for many of its inmates. According to the same source, “The political prisoners who were there have been divided up and moved to camps 14 and 16.” [….]

“It seems that closing Camp 15 was the next step after they closed Camp 22 at Hoeryong in June 2012,” the source went on to propose. “The majority of the buildings and facilities they used have been razed.”

The Daily NK reports that Camp 15 is in such a remote area that relatively few local residents are in a position to corroborate or witness anything, but the report is consistent with a previous report published in The Chosun Ilbo. I’ve long feared, and recently speculated openly, that North Korea might be preparing for a sham inspection of a camp to try to refute the allegations of camp survivors, in the same way the Nazis fooled the Danish Red Cross in 1944 with a sham inspection of the concentration camp at Theresienstadt.

It is widely believed that the goal of the North Korean authorities in closing down Yodeok is to allow international observers to visit the site in order to popularize the notion that “North Korea doesn’t have any political prison camps.” In keeping with this hypothesis, Pyongyang recently granted permission for the UN’s point man on North Korean human rights, Marzuki Darusman, to visit the country, and made a video casting doubt upon the testimony of Shin Dong Hyuk through his father.

Meanwhile, on October 28th the NIS, South Korea’s state intelligence agency, reported to the National Assembly that a prison camp at Mt. Mantap in Kilju County, the area of North Hamkyung Province that houses North Korea’s underground nuclear test site, has recently been substantially expanded. The NIS reported that North Korea were planning to move the residents of Yodeok to the expanded camp. The expansion has not been independently verified.

The most recent available imagery from Google Earth was taken in May of this year, and shows the camp to be intact.

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Other online sources also show an intact Camp 15. In the coming days, I’ll try to find out what I can about this story, and what evidence supports the report. If the camp has really vanished with “not a trace of it left,” that will be visible in the imagery. On the other hand, it hardly seems to serve North Korea’s purpose to show foreign visitors a lot of empty rubble. There would have to be a lot of new construction, too.


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Charm offensive: N. Korea threatens to nuke U.S., hands out Halloween candy

As near as I can figure, Kim Jong Un’s stages of grief over his potential indictment for crimes against humanity have included denial, homophobia, mendacity, engagementracism, and (again) terrorism, not necessarily in that order. The North Korean model differs from the Kübler-Ross model in its inclusion of several additional stages, and also, for its lack of an “acceptance” stage.

In any case, North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated and opaque countries, seems to be taking the threat of at least some action seriously. Its envoys have struck back in recent weeks with a mix of unusual diplomatic concessions, hard-line rhetoric and propaganda videos, handed out to reporters like Halloween candy in the corridors of the United Nations. Earlier this month, North Korea even circulated a draft measure of its own, calling on the United Nations to conduct an “unbiased reassessment” of its human rights record; it regards Mr. Kirby’s commission of inquiry as a Western plot. [N.Y. Times]

Some commentators have described this series of reactions as a “charm offensive,” which is a charmingly stupid way of describing it:

DPRK Will Mercilessly Shatter U.S. and Its Followers’ “Human Rights” Campaign

[….] First, Now that the U.S. “human rights” offensive against the DPRK has reached an extreme phase, the DPRK formally notifies the U.S. that the DPRK will settle accounts with those related to the offensive without the slightest clemency and by every possible means and methods generation after generation.


Second, Now that the U.S. anti-DPRK “human rights” campaign is leading to a vicious plot to bring down the dignified social system in the DPRK, it declares its new tough counter-action of its own style to frustrate the campaign of the U.S. and its allied forces.

The “human rights” campaign of the U.S. is another version of the most undisguised act of aggression against the DPRK’s sovereignty and rights.

To cope with this, the DPRK, too, decided to launch a new tough counter-action of its own style to blow up the stronghold of the violators of “human rights.”

The revolutionary armed forces of the DPRK had already declared before the world that an operational plan for striking all the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in the Pacific targeting the DPRK and the main cities of the U.S. mainland where war maniacs are stationed was ratified.

The DPRK never hides the fact that the declaration of the most powerful new counter-action of its own style is based on a powerful nuclear force built in every way and various ultramodern striking means deployed in the ground, sea, underwater and air.

The world will clearly see how the DPRK’s declaration of a powerful counter-action will be put into practice to blow up the citadel of the U.S. now that its “human rights” campaign to infringe upon the sovereignty and rights of the DPRK has gone beyond its tolerance limit.

Third, The army and people of the DPRK call upon the world to thoroughly shatter the sinister cooperation for aggression sought by the U.S. and its followers under the pretext of the “human rights issue” through anti-U.S. cooperation based on justice and truth.


The anti-U.S. cooperation called for by the DPRK will lead to a decisive battle through which human beings will kill beasts and justice will prevail over injustice and truth over lies.

