North Korean Prisons Have Become a System of Extortion, Refugees Say

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

TOKYO, Oct. 5 -- 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."

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."

Noland, an economist, and his co-author, Stephan Haggard, an Asian specialist at the University of California in San Diego, have extensively chronicled the economic underpinnings of poverty and hunger in North Korea. Their new report, "Repression and Punishment in North Korea," draws on data gathered in two surveys of North Korean refugees.

The first, conducted in 2004 and 2005, interviewed 1,346 people in 11 sites in China. The second, conducted late last year in South Korea, interviewed 300 people. Most of those interviewed were in their late 30s and had been farmers or laborers.

While both surveys produced similar findings about repression of economic criminals in North Korea, neither was random. Compared with North Korea as a whole, those surveyed were disproportionately lower-income residents of two hunger-plagued northern provinces near the Chinese border.

The authors concede, too, that the surveys are susceptible to bias, since refugees flee the North "precisely because of the intensity of their ill-treatment and disaffection."

North Korea is a black hole for hard statistical data of the sort normally crunched by economists and social scientists. The state releases little such data, and much of what it does release is regarded by outside experts as falsified and misleading.

The government adamantly denies the existence of political prison camps, which the U.S. government says hold about 200,000 people. Outsiders have never been allowed to visit them. The official state news agency declared this year that "there is no 'human rights issue' in the country, as everybody leads the most dignified and happy life."

But high-definition satellite photographs, widely available on the Internet, reveal at least five large labor camps encircled by guard towers and electrified fences. The images corroborate survivor stories and human rights reports about mines where prisoners work as slaves and parade grounds where they are compelled to watch executions.

The survey data analyzed by Haggard and Noland, although imperfect, is the first large-scale attempt by social scientists to paint a picture of how repression in North Korea has changed in recent years to adapt to the collapse of the country's command-style economy and the rise of a scruffy network of private markets.

At least half the calories consumed by North Koreans now come from food sold in these markets, according to estimates by outside economists with access to North Korean and U.N. food data. And nearly 80 percent of the country's household income derives from buying and selling in the markets, according to a study last year in the Seoul Journal of Economics.

The fundamental finding of the new report is that North Korea has reinvented its Stalinist-style gulag, which had focused on repression of political opponents. A network of smaller labor camps, Haggard and Noland say, is now aimed at controlling and collecting money from the broader population.

"The classic political gulag still exists, but increasingly labor camps are used to extract bribes," Noland said. "My impression is that bribery and extortion have become very important to the livelihoods of local government officials."

Among those refugees who left North Korea after 2005, when the government began to reverse tentative reforms that tolerated some private trading, 85 percent said they needed to pay bribes to engage in market activity.

The changing penal system appears to be successful in keeping the lid on any significant domestic opposition to Kim Jong Il and his government, the report found, even though market activity has sharply increased the access that ordinary North Koreans have to foreign media.

Inside North Korea, a majority of people do not dare complain or joke about the government, the survey found. It also found that fear was especially acute when it came to discussing their "Dear Leader," as Kim is known. Only 8 percent of the refugees said that people spoke freely about him.

Markets, though, have weakened state influence over daily life, while offering new ways to make money in careers that are not under the control of the government. To rein this in, the government has come up with a matrix of laws that criminalize everyday market behavior, the report says.

Authorities appear to have "extraordinary discretion" in deciding whom to send to labor camps for economic crimes and in deciding when to let them out, the report said. About two-thirds of those held in low-level labor camps said they were allowed to go home within a month.

Haggard and Noland conclude that brutal treatment in these camps is intended to send a message: "The more arbitrary and painful the experience with the penal system, the easier it is for officials to extort money for avoiding it."

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