I see North Korea as a black box. A black box that fervently tries to portray a happy picture.
There have been numerous attempts to condemn Pyongyang for serious human rights violations. In response to that, North Korea gives out an “All Good” report stating that their constitution makes it imperative to have a humanitarian approach. Along with these forged reports, what North Korea has to offer on the table is a conspiracy theory that, as North Korea claims, has been machinated by enemies of the state. It urges the nations of the world to believe in its public spirit.
Okay! Maybe we can do that. Maybe we should try to put our faith in their words.
But when their government categorically denies allegations of human rights violations in prison camps, you know nobody is going to buy it. I mean we are talking about PRISON CAMPS!! How do you expect us to believe that, when most of the North Korean defectors give statements of the feared arbitrary inspection. According to the defectors, such inspections often result in arrest and punishment of crimes without any fair trial. They are sent to prison camps which are located in remote areas where they are completely isolated from the outside world.
There are two types of prison camps in DPRK(North Korea’s official title is Democratic People’s Republic of Korea ) :
- Kwan-li-so : large internment camps for political prisoners
2. Kyo-hwa-so : reeducation prison camps
DPRK has 6 political prison camps and 15-20 reeducation camps. In distinction from the internment camps for political prisoners, the re-education camp prisoners are instructed ideologically after work and are forced to memorize speeches of Kim Il Sung andKim Jong Il and to undergo self-criticism rites. This is the only distinction between Kwan Li So and Kyo Hwa So.
Other than that, both of these are infamous for extermination, enslavement, torture, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation. There are records stating that even if the prisoners are crippled from work accidents, frostbite or torture, they have to continue working. Prisoners who work too slowly or do not obey an order are beaten or tortured. In cases of stealing food or attempting to escape, the prisoners are publicly executed.
The punishments are brutal so as to instill fear in people. Fear that allows them to betray their own family for the sake of a few kernels of corn(prison guards are instructed to knowingly cause prolonged starvation).
Shin Dong-Hyuk ,born at Camp 14(Kwan-Li-So camp), was told that the guards gave his mother as payment to his father for operating a metal lathe in the camp’s machine shop. He stayed with his mother for 12 years and all these years he saw his mother as a competitor for their insufficient food. One regret that stays with him is giving away information about the escape plan of his mother and brother. He did that because that was what he was taught to do. He was taught to spy on everyone around him. He was taught to give information about the traitors to get rewarded with a few corn kernels.
But he wasn’t aware that he was born under the “ Three Generation Rule”. A rule where anyone who is suspected of political crimes is sent to jail along with their families without trial and two more generations of the family has to live in the camps. Since his mother and brother tried to escape, which is a political crime, he had to witness their execution and this time he was subject to ruthless torture. But he somehow managed to escape the repressive regime and now he has established himself as a human rights activist. He is called the “single strongest voice “against the violation of human rights in North Korea.
Talking about the atrocities and unfair rules that are often presented under the fine cloth of loyalty and nationalism, comes the songbun system. Songbun is the caste system where Kim Il Sung’s government gave each citizen a background based on the individual’s loyalty towards North Korea. Those who had opposed Kim and supported South Korea or Japan were classified as Hostile Class, that is the lowest class. Songbun is a kind of hereditary caste system, under which members of the lowest caste and their children took up such work as farming and mining and those in the highest caste became government officials.
Jeon Gwang Jin who was born in the hostile class dreamt of improving his lifestyle by climbing up the social ladder. But that dream of his was shattered when his father broke the truth that somebody of his background will never be able to reach Pyongyang(Pyongyang is reserved only for the royal family and the affluent, so reaching Pyongyang meant finding a spot among the higher class). This is when he made his mind to settle in a new country.
Jeon defected the country along with Kim. Their partnership is highly unusual – Kim was a female prisoner and Jeon was his prison guard. Both were stationed at Chongori Camp. A reeducation camp where the combination of hazardous forced labor, inadequate food, beatings, totally inadequate medical care and unhygienic living conditions, resulted in prisoners falling ill, and a large number died in custody or soon after release. It is often recorded that in a Kyo-hwa-so camp(Chongori was Kyo-hwa-so type) detainees are no longer treated as humans.They are seen as animals for whom the guards have no compassion or mercy.
Now think about the condition of female prisoners inside such a diabolical setup. One of the female prisoners who left the country said,
” We are so often subject to sexual abuse that some of us don’t think of it as a big deal. We don’t even realize when we are upset. But we are human, and we feel it. So sometimes, out of nowhere, you cry at night and don’t know why.”
Many women expressed a sense that the abuse they endured was so normalized that almost no one thought to file a complaint against the perpetrators.
Coming back to Kim, she was imprisoned for brokering i.e .helping North Koreans escape over the border into China and keeping channels open between those who had fled and families left behind. This meant that she knew how to escape DPRK – by crossing Tumen river. This route is used by most of the defectors to cross the borders of DPRK.
Whichever route has been used by the defectors and for whatever reason they have left the country , fear for their families, who still live in DPRK, stays with them. They are worried about their loved ones who are left behind as the government would immediately put them under strict surveillance. In many of the cases, people close to defectors are tortured and interrogated for days and some are also pushed in the darkest corners of prison.
As North Korean defectors cross the border, they look forward to a better life. They longed for freedom and they got it when the borders were crossed but when they think about their loved ones, they find themselves guilty of escaping.