The nuclear forces of the DPRK and political and military deterrence including them will demonstrate unimaginably tremendous might in effecting worldwide anti-U.S. cooperation.

The U.S. anti-DPRK “human rights” racket is bound to go bankrupt as it is faked up by those fanatics whose days are numbered, without elementary understanding of their rival and it is based on the brigandish and self-opinionated theory of hostility. [KCNA, Oct. 25, 2014]

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

North Korea may also have reached the “bargaining” stage:

North Korea has offered to invite the top U.N. human rights official to Pyongyang if the European Union drops any mention of referring the country’s leader to the International Criminal Court from a U.N. human rights resolution, a news report said.

The North made the offer via Cuba earlier this month, saying it would invite the U.N. high commissioner for human rights to discuss the situation in exchange for EU assurances that the “North Korean leader would be off-limits,” Foreign Policy magazine has reported.

“The Cubans came forward with a proposal to drop the ICC referral from our text. In exchange, they would accept a visit from the high commissioner for human rights,” an EU diplomat was quoted as saying. “The reaction was very negative to such a deal. We don’t trust them.”

China subsequently delivered the same offer to the EU, the report said. [Yonhap]

And in what even the AP described as “probably … another attempt to stop a growing international call to refer its dismal human rights situation to the International Criminal Court,” North Korea even met with a U.N. special investigator, and said that they could “’envisage’ him visiting their country.” In the unlikely event that comes to pass, I can imagine how that would work in practice. Apologies for the second long quote:

Succumbing to pressure following the deportation of Danish Jews to Theresienstadt, the Germans permitted representatives from the Danish Red Cross and the International Red Cross to visit in June 1944. It was all an elaborate hoax. The Germans intensified deportations from the ghetto shortly before the visit, and the ghetto itself was “beautified.” Gardens were planted, houses painted, and barracks renovated. The Nazis staged social and cultural events for the visiting dignitaries.


After considerable stalling, the RSHA finally authorized a visit for representatives of the International Red Cross and the Danish Red Cross for June 1944 and ordered the SS staff in Theresienstadt to complete the preparations.

Elaborate measures were taken to disguise conditions in the ghetto and to portray an atmosphere of normalcy. The SS engaged the Council of Jewish Elders and the camp-ghetto “residents” in a “beautification” program. Prisoners planted gardens, painted housing complexes, renovated barracks, and developed and practiced cultural programs for the entertainment of the visiting dignitaries to convince them that the “Seniors’ Settlement” was real. The SS authorities intensified deportations of Jews from the ghetto to alleviate overcrowding, and as part of the preparations in the camp-ghetto, 7,503 people were deported to Auschwitz between May 16 and May 18, 1944.


In the wake of the inspection, SS officials in the Protectorate produced a film using ghetto residents as a demonstration of the benevolent treatment the Jewish “residents” of Theresienstadt supposedly enjoyed. In Nazi propaganda, Theresienstadt was cynically described as a “spa town” where elderly German Jews could “retire” in safety. When the film was completed, SS officials deported most of the “cast” to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Despite the effort involved in making the propaganda film, the German authorities ultimately decided not to screen it. [U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum]

You can still see parts of that film here. If the pressure were sufficient to require it, the North Koreans might also contemplate allowing a one-and-done inspection of one smaller prison, but not one of the larger camps. This would almost assuredly be a hoax. Only a broad inspection of all of the known camps, followed by a regular inspection regimen, would bear any credibility.

The Obama Administration might, possibly deserve some degree of credit for the effectiveness of this campaign in reaching a large audience, but it’s hard to much evidence for that right now.

The Times reports that Samantha Power gave Justice Kirby an award of some kind, but it would be far better if President Obama made it clear that if the U.N. fails to address the issue by consent of the P-5, it will lead a global campaign to impose the kind of financial sanctions on North Korean human rights violators—and their Chinese and Russian enablers— that it imposed on Iran, Burma, Syria, and Russia, and even on Belarus and Zimbabwe.

Publicly, the U.S. is not leading the effort to the extent that the EU and Japan are, and there are reasons to be worried that Pyongyang might find ways to buy off the EU and Japan through trade, or a ransom deal. For that matter, I worry that Pyongyang’s hostage-taking has also silenced the U.S. to an extent; it certainly has succeeded in moving Bob King’s job description away from human rights.

I can see some tactical benefit in allowing other nations to take a leadership role here. What I can’t say is whether that was a deliberate plan or simply a case of foreign powers filling an American void.

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Update: According to the Chosun Ilbo, North Korea is already preparing Yodok for just that purpose.

North Korea is secretly moving political prisoners out of its most notorious concentration camp in Yodok, in apparent preparation for a PR exercise showing that conditions are not as bad as reported, a source claimed.

“The regime is transferring the inmates one by one during the night so that their movement can’t be detected by satellites,” the source said Monday.

