National Post: the Significance of North Korea’s Prisoner Amnesty

[DISCLAIMER: The following article by Ross Johnston, entitled “Torture, executions are daily occurrences at North Korea’s ‘rehabilitation’ gulags” and published in the National Post on 3 February 2012 contains a number of factual and interpretive errors when referring to an interview with the Editor-in-Chief of CanKor. For example, Erich Weingartner did not receive North Korean citizenship. He also specified that the link between prison camps and the low incidence of crimes witnessed by foreigners in the late 1990s is purely speculative, and emphasized that prisoner amnesties are common during a change of leaders not only in North but also in South Korea. In neither case would the release of prisoners include those who might pose a threat to the incoming leadership. –CanKor]

Shin Sook-ja was imprisoned in a North Korean labour camp along with her daughters, Oh Hyewon and Oh Gyuwon, after her husband managed to flee the country. She and the girls were then forced to pose for this fake family portrait, which was sent to her husband as evidence of their capture. (Amnesty International)

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in Kwanliso 14, a “rehabilitation” camp 72 kilometres north of Pyongyang, North Korea.

For 23 years he knew only pain, hunger and despair, and like all prisoners was forced to witness the daily executions.

Even so, life was not without its hard-won, if shocking pleasures.

“One lucky day, I discovered some kernels of corn in a small pile of cow dung,” he said in a report released by Amnesty International in May.

“I picked them up and cleaned them with my sleeve before eating.”

Mr. Shin was one of about 200,000 prisoners held in five known prison camps scattered across the country.

These modern gulags include Kwanliso (Korean for prison camp) 15 at Yodok, 128 kilometres east of Pyongyang. With 50,000 political prisoners, it is one of the most rapidly growing camps in North Korea covering five valleys and approximately 146 square kilometres. (Inside Pyongyang’s Gulags view PDF)

For decades, the Pyongyang government has repeatedly denied the existence of the camps — though they show up on satellite maps. But there is little doubt about their purpose: It is to reform enemies of the state through a regime of hard labour and relentless propaganda.

In a carefully orchestrated public relations move, Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s new leader, announced the release of a few prisoners this week.

Though it is being touted as an act of clemency commemorating the birthdays of his grandfather Kim Il-sung and father, Kim Jong-il, experts agree the Pyongyang government also hopes to appease mounting global unease over the existence and operation of the camps.

Erich Weingartner, editor in chief of CanKor, an online think-tank that works to enhance dialogue about North Korean policy, believes Mr. Kim’s political strategists are using this opportunity to hint at a possible shift in diplomacy.

“Typically, when there’s a change in leadership, there’s some kind of gesture,” he said.

“This is a big year for them and this is a good opportunity for a gesture that will show the magnanimity of the new leadership.”

In the late 1990s, Mr. Weingartner founded the Food Aid Liaison Unit, a non-governmental organization working with the United Nations World Food Program. Its goal was to deliver food to people living in areas hard-hit by the famine that killed at least 3.5 million North Koreans.

Thanks to his privileged position as the only Canadian to be granted North Korean citizenship at the time, he was able to visit the country.

What he saw there was shocking, but he also noticed that even though food and other basic necessities were scarce, there was almost no crime.

He chalks that up now to the existence of the camps, the ultimate punishment.

“Certainly people were aware these camps existed and that could be one of the reasons there was no crime to be seen,” he said.

“But the desperation and horrors of the famine, particularly amongst children, were hard to witness.”

Though the amnesty, announced Wednesday, is being touted as a way of pleasing critics inside and outside the country, Mr. Weingartner believes it will do little to curb the atrocities being committed in the camps.

“The prisoners being released will be of little or no consequence to the government,” he said.

“These are individuals who have been perceived to have committed only the most basic of crimes and are therefor easier to rehabilitate and reintegrate into society.”

Although information about the camps is understandably hard to come by, they are divided into two categories: a Total Control Zone and a Revolutionary Zone.

The Total Control Zone is for people accused of committing crimes against the regime and for whom there is no possible hope of rehabilitation. To date, there has not been one documented release from any Total Control Zone.

The Revolutionary Zone houses prisoners who are “guilty by association” — they are friends and families of those accused of lesser infractions against the regime. Their sentences can run from a few months to 10 years, depending on the crime.

