North Korean Human Rights: Prison Camps in 2012

Keynote Remarks by Carl Gershman, President, the National Endowment for Democracy

At a conference jointly sponsored by The US-Korea Institute at SAIS, The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights

Washington, D.C.

Carl Gershman, president of National Endowment for Democracy

December 13, 2012

I want to base my remarks today on the book Escape from Camp 14 by the Washington Post
reporter Blaine Harden. It tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person born and raised in the
camps to have escaped to tell what happened there – and still happens every day. This is the most
compelling and influential memoir yet written about the camps. The book has attracted a wide
audience and has made Shin, who was recently profiled on “60 minutes,” the most well-known defector from North Korea – a voice to the world of the most oppressed and abandoned people in the most isolated and closed country anywhere on the face of the earth.

Shin’s personal story -- especially his having been forced to witness the public execution of
his mother and brother, who had tried to escape the camp -- is almost too horrible to be believed.
The power of Escape from Camp 14 is that the story is told factually, with dispassion, and without
embellishment by a distinguished journalist who has a well-earned reputation for professionalism and
responsible reporting.

The book can be understood on three dimensions: the cruel conditions inside the camps; the
broader circumstances it describes of the eroding totalitarian system of NK; and the odyssey of Shin
Dong-hyuk from the camps to the free world and the significance of his journey, which of course is a
long way from over.

First, the cruelty. The stories in the book, recalled by Shin and recounted by Blaine Harden, are almost
too painful to read:
  • There is the “exceptionally pretty” six-year-old girl in his class who was beaten to death by her teacher who found five kernels of corn in her pocket. When he found the corn, he shouted, “You bitch, you stole corn? You want your hands cut off?” She had broken subsection three of the camp’s third rule: “Anyone who steals or conceals any foodstuffs will be shot immediately.”
  • Then there’s the bloody assault on Shin and thirty of his classmates when they walked past the compound housing the camp guard’s children, who rained heavy stones down on the prison children, shouting “Reactionary sons of bitches are coming!” The “teacher” of the bloodied prison children ordered them back to work immediately, and when they asked what they should do with those who were still unconscious, he shouted back, “Put them on your backs and carry them. All you need to do is work hard.” This was the nine-year old Shin’s introduction to the North Korean caste system called Songbun, which puts a third of the country’s 23 million people in the bottom caste that is considered hostile or disloyal and that has suffered the most from the camps and the famine. Harden quotes a former camp guard and driver who fled to China in 1994 as saying that “The theory behind the camps was to cleanse unto three generations the families of incorrect thinkers.” This theory of “cleansing” explains why a child would be imprisoned along with his or her parent or grandparent. It also explains why the new-born babies of female prisoners (who were preyed on sexually by the camp guards) were clubbed to death with iron rods.
  • Shin told Harden that an assignment to work in the coal mines was the equivalent of a death sentence. Shin was fortunately assigned to a pig farm and later to a garment factory, but when he dropped a sewing machine, they hacked off part of his middle finger with a kitchen knife.
Nothing conveys the horror of life inside the camps more powerfully than Shin’s feeling of
liberation in the days immediately after his escape. By any normal human standard, his circumstances
were truly desperate. He was without food or any place to sleep, ill-clothed in temperatures near zero
degrees Fahrenheit. His legs were burned and bloodied from having crawled through the high-voltage
wire fence surrounding the camp, surviving only because he was able to crawl through over the dead
body of his partner in flight, which insulated him from the worst effects of the electric current. He was
wandering in an utterly new and different world, among North Koreans who were not being terrorized
by a prison guard, and this literally shocked him.

“It was not meaningful to him,” Harden writes,” that North Korea in the dead of winter is ugly,
dirty, and dark, or that it is poorer than Sudan, or that, taken as a whole, it is viewed by human rights
groups as the world’s largest prison.

“His context had been twenty-three years in an open-air cage run by men who hanged his
mother, shot his brother, crippled his father, murdered pregnant women, beat children to death, taught
him to betray his family, and tortured him over a fire.