The regime aims to show the camp to foreigners looking like little more than a collective farm, the source added. “The regime will probably send farmers to the political prison camp to do the labor there,” the source said. [Chosun Ilbo]

What does that mean for the prisoners who are being moved, I wonder?

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North Korea denies having prison camps, admits “reform through labor camps”

Choe Myong Nam, a North Korean foreign ministry official in charge of U.N. affairs and human rights issues, said at a briefing with reporters that his country has no prison camps and, in practice, “no prison, things like that.”

But he briefly discussed the labor camps. “Both in law and practice, we do have reform through labor detention camps — no, detention centers — where people are improved through their mentality and look on their wrongdoings,” he said. [AP]

The admission itself could be a reference to the labor-rehabilitation camps called kyo-hwa-so, local detention facilities called jip-kyul-so (collection facilities) or no-dong-dan-ryeon-dae (labor training centers), as described in The Hidden Gulag, Second Edition and recounted by survivors:

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And here’s how the North Korean guards would “improve” the people sent there:

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The North Korean official, Choe, does not appear to have admitted to the existence of the largest and most notorious camps, the kwan-li-so, the camps that are most clearly visible in the satellite imagery. Choe’s statement could even be read as an assertion that instead of the prisons that all other countries have, North Korea has a more humane substitute. Unfortunately, the reporters present forfeited the chance to ask questions that would have clarified the statement, so we’re unable to extract its full meaning.

Still, I do think the statement means something — if external pressure becomes more than Pyongyang can ignore, it can compel Pyongyang to lighten its load of lies just a bit. Perhaps with sufficient pressure, it could force Pyongyang to change its behavior in more material ways. It’s no cause for self-congratulation, but it is encouragement to keep the pressure on.

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Update: Similar thoughts from Alastair Gale of The Wall Street Journal, who quotes Sokheel Park of LiNK:

“Whereas before they dismissed the issue out of hand as a political attack, now they realize they actually have to engage on it in some way. This is progress,” said Mr. Park.

Ultimately, the move appears to be tactical. North Korea appears to be trying take some of the heat out of the issue ahead of a U.N. General Assembly resolution on North Korean human rights, which will be voted on in the next few weeks, human rights workers say.

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Update: More here, from the Christian Science Monitor.

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Roberta Cohen in the WaPo, on preventing a massacre in N. Korea’s gulag

Writing in The Washington Post, Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, writes about how to prevent the execution of “standing orders at North Korea’s political prison camps (the kwanliso) to kill all prisoners in the event of armed conflict or revolution.”

It was Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder, who gave the kill-all order. His son Kim Jong-il reaffirmed it. Ahn Myong-chol, a former guard, testified before the U.N. commission that, in the event of upheaval, the guards are “to wipe out” all inmates so as “to eliminate any evidence.” He said that drills have even been held “on how to kill large numbers of prisoners in a short period of time.” Guards in other camps, as well as former prison officials, have confirmed this account.

Cohen then makes several recommendations to address this danger, starting with imposing accountability on those responsible now. First, she calls for the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s (COI) report to be brought before the U.N. Security Council for a resolution that would impose targeted sanctions, in line with the COI Chair’s recommendation.

The law firm Hogan Lovells recently issued a report concluding that the COI’s findings could amount to genocide. I made a similar (but less refined) argument nine years ago.

Unfortunately, we’ve only seen the first signs that our U.N. Ambassador and noted genocide-prevention expert Samantha Power is interested in leading (or joining) a push for any such resolution. And without U.S. leadership, who will lead? Ban Ki-Moon?

The voice of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon should be heard, too. Because Ban is Korean, he is often excused from taking the lead on human rights issues in North Korea, but when crimes against humanity are found and atrocities warned, he should be expected to use every tool at his disposal.

I’ll go a step further. Korean history should remember Ban Ki-Moon as a bystander in the greatest humanitarian tragedy in the history of the Korean people — one whose toll, once counted, will almost certainly (even greatly) exceed even the terrible human cost of Japan’s occupation.

Cohen also calls on the Congress to pass, and for the President to sign, H.R. 1771, the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act. The House is expected to vote on the bill this afternoon.

Cohen’s next call is an appeal to “humanitarian and military forces” to consider the urgency of saving the camps’ prisoners in their contingency planning. It’s one of those important questions that always seems too unlikely and hypothetical to plan for until it actually happens. By the time the hypothetical is a reality, of course, it’s too late to plan. Here is how she puts it:

Bringing the prisoners to safety must be part and parcel of any strategy developed to respond to a collapse in North Korea. While protecting civilians and securing nuclear weapons will appropriately be uppermost concerns in a time of chaos, it is in the camps that the most acute cases of hunger, disease and ill-treatment will be found. It is essential that humanitarian organizations and military forces focus now on how to rescue survivors.