Living conditions in the camps are deplorable. Amnesty International says there is one latrine for every 200 inmates. Temperatures can plummet to -40C during the winter months, and prisoners must sleep in cramped shacks with no heat or blankets.

A lack of access to medicine means most illnesses are left untreated, often leading to festering wounds, widespread contagion and even death.

While hard labour is a daily inevitability, the use of torture is just as commonplace. Methods may vary, but the goal is always the same: to break the will, enforce a draconian idea of law and maintain the status quo.

That’s what happened to Mr. Shin. He told Amnesty International how he was relentlessly tortured from the age of 13.

“I was taken to a chamber full of all kinds of torture instruments,” he said of one session.

“I was stripped, my legs were cuffed and my hands were tied with rope. I was then hung by my legs and hands from the ceiling. Someone started a charcoal fire and brought it just under my back. I felt the heat at my waist and shrieked. My torturers pierced me with a steel hook near the groin to stop me writhing; the pain was so much that I fainted.”

Jeong Kyongil was sent to Yodok after being arrested for spying in 1999. He spent three years there, and says his captors used different methods of torture to obtain a confession from him.

“My lower teeth were all broken during the torture,” he said. “I was put in a so-called ‘pigeon position’; hands cuffed behind my back and hung from the ceiling, not for one hour, but two or three days. I would rather admit the allegation and get out of this situation even though I was not a spy.”

Jeong Kyongil (Amnesty International)

Kang Cheol-hwan, then a 10-year-old boy, described how he was forced to carry heavy sacks of earth up to 30 times a day while working at a mine in Yodok.

“The work was too much for me, or for any child of my age,” he said.

“But I did not dare complain. After the first 10 rounds, my legs starting shaking, my body was hurting and my shoulder skin was peeling off. I was near collapse but the teachers were watching us and beating us with sticks if we stopped.”

Another former Yodok inmate, a man known only as “Kim,” gave a graphic account of torture.

“A black plastic bag was put on my head and then I was submerged in water for long periods of time,” he said.

“For five months I was tortured; not every day, but off and on. When I was tortured, it was for the whole day. At the end, I confessed to what they wanted me to confess.”

For the daring few who attempt to defect from North Korea, their families often pay the price. This was the case for Oh Kil-nam, whose wife and two daughters were rounded up and sent to Yodok after he managed to flee the country. According to former inmates, Shin Sook-ja and her daughters, Oh Hyewon and Oh Gyuwon, were then forced to pose in a mock “family portrait” that was sent to Mr. Oh as evidence of their capture.

The North Korean government has created these camps to systematically eradicate its own citizens and reap the paltry benefits of their enforced labour, all while cloaking their efforts in a repetitive mantra of denial. The result is a macabre flirtation with genocide.

Charles Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Studies at Columbia University in New York, says the camps exist as a simple display of power by the North Korean government.

“We learned from the old Soviet regime that these camps inherently fail at their intended purpose of rehabilitation,” he said.

“The [government] have a clear motive and although they might not come out and say it is to exterminate these prisoners, that happens to be the stark reality of the situation. These camps exist as a testament to their power.”

As with all North Korean diplomacy, news of the amnesty will be carefully controlled. The exact number of prisoners released will be publicized by the state-run news agency according to a prearranged timetable.

Though not enough to quell skeptics, the act itself could signal a positive change. Rajiv Narayan, an Amnesty International researcher specializing in North Korean affairs, said global scrutiny often can change how these camps are run.

“[North Korea] has in the past closed some camps when they’ve come under the spotlight,” he said.

“We don’t see [that there could be] an increase in the number of these political prison camps. The fear is that we could see an increase in population.”

Even still, a closer look at the history of these camps paints a grim image for a country whose human rights record is tarnished beyond repair.

“These camps came into existence when Kim Il-sung was consolidating his power base in the Fifties,” Mr. Narayan said.

“There is a precedence here. When Kim Jong-il took over in the early Nineties, there was an increase in the political prisoner population.”

Now, under the rule of Kim Jong-un, North Korea is faced with the task of legitimizing its new leader. Mr. Narayan believes this could foreshadow yet another increase in the numbers of prisoners.

“[Kim Jong-un] hasn’t had a chance to make a transition into power,” he said.

“He’s also being chaperoned and it’s quite likely that there are people in his inner circle that want to settle scores. With an authoritative government, the natural fear for human rights observers is that we will see an increase in the political prisoner population.”

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