David Hawk on the second edition of Hidden Gulag


[In 2003, CanKor Brain Trust member David Hawk, Visiting Scholar at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, authored “The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps” for the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. The book contained numerous former prisoners’ testimonies and satellite photographs of the locations identified by them. Earlier this year a second, revised and augmented edition of this book was published. We asked David to explain why a new edition seemed necessary and some of the differences between the two. –CanKor]

David R. Hawk

CanKor: Why a second edition of Hidden Gulag?

Hawk: The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea wanted a second edition because the 2003 edition was long out of print. So rather than reprint additional hard copies of a then eight year old report, the Committee asked me to do an update.

Hidden Gulag had become something of a textbook on political imprisonment in North Korea. So I wanted to do an update that would have a “long shelf live” in the sad event that things in the DPRK remain largely the same. The Committee agreed that I should do an almost entirely new report as there is now much more information available about the practices of arbitrary detention. (When in 2002-2003 I did thirty in-depth interviews for the first edition there were some 3,000 former North Koreans who fled to China and South Korea, among whom were two score persons who had been imprisoned in the DPRK. By 2010-11 when I did an additional thirty interviews for the 2nd edition there were some 23,000 former North Koreans now recently resident in South Korea, among whom literally hundreds were previously incarcerated in the DPRK’s variety of forced labor facilities for persons deemed to have committed political offenses.)

Included in this number were several persons who had been imprisoned for 20-30 years in different prison-labor camps. These long-term prisoners provide a great deal of information about the operation of the camps over a long period of time. For example, the violations documented in the first edition took place in the 1980s and 1990s. The additional research extended the report’s coverage of DPRK prison camp operation from 1970 to 2008. While the original title has been retained, the text is almost entirely new.

CanKor: Is there a significance in the timing the new release ?

Hawk: Had I finished the research and writing a year earlier, it would have been published a year earlier. But as it turned out, the release of the 2nd edition was timed to coincide with the publication Escape from Camp 14, the extraordinary biography of Shin Dong-hyuk by former Washington Post correspondent, Blaine Harden. Shin was born in Camp 14, the child of a very rare guard-chosen “union” between two model prisoners. Shin escaped after 24 years in the camp, one of two known escapees from the kwan-li-so prison camps.

Shin’s biography provides an in-depth and moving account of one very remarkable prisoner who was born and raised in the camps. Hidden Gulag, on the other hand, based on 60 interviews with former prisoners, summarizes much of what is known and knowable about the North Korean systems of arbitrary detention and forced labor. (The report also notes what we don’t know about the camps, owing largely to the 2 – 4 years lapse between the time when the violations are committed inside North Korea and when we can learn about them from former prisoners who have fled to China and then traveled on to South Korea.)

CanKor: What are the differences between first and second edition?

Hawk: When doing human rights research and documentation, the first step is to obtain in-depth testimony on the violations from the victims and witnesses. After the eye-witness and first-hand testimonies have been obtained, the second step is to use the most appropriate and best available framework for analysis. Apart from a great deal more information about the operation of arbitrary detention and forced labor in the DPRK, the second edition utilizes a much better framework for analysis. The first edition utilized the International Covenants on Civil and Political and Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, which set forth the rights proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Comparing phenomena of repression in the DPRK to the norms and standards set forth in the International Covenants enables, in human rights terminology, outlining and detailing “a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”

Of course we continue to use the International Covenants, as the DPRK has ratified these international conventions, formally agreeing to the legal obligations of the provisions set forth in those multilateral treaties. But there is a problem applying the International Covenants to the North Korea in that the Covenants assume a base-line “rule of law” and there simply is too much in the DPRK that is “above” or “outside” the law, including a large part of the citizen control mechanisms which follow neither the precepts of international law nor the provisions of the DPRK Criminal Codes and Criminal Procedure Codes.

Just as the first edition was going to the printer in 2003, a newer framework for analysis of severe human rights violations came “on-line” or “into-force” in July 2002: the new and improved definition of crimes against humanity in Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which posit eleven severe human rights violations to be crimes against humanity when conducted in the requisite circumstances. This framework allows a much more discerning analysis of the severe, systematic and widespread phenomena of repression in North Korea. It is the framework for analysis that is used in the second edition of Hidden Gulag.

Interestingly (and perhaps counter-intuitively), the crimes against humanity framework enables a much more complete and detailed set of recommendations to the DPRK about steps that could and should be taken to disable and dismantle the prison labor camp system. The “Article 7” analysis of the phenomena of repression in North Korea’s political prison/labor camp system appears in Part Six of the second edition (pp 156 – 168), and the recommendations to the DPRK, including measures to disable and dismantle the camp system are outlined in Part Seven (pp 168 – 172).

The full report including the new satellite photographs of the camps, with landmarks identified by the former prisoners can be downloaded from the website of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, or the website of David R Hawk

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One Response to “David Hawk on the second edition of Hidden Gulag”

  1. Sue Hickey, Amnesty International (Canadian Section, English-Speaking) coordinator for North/South Korea, Japan Says:

    thanks for this post, CanKor folk! Now the question for my group, Amnesty International, is where do we go from here? What can we in the West do to mobilize others to up the pressure on the DPRK? Seems like it’s the elephant in the room. At the same we need to realize the humanity of North Koreans and that their government has created a dangerous personality cult.


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