June 18, 2013

Tortured, beaten, starved: life in a Korean gulag

This interview originally appeared in Deutsche Welle on June 18, 2013.

Thousands of people are worked and tortured to death in North Korean gulags every year. Executive Director of the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea Greg Scarlatoiu tells DW about their living conditions.

As many as 200,000 people are believed to be locked up in North Korean gulags. But that's just an estimate. How difficult is it to get reliable information?

The information that we have comes from former prisoners and former guards, for example, Shin Dong-Hyuk, the hero of the escape from Camp 14, a young man who was born in the gulag and lived there until the age of 23 when he managed to escape. Mr. Ahn Myong-Chol was a prison guard at Camp 22 in Hoeryong and a driver at the camps. He was there between 1990 and 1994. He is the one who reported that prisoners had been used for human experimentation inside the camps. This information comes not only from former prisoners and guards but also from former employees - North Korea's internal intelligence agencies, the agencies that manage the camps. For example, the number that you mentioned between 150,000 and 200,000 has been confirmed by former officials of North Korea's state security department who defected to South Korea and who were debriefed by South Korean intelligence. Also, the information that we get is cross-checked with satellite imagery. It is amazing to see how the information provided by former prisoners can actually be identified. They identify the structures there, they can recognize, for example, their sleeping quarters, a building that was used as detention and interrogation facility. So these are the means that we have at our disposal.

So how big would you say is the part of the overall picture that is still unknown or guess work?

Well, I would say that we have a fairly clear idea. There are things we know for sure: that the camps exist, the population of the camps is between 150,00 and 200,000; massive human rights violations happen at these facilities, that we know for sure. We also know there are different types of facilities and that the level of seclusion might be different; there are facilities called "total control zones." People who are held there have no chance of getting out. Those are very rare occurrences. So we know many things for certain. There are also things we don't know for certain. We know that the death rate inside these camps is absolutely astounding. Every witness you talk to has seen someone die next to him or her. It almost seems that some of the work units inside the camps lose a third or half of their members due to forced labor, induced malnutrition, torture, beatings - due to the horrifying conditions inside the camps. So we know that the death rates are high but what we don't know for sure is whether new arrivals, new prisoners, make up for the number of those who have died. So in other words, if 2,000 prisoners die at a given camp during one year, we're not sure if 2,000 new prisoners are brought to the camp. And that would have a direct impact on the number of prisoners being held there. The number that we still work with is 150,000 to 200,000. Some of our colleagues in South Korea have signaled that due to the astoundingly high death rates at the camps, the number might have declined. But we are not sure and in the process of verifying the information. We know that these abuses are terrible but probably we have barely scratched the surface. The number of witnesses we've talked to is very limited. One day, we will learn the full truth about these facilities and it will be terrible.

What kind of torture is applied to the prisoners?

All kinds of torture that a sick imagination would come up with - people suspended over a fire, burnt, hooks stuck into their bodies; we know of the particularly harsh treatment that is applied to women who became pregnant with Chinese men. Unfortunately what happens is that China arrests North Korean refugees and they don't grant them political refugee status. Theoretically, legally, they should grant them the status because China is a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and if one faces a credible fear of persecution upon return to his or her country, they should be automatically granted refugee status. China doesn't do that and in the cases of women, North Korean women who became pregnant with Chinese men during their defection are subjected to forced abortions. We've also had reports of infanticide, infants killed in the most gruesome kind of way with utter disregard for human life.

You mentioned the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk. After his book was published, there was an outcry. People were horrified by the gruesome descriptions in it. Did the case change public awareness altogether?

I think it was this book that played an important role. I think that there has been increased interest in North Korean human rights. Our problem is that we are dealing with a set of very difficult issues. We are dealing with North Korea's development of nuclear weapons. We're also dealing with North Korea's development of ballistic missiles. Human rights have not been seen generally as being on par with the other very important issues. It is our challenge and our mission to ensure that human rights are placed at the same level as the other very important issues. We were very optimistic to see that the UN Human Rights Council passed by consensus a resolution to establish a commission of inquiry on North Korean human rights on March 21 this year. Actually, we were the organization to first propose the establishment of this commission seven years ago in our report "Failure to Protect." That was a very positive step, especially since the 47-member UN Human Rights Council passed this by consensus.

Are there any statistics about how many people actually manage to escape from prison camps every year?

For our report, we interviewed a group of 60 former North Koreans - former prisoners and former guards as well. There is no given pattern. This is very random. Because escaping from a political prison camp is an extraordinarily difficult endeavor. The number of North Korean defectors arriving in South Korea declined by almost 50 percent from 2011 to 2012 - from over 2,800 to just over 1,500. The reason for that being an intensified crackdown on attempted defections by the Kim Jong Un regime, in particular in the border areas with China. And it is very likely the Shin Dong-Hyuk story has truly focused international attention on North Korea's political prison camps. This certainly provides the Kim regime with a strong incentive to ensure that other prisoners do not get out. So they'll pay even more attention and make sure they tighten whatever security arrangements they have in place at these facilities.

Interview conducted by Esther Felden