Of course, the U.S. and South Korea do have a set of operational plans for a collapse in North Korea, called OPLAN 5029. The plans are classified, so for all we know, Combined Forces Command has already formulated detailed plans of the very sort Cohen recommends.

Who would come to the rescue? In a private e-mail, which she gave me permission to quote, Cohen said that her intent is to encourage U.S. diplomats to talk to their Chinese counterparts about planning for a sudden collapse with the minimum possible loss of life, meaning that Cohen is thinking of a benevolent entry by Chinese forces, who are much closer to the camps geographically than anyone else. Cohen knows that for now, the odds are against this, and she points me to this piece at 38 North, arguing that China will never cooperate.

Cohen isn’t alone in suggesting that China should have a role in stabilizing a post-collapse North Korea; Bruce Bennett of RAND also suggested as much based on the simple mathematics of stabilization operations. South Korea has been cutting back its active duty military, and doesn’t have sufficient reserves to occupy and stabilize North Korea today (though it seems entirely possible that South Korea could assemble that reserve force if it had the political will to do so). One potential complication of inviting* a Chinese intervention, however, aside from China’s general lack of a benevolent incentive, is the possibility that once in, it won’t get out again so easily.

[* Cohen writes in to clarify that she isn’t “inviting” anything, but is acknowledging what might well be inevitable. It’s a fair point, and I didn’t mean to imply that the invitation would have been Cohen’s, so I’m happy to clarify that.]

What about a rescue by U.S. and ROK forces? The most optimistic view I can offer here is that if there is a general mutiny of North Korean forces, and if we were confident that the operation would be unopposed, it might be possible to reach the camps with aircraft operating from ships offshore. The idea would be to provide protection and deliver essential humanitarian supplies until larger forces can arrive to evacuate the prisoners and rescuers.

(Nor should we overlook the immense public interest value in showing the world images of the camps and the state of the prisoners. There are still people who deny the Holocaust, after all. Noam Chomsky minimized and dismissed, and arguably denied, reports of the Cambodian genocide, and if you deny this denial — as Chomsky now does — then read what Chomsky himself wrote about the subject as it was being revealed to the world.)

The hardest part of such an operation would not be getting in, but getting the rescuers and prisoners out safely. That would require an open road to a port or a large airfield. ROK forces may well lack the equipment, the logistical sophistication, and the will to carry out that kind of operation alone. A small force in such a remote area would find itself dangerously exposed. There are more factual contingencies in this topic than one could possibly discuss within the Post‘s word limits, but the logistical and military obstacles would be severe, to say the least.

Camps Overview with boundaries

One wonders how likely it is that such a collapse would precede a massacre of prisoners. One of the most overlooked means the regime uses to control its people is mutual internal isolation. Simply sending a message from one city to another can be difficult, and sending an unmonitored message would be a near impossibility. In the event of unrest, Pyongyang would certainly flip the “kill switch” for Koryolink, cutting off North Korea’s only legal cell phone network.

In addition, the North Korean Army (NKPA) answers to a completely different command than the Ministry of Public Safety forces that control the camps. Because the camps are widely dispersed, the NKPA units controlling the roads and ports near different camps would fall under different corps commands. That means a separate contingency plan would be needed for each camp.

Screen Shot 2014-07-26 at 11.38.11 AM

[via Global Security. Note that this map includes the VI Corps, which was reportedly abolished after a 1996 mutiny, but you get the general idea.]

Sadly, there may be no militarily practical way to prevent a massacre without the cooperation of at least some of the North Korean forces in control of the area near any given camp. At best, we may only be able to prevent massacres in some of the camps.

Which brings us to the paramount importance of information operations, which should be designed to cause the MPS to disobey kill orders, or to hesitate as long as possible before deciding to obey them. What should our message to the guards and wardens in the camps be? As Cohen says, “Guards might think twice about carrying out an order to commit a massacre if they know they would be held accountable.” They must know that if they carry out orders to massacre prisoners, they will be tried and held accountable.

But there must be a positive incentive, too; after all, the guards must already suspect that they’ll face trial for what they’ve already done if the regime falls. As difficult as this may be to accept, we must be willing to consider offering guards who protect the lives of prisoners at least a partial amnesty for their crimes against the prisoners up to that point in time. (An offer of a full amnesty creates a perverse incentive to mistreat prisoners now, before the act that qualifies the guard for amnesty.)

In the end, as with so many problems in North Korea, this may be a problem with no external military solution. The liberation of North Korea must inevitably depend on the liberated themselves. Planners should always be prepared to seize opportunities that present themselves, of course, but sometimes, one must make one’s own opportunities. The most plausible opportunity to save the prisoners of North Korea’s gulag may be to encourage and support North Koreans — most likely, among the security forces — who would rebel against central authority, and to incentivize acts of mercy to North Korea’s most vulnerable people.