“He felt wonderfully free -- and, as best he could determine, no one was looking for him.”

Shin was unable to realize it, but the North Korea he discovered outside the camp was changing
in a way that made it possible for him to cope and evade capture. As Harden was told by the editor
of the Japan-based journal Rimjin-gang – the journal compiles anonymous eyewitness accounts of life
inside North Korea, including photographs and videos – what had once been an entirely closed and
static country was in the midst of “a drastic state of change,” even if this had not yet become apparent
to the outside world.

This drastic change is what I have repeatedly called the steady erosion and progressive
unraveling of the closed totalitarian system of North Korea. It began in the 1990s with the famine and
the breakdown of the Public Distribution System, and the ensuing development of private markets that
became a survival mechanism for the society. Shin couldn’t know this, Harden writes, “but grassroots capitalism, vagabond trading, and rampant corruption were creating cracks in the police state that surrounded Camp 14.” Laws were ignored, police could be bribed, and military vehicles became profit- making servi-cha, or service cars, that gave people mobility. Shin could find cover from the state in this world, and also food and shelter. “By keeping his mouth shut and his eyes open,” Harden writes, Shin “entered the slipstream of smuggling, trading, and petty bribery that had become North Korea’s postfamine economy.”

Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard write about the new informal markets, or jangmadang,
in their book “Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea.” They call participation
in these markets an “everyday form of resistance” that is associated with the following characteristics:
“greater likelihood of arrest, more consumption of foreign news, more negative assessments of the
regime, a greater willingness to communicate these views to one’s peers, and a greater propensity to
cite political motives for emigration.”

With the growth of unprecedented space and mobility, the borders of North Korea had suddenly
become more permeable. Harden writes that the catastrophic famine and the importance of Chinese
foodstuffs in feeding the population forced the North Korean regime “to tolerate a more porous border
with China – even to the point of allowing people “to cross back and forth into China legally.” And
that, in turn, has created a new group of people who are able to leave North Korea but who choose
voluntarily to go back. Some of these people take part in educational programs in towns on the
Chinese side of the border about free markets and how to promote the rule of law and attract foreign
investment. Close observers of North Korea speculate that such people, who understand that North
Korea needs to change, could be the first representatives of a new group of professionals who are able
to think outside the straight jacket of state orthodoxy.

But it’s still much too soon for the emergence of political dissidents in North Korea. I remember
in 2003 when a small delegation from South Korea met with the Czech President Vaclav Havel when
they were in Prague to prepare for the 4th International Conference on Human Rights in North Korea.
Havel had a great interest in dissidents, having been one himself, and he asked if there were any of
them in North Korea. He was told that the system was too oppressive to produce dissidents, and
the reason for this is not hard to fathom. Orwell once said that nonviolent protest can’t exist in a
country “where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of
again.” In North Korea, they’re often shot in grotesque public executions that are intended to terrify
the population into complete submission. Nonetheless, it is still not inconceivable that dissidents will
someday emerge in North Korea as the system of total control breaks down and some people are able
to travel outside the country, meet foreigners, and possibly begin to think independently.

The porous border has also contributed to the breakdown of what Andrei Lankov has called
the North Korean regime’s information blockade. As Harden reports, used Chinese televisions and
video players, three dollar radios, video tapes, CDs and flashdrives are now regularly smuggled into
the country, and people increasingly have the ability to listen to the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia,
and other broadcasts. Harden calls the two million ethnic Koreans living in northeast China “an unsung
force for cultural change inside North Korea” because they help to smuggle into the country hundreds of thousands of CDs with South Korean soap operas and other programs that expose North Koreans to the world outside – and to the lies told about it by the North Korean regime.

And then, of course, there are the stations and information networks run by the defectors and
their allies in South Korea, which, according to Harden, not only send information into North Korea but “have revolutionized news coverage” of the country. He gives as an example the fact that news of the 2002 reforms easing restrictions on private markets took months to reach the outside world, while the disastrous currency reform in 2009 was reported within hours by the new independent media.

