North Koreans walk along a street in a village see from a train heading to North Phyongan Province, about 50 kilometers (35 miles) south of the border town of Sinuiju along North Korea's west coast on Sunday April 8, 2012.
The gulag's captives are not told of their crimes, though torture usually produces a "confession" -- which might admit to defacing an image of the "Great Leader" or listening to a foreign broadcast. There is no defence, trial, judge or sentence, though most inmates remain in the camps for life, unless they escape. Neighbors, colleagues and distant family members know nothing about the fate of those who vanish. Inmates are held incommunicado, without visits, food parcels, letters or radio.
Chronically malnourished, they work in mines, quarries and logging camps, with one rest day a month. Infractions of camp rules, such as stealing food meant for livestock, damaging equipment or having unauthorized sexual liaisons, are punished with beatings and torture. Guards rape women prisoners, leading to forced abortions for the pregnant, or infanticide. Inmates are under pressure to snitch. Executions are routine -- and fellow prisoners must often watch.
Consider the case of Shin Dong-hyuk, the subject of a new book ("Escape from Camp 14"). He was born of "model" prisoner parents in Camp 14, Kaechon in 1982 and spent his first 22 years inside. As punishment for dropping a sewing machine, his finger was cut off. He was also suspended over a fire, and a hook was thrust through his belly, to make him "confess" to joining an escape supposedly being planned by his mother and brother. He was then made to witness their executions.
Whole families are incarcerated at a time. Kim Il Sung, the state's founding ruler, declared that: "The seed of factionalists or enemies of class, whoever they are, must be eliminated through three generations." Just as guilt was heritable under the feudal Chosun dynasty, so the Kim regime divides the population into hereditary classes of the "loyal," "wavering" and "hostile." The gulag is filled with the third kind, people perceived to be Christian, or from the wrong background, or thought to have insulted the honor of the Kim dynasty.
The North Korean gulag has persisted for twice as long as its Soviet counterpart did. Yet the world looks away. The United States expends its diplomatic energies in negotiations over the regime's tinpot nuclear and missile programme, with little to show for the effort. South Korean brethren have other things on their minds -- the political left wants better relations with the North, while others just wish it was not there. As for China, an ally, it forcibly repatriates North Koreans who have fled across the border, even though they face execution.
Rarely does the gulag intrude. Perhaps the scale of the atrocity numbs moral outrage. Certainly it is easier to lampoon the regime as ruled by extraterrestrial freaks than to grapple with the suffering it inflicts (the Economist is guilty of this).
Yet North Korea commits nearly every atrocity that counts as a crime against humanity: murder, enslavement, forcible population transfers, torture, rape.
A world that places any value on the idea of universal human rights should no longer overlook North Korea's enormities. China should end its shameful forced repatriation of North Koreans and allow the Red Cross and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees into border areas. It should also cease sheltering the Kims at the United Nations, which should launch a commission of inquiry.
America and South Korea, especially, must not hide behind nuclear diplomacy, but press harder on human rights. On April 15, the state's young new ruler, Kim Jong Un, marked the centenary of his grandfather's birth. This third-generation seed of the Kim dictatorship must now be confronted with his own murderous inheritance -- a blot on humanity.
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