This all sounds impossible now — even wildly hypothetical — but it’s certainly not fanciful; thus, the existence of OPLAN 5029. The idea of a popular uprising in Syria or Libya sounded equally impossible at the beginning of 2011. And unless people speak of impossible things — even when these impossible things are also inevitable — they will be unready when those things come to pass.

North Korea’s camps have long been one of the main tools employed by the Kim regime to hold on to power. One day, their dismantling will give rise to a new Korea in which monuments will be erected not to the Kim family but to its victims, which have been abandoned by the international community for too long.

To this day, we are still debating why we did not bomb the railroad tracks to Auschwitz, or why we did not arm the Poles and Jews who rose against the Nazis in Warsaw in 1943 and 1944. That’s why the discussion Roberta Cohen has started this week is such an important one.


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Crowdsourcing the hunt for North Korea’s prisons and prison camps

The world didn’t awaken to the horrors in North Korea in time save Kim Jong Il’s victims or hold him accountable, but it may be doing so in time to give Kim Jong Un some pause as he prosecutes his bloody purges. Various reports from inside North Korea — reports that are impossible to verify — say that he has carried out mass arrests and executions, both in Pyongyang and near the border regions that represent the greatest threat to his total control over information.

If those reports are true, we would expect to see that some of the camps had expanded, or that new facilities are being built to replace those that, like Camp 22, have been compromised. Recent satellite imagery suggests that the capacities of Camps 12, 14, 16, and 25 have all been expanded to one degree or another, but with new imagery becoming available on a regular basis, North Korea still hasn’t given up all of its secrets. And I have less time each year to find them myself.

This is where you come in. With the help of a friend I’ve never met, I’m crowdsourcing the search for North Korea’s secrets. A man who prefers to be identified as “a software engineer in Europe” has created a web page that allows anyone to pick a grid square and search it for suspect facilities. You’ll find the map, and instructions on how to use it, here.

By the way, our web designer friend in Europe already has one “find,” a possible prison up in remote Ryanggang Province.

New prison in Ryanggang

It bears all of the characteristics typical of a prison, including guard towers, but I would not attempt to say that any location is confirmed to be a prison without witness corroboration. It could be a factory, or a military installation. But it’s a beginning to a process of investigation.

Prisons of this kind typically house a combination of violent, economic, and political criminals. Some of the prisoners there would be sent to prison in most countries for the behavior that got them sent here. Many others, such as those imprisoned for religious activities, unauthorized trade in consumer goods, or trying to flee the country, would not. But it is the conditions in these prisons — and the high mortality rates they cause — that really distinguishes them.

Obviously, our friend could be deluged with false reports or people mistaking power lines for fence lines, so if you want to join the search, I would first urge you to read and study these pages and become familiar with the distinctive characteristics of North Korean prisons. Large prison camps surrounded by fence lines and guard posts look nothing like the smaller, walled penitentiary-style prisons, and either can resemble military (or even industrial) facilities.

If you have experience as an imagery analyst, your assistance is especially welcome. And now that Congress has funded an online database for North Korea’s prison system, the information is likely to get wide dissemination, once confirmed. I’m obviously happy to credit anyone who is willing to be named.

Thank you, good day, and good hunting.

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OFK readers spot expansion of Camp 12, Cheongo-ri

Reader Andy Green* has spotted a significant expansion of Camp 12, Cheongo-ri.

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 9.03.56 PM

[Before: Christmas Day, 2008. What were you doing that day?]

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 9.03.32 PM[After: April 13, 2013]

Andy speculates, reasonably I think, that the expansion is a barracks. You can see that the perimeter wall and guard towers were also expanded around the new buildings.

If it is a barracks, it probably couldn’t hold more than a few hundred prisoners. This isn’t the answer to the question of what happened to the 30,000 prisoners of Camp 22. It is, however, consistent with reports of other camps being expanded recently — at Camp 14, Camp 16, and Camp 25.

Kim Jong Un’s brutal purge means that we should expect to see more camps expanded, and possibly new camps built. I can’t scan all of North Korea on Google Earth by myself, but if we crowdsource this, we should be able to spot these changes as new imagery becomes available. If you see something of interest, kindly drop a comment. This is information the world needs to know.

As for Andy, he earns the biggest hat tip of the year. So far.

Update: Reader Lou notes in the comments that he’d emailed me imagery pointing out these changes (and more) earlier this month. I apologize to Lou for the oversight, and tip my hat to him as well. Thanks to both Lou and Anders for keeping watch on this place.

Lou noted a few small barracks huts that were torn down, but also caught something more interesting in what I’m guessing is the “old” main barracks building. Look at this image from May of 2013, and compare it to the April 2013 image. It shows evidence of recent construction work. The north side of building has been torn down, and new footings have been dug.

