Campus & Community

Refugees give glimpse of human rights, prisons in North Korea

4 min read

Recent report details plight of political prisoners

A one-time South Korean “prisoner of conscience” cautioned against using human rights as a political weapon against North Korea Thursday (Feb. 10) despite new details of horrific conditions in the communist nation’s political detention system.

Tae-Ung Baik’s comments at Harvard’s Sackler Museum Thursday (Feb. 10) came just hours after North Korea admitted building nuclear weapons and then pulled out of six-nation talks aimed at convincing the isolated country to disarm. North Korea has since reiterated its demands for one-on-one talks with the United States, which the Bush administration rejected.

Baik, now an assistant law professor at the University of British Columbia, was a South Korean social activist who worked for democracy and labor rights. He was imprisoned from 1992 to 1998 and adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience. Baik shared the stage at the Sackler Museum’s basement auditorium with David Hawk, who wrote a report that for the first time details the existence of and conditions in North Korea’s political prison system.

The event, titled “The Hidden Gulag: Human Rights in North Korea,” was co-sponosored by Amnesty International USA and several Harvard groups, including the Korea Institute, Harvard Law School’s East Asian Legal Studies, the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, and the Harvard Association for North Korean Human Rights.

Joshua Rubenstein, Amnesty International USA’s Northeast regional director, introduced the program, saying that for decades, despite suspicions of human rights violations within North Korea, the nation has been so tightly controlled that little information leaked out.

The fact that Hawk’s report is the first that describes human rights within the North Korean prison system illustrates the difficulty of getting information from within the country.

“North Korea has been one of the least open societies for human rights groups to report on,” Rubenstein said.

That changed in the mid-1990s, when a severe famine sent refugees north into China. Though many were forcibly repatriated, some made their way through China to southeast Asia and then to South Korea, whose constitution gives citizenship to all Koreans.

It was by interviewing those escaped North Koreans that Hawk was able to piece together enough details about the North Korean prison system to make his report.

Ultimately, Hawk was able to describe a system that included two types of criminal prisons, one that handled those guilty of serious crimes, such as murder, and a second that handled those responsible for lesser crimes. Those suspected of such crimes would be afforded a trial and a certain amount of judicial procedure before being sentenced to a set term in jail.

In addition to those two types of prisons, Hawk said there was also a political prison system whose inmates were incarcerated without trial and, often, without warning, for indefinite periods. Not only are people who are suspected of disloyalty incarcerated in these prisons but up to three generations of their families are sometimes also imprisoned in separate locations.

Life in these facilities, which Hawk described as sprawling camps covering several square miles, is full of hard labor. Inmates work 10 to 15 hours a day in mines or textile factories, cutting timber in forests, or toiling in farm fields, often with little food. Death rates are very high.

Political prisoners can also serve time in a mobile labor brigade, which often includes people forcibly repatriated from China, Hawk said. People returning to North Korea would be questioned – often tortured – about their contact with South Korea during their stay in China.

Hawk said he hoped his report, which includes satellite photographs of the camps, would be used to pressure the North Korean government to allow international observers, such as the Red Cross, to enter these facilities and assess conditions there.

Baik praised Hawk’s work, saying the details he uncovered are potentially important in the fight for human rights. But Baik cautioned against allowing human rights to be used for political reasons. Some nations and organizations with other agendas have in the past used human rights as an excuse to criticize governments, only to abandon the issue once the political agenda is complete.

Baik said he thought that the conditions in North Korea may be exaggerated a bit, blown up by the extreme fear most residents have of the government. Baik said he thought engagement with the North Korean government was the best way to improve conditions there. He said engagement should be handled carefully so that it doesn’t discourage reforms.

“This should not be an attempt to crack down on the regime, to stop efforts to cooperate with North Korea,” Baik said. “Engagement, including human rights engagement, should continue.”