Outside World Turns Blind Eye to N. Korea's Hard-Labor Camps

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 20, 2009

SEOUL -- Images and accounts of the North Korean gulag become sharper, more harrowing and more accessible with each passing year.

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.

North Korea officially says the camps do not exist. It restricts movements of the few foreigners it allows into the country and severely punishes those who sneak in. U.S reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced last month to 12 years of hard labor, after being convicted in a closed trial on charges of entering the country illegally.

North Korea's gulag also lacks the bright light of celebrity attention. No high-profile, internationally recognized figure has emerged to coax Americans into understanding or investing emotionally in the issue, said Suzanne Scholte, a Washington-based activist who brings camp survivors to the United States for speeches and marches.

"Tibetans have the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere, Burmese have Aung San Suu Kyi, Darfurians have Mia Farrow and George Clooney," she said. "North Koreans have no one like that."

Executions as Lessons

Before guards shoot prisoners who have tried to escape, they turn each execution into a teachable moment, according to interviews with five North Koreans who said they have witnessed such killings.

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