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 7.06.43 AM

Although there is no imagery available between December 2008 and April 2013, Lou’s find suggests that the construction work at Cheongo-ri is relatively recent. It may still be ongoing.

If I had to venture a guess, I’d say they need stronger footings to build the building taller and sturdier. One thing satellite imagery isn’t very good at is measuring height. If new stories are being added to buildings, that would certainly increase their capacity — potentially by a few thousand, if you include all the new construction.

* A pseudonym.

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Former Camp 16 Guard: Prisoners forced to dig their own graves, killed with hammers

A new report by Amnesty International is providing our first eyewitness account of conditions at Camp 16, images of which were first published at this very blog back in February of 2007, using clues provided in David Hawk’s The Hidden Gulag. In April 2012, I followed up with an extensive analysis of Camp 16 imagery, in an attempt to collect and publish all of the open-source information about this largest and least-understood of all of North Korea’s prison camps.

Even then, there were still no known eyewitness accounts of conditions there, despite reports that 120 prisoners had escaped in 2006. We still can’t confirm whether that story is true, but Amnesty found a former guard, who told us this:

In an interview conducted in November 2013, Mr. Lee (full name withheld), who was a security official in kwanliso 16 in the 1980s until the mid-1990s, told Amnesty International of other forms of executions he had witnessed where inmates were forced to dig their own graves and then killed by hammer blows to their necks by prison authorities. In another instance, he had seen prison authorities strangling and then beating inmates to their death with wooden sticks. He also recounted that several women inmates disappeared after they had been raped by officials and he concluded that they had been executed secretly.

We eagerly await the AP’s investigative report.

Amnesty also points to evidence of recent construction at Camp 16, which Curtis had previously analyzed in greater detail in July. Amnesty concludes that Camp 16’s capacity has expanded, but not enough to hold the 30,000 people who were previously housed at Camp 22. As far as we know, those people were simply vaporized. Orwell used this verb as a metaphor; in the case of Camp 22, this may be true, literally.

Overall, nothing suggests that the state has made a policy decision to cease its reliance on its prison camp system as a tool of control. The suspected mass releases at Camp 18 and the suspected liquidation of Camp 22 are two aberrations on opposite ends of one spectrum of brutality. The most significant change is the improved fencing around the prison known as “the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea.”

Although Amnesty has published other satellite imagery of the camps, this is the first time it has contributed new and original research to the subject. I look forward to seeing more of that. (It seems unlikely that Amnesty independently found the camp and traced its perimeter without consulting this blog or Curtis’s, but never mind that.) Amnesty’s name recognition and media savvy means that its reporting will attract significant media attention (and has). That’s a vast improvement over past years, when only a few of us were publishing these images, and when the only people who saw them were our relatively small audiences. It’s gratifying to see this issue begin to get the attention it deserves.

Hat tips: Glans and Curtis.

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Releases and higher mortality shrink North Korea’s prison camp population

The newest update on Camps 18 and 22 from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) continues to draw news coverage, most recently in the form of this grim report by Chico Harlan of The Washington Post. Harlan reports that the camps’ population is now likely between 80,000 and 120,000, much lower than the previous estimate of 200,000.

Part of this decline reflects a correction of previous overestimates of the population. I’d mentioned here and here, for example, my suspicion that some of the population estimates for some camps seemed on the high side, based on my hut counts.

The consensus is also that the camps’ population has actually declined. There is a good news / horrible news dichotomy behind this trend.

They attribute the drop-off in part to a spate of prisoner releases at one camp, but they also say it is because the camps, in general, are so reliably lethal, killing faster than the pace at which people arrive. Some analysts also say the number of arrivals at camps has tapered off.

Much of the decline is attributed to the liquidation of Camp 22:

South Korean news outlets that employ defectors and maintain sources in the North reported last year that the North had shuttered Camp 22. Satellite images showed razed or abandoned guard towers and interrogation facilities. But it remains unclear what happened to the prisoners, estimated several years ago to number 30,000. Hawk’s report cited unconfirmed reports from defectors that between 7,000 to 8,000 were transferred. Hawk cited another defector who reported a massive famine in the camp beginning in 2010 after poor food harvests in the region.

“If even remotely accurate, this is an atrocity requiring much closer investigation,” he wrote.

The regime is also incarcerating fewer family members of prisoners:

Analysts say that fewer people are now arriving at the camps. Under Kim, the North sent entire families to the gulag — not just the perpetrators, but their parents and children. This practice has not stopped, defector testimony indicates, but it has slowed over the past 15 years.

The Closure of Camp 18

David Hawk, the author of HRNK’s report, relies on satellite imagery and interviews with escapees to conclude that the authorities began “clearing” and releasing prisoners from Camp 18 in large numbers in 1989, and that the camp was finally closed down in 2006:

[A]s many of these defectors now testify, and as reported by the Data Base Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), 43 sometime around 2006, the last villages within Camp No. 18
were decommissioned as forced-labor camps with the exception of a small number of prisoners described below.44 With the noteworthy exception described below, most of the remaining former prisoners were “cleared.” The mines, formerly operated with prison labor, now operate as civilian enterprises. Analysis of satellite photos seems to confirm that “the fence lines of the camp are still visible, but the main checkpoints seem to be dismantled or degraded.