This raises the most important new development over the past decade, which is the
resettlement in South Korea of some 25,000 North Korean defectors. Though Pyongyang and China are doing everything they can to close off escape routes – they are forcibly sending defectors back to North Korea where they are severely punished and shooting anyone caught trying to escape -- North Koreans nonetheless continue to flee. The number of defectors this year will be about 2,000, down almost by one-third from last year, but still a substantial number considering the terrible risks North Koreans face in trying to cross the border.

For the present, these defectors are the only voice that now exists to speak for the victimized
and silenced people inside North Korea. Their networks, NGO's, and media operations in South Korea
represent a two-way communications link for people inside North Korea, something that has never
existed before; and they are a growing force in bringing the terrible human-rights abuses in North Korea to the attention of the international community. Still, as Harden notes, their voice has been relatively muted, and their reports “have barely pricked the world’s collective conscience.” This brings us to the importance of Shin Dong-hyuk.

Harden quotes Suzanne Scholte of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea to the effect
that the camp survivors don’t have a representative and recognizable figure – like the Dalai Lama for
the Tibetan rights movement or Aung San Suu Kyi for the democracy movement in Burma. Shin doesn’t have the stature of these leaders, and Escape from Camp 14 does not have the monumental and historic significance of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.

Shin Dong-hyuk
But Shin’s story has a special power because it is so astonishing – the fact that he was born and
raised in the camps, the horrific account of the execution of his mother and brother, his miraculous
escape from Camp 14 and eventually from North Korea itself. His experience is a devastating indictment of the North Korean Gulag, and it is now reaching a much wider audience than any previous North Korean prison memoir or research report on the camps.

Shin’s prominence has placed on his shoulders the very heavy responsibility of explaining the
horror of the camps to world opinion in the hope of rescuing the prisoners who are still there – some
150,000 to 200,000, according to most reliable estimates. It did not seem likely when he arrived in
South Korea that he could ever bear such a responsibility. He endured great emotional suffering as he
tried to recover from the terrible trauma that he had endured and the guilt he felt about the death
of his mother and brother. I want to give special recognition to our co-sponsor today, the Database
Center for North Korean Human Rights, for the important role it played in helping Shin come to grips with his painful memories and to develop the capacity to communicate his experience and his message
to ever wider audiences.

According to Harden, Shin’s psychological recovery and moral development have been
extraordinary. Escape from Camp 14 concludes with Harden observing Shin deliver a talk at a
Korean Pentecostal church in Seattle. “Shin’s speech astonished me,” Harden writes. “Compared
to the diffident, incoherent speaker I had seen six months earlier in Southern California, he was
unrecognizable. He had harnessed his self-loathing and used it to indict the state that had poisoned his
heart and killed his family….When Shin was finished, when he told the congregation that one man, if he refuses to be silenced, could help free the tens of thousands who remain in North Korea’s camps, the
church exploded in applause… Shin had seized control of his past.”

Of course, the job of exposing and abolishing North Korea’s gruesome Gulag cannot be
accomplished by one person, however compelling his message is. The Database Center and the
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, two of our co-sponsors today, are part of a community of institutions that has done extraordinary work over the past decade in revealing information about the
camps. The Database Center has documented nearly 40,000 cases of human-rights abuse, involving
public executions, forced repatriation, forced labor, infanticide, and religious persecution.

The Committee, under the leadership of its energetic Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu and its
co-chairs Roberta Cohen and Andrew Natsios, is the source of the best and most influential research
on the camps and other aspects of the North Korean totalitarian system. As a board member of the
Committee, I’m proud to note that Harden credits a number of people associated with the Committee
for helping him understand North Korea and write Escape from Camp 14. In addition to Suzanne Scholte whom I’ve already mentioned, he recognizes board members Lisa Colacurcio and Marcus Noland, as well as David Hawk who wrote the Committee’s two path-breaking reports on the camps.

