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

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.

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