The quotation above is from an e-mail communication between Hawk and myself in April of this year.  That was the first time I saw the 2011 imagery, which finally persuaded me of the camp’s closure, although Curtis Melvin had mentioned to me at least a year ago that he’d seen the coal mines of Camp 18 on a North Korean news program, suggesting it was no longer a camp.  At the time, I wondered–aside from how anyone finds the time or interest to watch North Korean TV–how Curtis could recognize a specific mine and place it geographically. The lesson I learned from this was never to underestimate Curtis.

As explained here, conditions in Camp 18 were always the least oppressive of those in any major North Korean prison camp. Unlike the other camps, it was run by North Korea’s “ordinary” police force, not the dreaded Peoples’ Safety Agency (Anjeonbu).

I’ll show you the evidence of the degraded security I referred to in that communication. In these images, you can see how Camp 18’s main (west) gate and the nearby fence line changed between 2004 and 2011.

Click on any image for full size.

Camp 18 W gate @ 2300, 3-2004

In the 2006 image below, we see the first indication that the check point has been dismantled. Vegetation patterns also suggest that the fence line has been breached, and that people have crossed the boundary to gather firewood and clear land for farming.

Camp 18 W gate @ 2300, 12-2006

In the 2011 image below, the former site of the check point is overgrown with weeds. The fence line no longer appears to be maintained, and is overgrown.

Camp 18 W gate @ 2300, 8-2011

Further east (upstream) along the Taedong River, we see a second checkpoint, probably meant to guard against prisoners trying to swim or float downstream (Camp 14, which continues to operate on the opposite bank, would not be an inviting destination). In 2004, the buildings appear to be well maintained.

Camp 18 riverside guard post @1500, 3-2004

By 2006, it appears to have been razed.

Camp 18 riverside guard post @1500, 12-2006

By 2011, there is no trace of the building, except for the vegetation patterns.

Camp 19 riverside guard post @1500, 8-2011

Similarly, this agricultural area inside the camp shows significant changes between 2004 and 2011.

Camp 18 riverside @2000, 3-2004

Camp 18 riverside @2000, 8-2011

Satellite evidence doesn’t clarify whether these buildings, believed to have been prisoner housing, are still inhabited, but the greenish hue on some of the roofs may be mold or weeds growing up through the tiles, suggesting that the huts have fallen into disuse.

Camp 18 main settlement @2500, 8-2011

No one really knows what happened to the prisoners.  The Post report offers several alternative theories:

The fate of Camp 18’s prisoners is slightly clearer, as prisoners there have been released in stages since the mid-1980s, with a handful escaping to the South. Defectors say that the last of those clearances was completed in 2006 and that the final several thousand prisoners were transferred to a nearby mountainous area near Camp 14, located across the Taedong River. Experts say they are not sure whether Camp 18 has been folded into Camp 14 or exists as its own entity, albeit in a new area.

Depending on that distinction, North Korea’s gulag consists of either four or five camps.

The government of North Korea denies that these camps ever existed. North Korea may be the only place on earth where facts of such profound humanitarian significance must be studied and analyzed based on satellite imagery, rumors, and the occasional fragmentary witness account.

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Camp 22 Update

In an update to its previous imagery analysis, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea seems to be migrating to the view that Camp 22 was closed in 2012, but if that’s the answer, the next question it raises is what happened to the prisoners there, once estimated to number as high as 30,000. The Washington Post asks that question in an editorial today:

In a way, the camp was a city in its own right, albeit a locus of inhumanity rather than a bustling metropolis. Camp 22 was one point in North Korea’s constellation of concentration camps that run on unadulterated cruelty, a secret world where prisoners are fed poison for experimentation, women are forced to kill their own children and entire families are murdered in gas chambers.

As the world sits by, North Korea has imprisoned as many as 200,000 people in these camps. Although human rights violations remain unfortunately common in many nations, these camps form a category of their own in today’s world. North Korea’s gulag is a place where people aren’t people but rather objects for exploitation and elimination.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea released a report this week detailing the harrowing reality of Camp 22. Satellite imagery suggests the camp recently closed. Good news? Not exactly. According to the report, after a food shortage in 2009-10, Camp 22’s population shrunk to somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000 people from around 30,000 in previous years. Thousands of prisoners seem to have evaporated into thin air — perhaps via Camp 22’s crematoria.