We have an enormous job ahead of us to expose the camps and the nature of the North Korean
system. The NED’s grant-making on North Korea started almost fifteen years ago with support for
human-rights and advocacy programs, because at the time there were no reports on human rights in
North Korea or public discussion of the issue. Since then, of course, there is much more information and advocacy about North Korea, and while NED has continued to support such efforts, its primary focus has shifted to affecting developments inside North through broadcasting and training programs.

But advocacy must remain a key priority. Committee co-chair Andrew Natsios has urged that
the U.S. and South Korea “expand the agenda for any talks with North Korea to include its horrific
treatment of prisoners, conditions in the North Korean penal system generally, and the appalling human
rights record of the regime.”

The time may be right for enlarging the discussion in this way, in no small measure because
Congressman Ed Royce will soon take over as the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
He has a long-standing commitment to the cause of human rights in North Korea, and he laid down a
marker in a recent interview by saying that the United States should use “energy, creativity and focus”
in applying pressure on North Korea. He has already urged “an asset freeze” modeled on the Treasury

Department’s targeting in 2005 the $24 million in North Korean assets held by the Banco Delta Asia
(BDA); and he has called on Washington to hunt for North Korean assets hidden in foreign nations. I
have no doubt that Congressman Royce will welcome our ideas on what the United States can do to end the human rights abuses in North Korea.

And much more needs to be done. At a recent donor and practitioner conference that NED
organized in London, Roberta Cohen noted the gap that exists between what the human-rights reports
say about North Korea atrocities, and what senior government and United Nations officials are ready to
act on. That means we have to devise new and creative ways to present information about North Korea
in ever more compelling and convincing ways.

In this regard, I want to commend the Database Center for beginning to develop an inter-active
map showing where the camps are located and linking the victims they have interviewed with particular
camps and locations.

I also want to recognize the Committee’s work with DigitalGlobe in providing satellite
photographs of Camps 22 and 18, along with analysis of what the photographs reveal. Since North
Korea continues to deny categorically the existence of the camps, and governments and the U.N. have
hesitated to raise alarm about the issue in the absence of definitive evidence, the work being done by
the Committee and DigitalGlobe is extremely important.

In fact, the scope of the evil represented by the camps may be even worse than what is revealed
in the various reports and defector testimonies. In the paper on Camp 22 that Greg Scarlatoiu and
his team have prepared for this conference, we are informed that this camp and possibly Camp 18 as
well appear to have been dismantled and their prisoners relocated. The paper emphasizes that close
monitoring is essential “to ensure that the North Korean regime does not attempt to erase all evidence
of atrocities committed at the camps, including the surviving prisoners.”

Ominously, Shin also warns in Escape from Camp 14 that the lives of all the prisoners could be
in danger. Harden writes that at one of their meetings Shin was busy watching old films of the Allied
liberation of Nazi death camps, “which included scenes of bulldozers unearthing corpses that Adolph
Hitler’s Third Reich had tried to hide.” Shin told Harden that “’It is just a matter of time’ before North
Korea decides to destroy the camps. ‘I hope the United States, through pressure and persuasion, can
convince [the North Korean government] not to murder all those people in the camps.’”

It is possible, therefore, that as more becomes known about the North Korean Gulag, the regime
could have taken the decision to murder the prisoners in order to eliminate the evidence of its criminal
actions. Of course we cannot know this for certain. But the fact that the regime has demonstrated
that it does not value in the least the lives of the prisoners -- and one cannot help but draw such a
conclusion from Blaine Harden’s account of Shin Dong-hyuk’s experiences – makes such an horrific
scenario entirely plausible.

Much more is known today about what is happening in North Korea than was known about the
Nazi crimes during World War II, which the historian Walter Laqueur has called “the terrible secret.” We have detailed reports about the camps and satellite photographs. There are graphic and compelling
memoirs and accounts by former camp inmates. And there is much stronger advocacy today, with
information universally available on the Internet. There is no excuse for inaction. The urgency of the
agenda and its implementation must be equal to the scale of the evil that is being confronted. There is
no greater evil in the world today.
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