Truthfully, I don’t know how accurately these populations can be estimated, but it’s clear by now that thousands of prisoners disappeared from Camp 22, and that if they were released, we’d have heard their stories by now. By all accounts, the last surviving prisoners were loaded onto trains in the middle of the night and sent to points unknown.

The Post also takes note of the testimony of North Korean refugees to the U.N. Commission of Inquiry in Seoul. I suppose I should have written more about this; I’ve come to the conclusion that the COI’s report could be significant if it leads to the passage of another U.N. sanctions resolution, which in turn would make it easier for many in Congress and the administration to support tougher human rights sanctions legislation and condition the lifting of those sanctions on closing the camps down … without the use of crematoria. That’s also why China and Russia will probably prevent that from happening. For that matter, Europe is also profiting from its trade with the perpetrators of these atrocities and may not want effective action, either.

The hardest reaction to explain or excuse continues to be the apathy of most South Koreans. One day, a new generation of Korean nationalists will have to airbrush that out of history. North Korea has called the testimony slander, but otherwise has largely ignored the proceedings.

Here in the United States, North Korea is still not such a pariah that it can’t serve as a backdrop for a reality TV circus, a sort of reversed-polarity version of Borat in which Dennis Rodman stands in as a parody of us all, just a week after North Korea refused to receive our Special Envoy for Human Rights, and months after Rodman asked North Korea to release Ken Bae (which North Korea also ignored).

One reason I didn’t write about the COI testimony is that I was simply busy with other things, but another must be that I found the accounts both too familiar and too depressing to inspire much thought–expect that here we are, ten years after most of these accounts stopped being news, still trying to pierce the factual ignorance of the State Department, the ambivalence of multiple administrations, the hopeless impotence of the U.N., the corruption of some of our media, and the inexplicable disinterest of much of the Human Rights Industry. The sad fact is that it doesn’t serve any powerful constituency’s pecuniary agenda to make an issue of this.

Update, Sept. 8:  I’ve removed three comments from this and one other thread in keeping with the comment rules policy (see “About” link).  Two were using sock puppets of one IP address, and the third, pretending to engage one of the sock puppets in discussion, posted within minutes of the others, suggesting that it was either the same person or coordinated. The latter comment’s IP address also matched that of another commenter who was banned for using sock puppets and being a troll.

(If you wonder why I moderate comments, just read any Washington Post comment thread.)

Based on the stilted prose, the comments appear to have been posted by a non-native English speaker, maybe even one of these hired trolls we’ve been warned about. Obviously, I can’t do much more than speculate about who left the comments, but in the last item of this post, you’ll see a screen grab I took of a visit to this site from Pyongyang, which I had saved for just such an occasion.

All I can say is that someone is upset that people around the world are talking about Camp 22 and wants to change the subject to something else.

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OFK in the WaPo

Many thanks to my friend Prof. Sung Yoon Lee for offering me the opportunity to co-write this with him, especially since he frankly did most of the writing this time.  It’s a pleasure to write with Prof. Lee.  He’s a terrific writer, and our views align so closely that there’s no need for painstaking negotiations over wording and content.  Really, I don’t know of anyone who (1) understands the pathology of North Korea better, and (2) can express it so well in my native language (which he speaks better than me, to tell the truth).

After you’re done with that, don’t miss this paper Prof. Lee wrote as part of a symposium for the National Bureau of Asian Research.  In the pages of Foreign Policy, Dan Blumenthal highlights it as “a much-needed dose of reality about what exactly we are dealing with.”  Must reading.

I also have to compliment the WaPo folks for a particularly speedy and professional job of editing this for publication.  I’ve been an editor, and I know how hard it is to boil something down to the space limits without harming the author’s intent.

In case you’re keeping score, that’s one-twothree times I’ve been linked by the Post today, which must be some kind of record.  For that, I owe many thanks to Adam Cathcart and, of course, Max Fisher.  After all these years, I’d grown accustomed to being dismissed as a crank raving from the margins.  I hope I won’t miss that old familiar feeling.  I mostly hope that all of this effort will eventually matter where it counts.

Update:  Geez.  Get a load of The Washington Post‘s Editorial Board, sounding like us:

This should not mean trying once again to engage North Korea in negotiations: More than 15 years of such efforts have demonstrated that the United States lacks the leverage to induce the regime to give up its nukes. If any country has such leverage, it is China, which supplies its neighbor with fuel and food. U.S. diplomacy should be aimed first at pressuring Beijing to take responsibility for the growing menace on its doorstep. New Chinese leader Xi Jinping has the opportunity to change a policy that, in backing the Kim regime in the interest of “stability,” has made the Korean peninsula steadily more dangerous.

Though sanctions on North Korea are already tight, the Obama administration should look for new ways that the U.S. financial system can be used to cut off the regime’s access to international banks. It should work to bring greater attention to the human rights calamity in the North.

That’s the next best thing to an endorsement. I never thought I’d live to see that.

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