Follow-Up: North Korea's Forgotten Tragedies


Recent discussions on Bridge the Divide have centered around the North Korean threat of nuclear war, what the global response should be, and how to deal with Kim Jung Un as a leader. Diplomacy with China, US, and other actors have also been widely discussed. In her follow-up, Maria Martin urges us to remember the real people suffering everyday at the hands of the Kim regime.

Following Donald Trump’s statements at the UN and the apparent unstoppable missile race of Kim Jong Un, the North Korean issue has become one of the most searched terms on Google in the last months. The massive public interest, along with the tense situation in the region with regards to the trial and impact of several rockets in Japanese territory, has placed the Kim Regime in an international relations hurricane.

North Korea long been the subject of academic studies and a main issue of concern in international analysis. Nonetheless, the missile program seems to have displaced one topic of high concern from international discourse: the its penal system, hidden behind the secrecy of the regime.

Analyzing the penal system is an extensive and complex process, considering that most of the public information regarding this issue is either biased or based on estimations. Nonetheless, one of the most popular resources to analyze this issue is the compilation of surveys conducted by the East-West Center from former prisoners or relatives, who witnessed firsthand the inner functioning of the regime. According to these surveys, nearly 200,000 people are currently imprisoned in North Korea, and more have experienced or witnessed torture.

What is certain is that repression has always played a major role in the country´s history, accounting for an efficient tool to reinforce the supreme position of the leader. However, the 1990’s became a turning point regarding the number and severity of the punishments undergone by North Korean citizens. During that decade, the communist organization of the government mismanagement of the food storage system led to severe famines. Hunger and desperation forced many North Koreans either to emigrate or seek alternative means of survival, through the development of small-scale organizations. This “spirit of entrepreneurship” was understood by the government as a clear menace to the state control of the economy, and consequently those who were directly or indirectly enrolled in non-supervised organizations were persecuted.

Even though the country has slowly recovered from the famine in recent years, the obsession that the regime has with supervising its citizens crescendoed. Everything and everyone is suspected of conspiracy and therefore has to be controlled. No one can abandon the country without permission and those who had massively emigrated in 1990 were accused of betrayal, repatriated and punished by the Regime.

The penal system of the country, headed by the NSA (National Security Agency) and the PSA (People Security Agency), gradually established a prison hierarchy in accordance to the “seriousness” of the committed crimes against the regime. The pillars of this system are the “kwan-li-so”, high-security prisons to which those accused of political crimes are sent. The list of political misconducts includes crimes such as being a member of a political party, having studied abroad, or knowing more than one language.

There are few reports that tackle the imprisonment procedures in North Korea, due to the extreme discretion of the NSA and the secrecy of the regime. However, it is known from some silent witnesses that the citizens condemned to these gulags are sent in collective flows, along with their relatives, as a “safety measure”. These are lifetime sentences, as prisoners are forced to work for the regime in mining, farming or logging activities, whilst they suffer from starvation and infectious diseases derived from the confining facilities.

The second component of the penal system are the “kyo-hwa-so” camps. These jails were conceived to imprison inhabitants whom had violated the DPRK’s criminal code. Today, most of the charges against people imprisoned in these facilities are “cultural and social” rather than political. Nonetheless, the living conditions of the “kyo-hwa-so” camps are similar to those of the other North Korean prisons, and a high percentage of those imprisoned inside them do not survive their sentences.

To complete this system, the North Korean Regime developed other two prison branches for lower-level offenses and misdemeanors: the “jip-kyul-so” and the “ro-dong-dan-ryeon dae”. Detainees in these camps perform labors of public preservation of the country, such as road repair or masonry activities. These account for the least severe prisons within the North Korean system, which were institutionalized in the year 2004. In the few publicly available documents that comprise testimonies of former prisoners, one can find that most of the interviewees that affirmed having experienced a period of their lives in labor camps attended to a “jip-kyul-so” or a “ro-dong-da-ryeon-dae”.

Despite the theoretical division of concentration camps and crimes related to them, this system is subject to the commands of Kim-Jong-Un, who has the last word regarding detainees and sentences. However, we can identify arresting patterns, which have been repeated in the country during the past few decades. The probability of being arrested increases if the individual is enrolled in market activities or any other activity that implies opening the barriers of the regime. The chances of imprisonment notably increase if an inhabitant has a proper education or is fluent in more languages, a reason that is justified under the traditional communist aversion to alternative educational means.

Furthermore, the North Korean regime has performed a division of the population into a class of trustable supporters and an impure group, commonly known as “the hostile”. Given the importance of family bonds, North Koreans can only enter the privileged class through blood ties, either by marriage or by being born inside a family belonging to that social class. Henceforth, people that are born “hostile” are tied to that condition throughout their lives and are more likely to become imprisoned. Nevertheless, the unpredictability of the regime prevents citizens from any class from guaranteed safety.

The current situation in North Korea is highly worrying. Not only do North Koreans lack protection when it comes to basic human rights, but they also have to fight an internal war of survival, based in blind obedience to a regime which imposes an Orwellian code of conduct and supervision. In the current threatening security environment, North Korea is understood as a key interlocutor regarding geopolitics and nuclear tension, but the international community should not turn its back towards the situation of North Koreans, especially regarding the continuous violation of their most fundamental human rights. After all, when it comes to an utterly demanding situation like this, nicknaming is not the solution.


Hawk, D. (2003). The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea's Prison Camps (p. 25). Washington, DC: US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

Kim, S. Y. (2009). Long Road Home: Testimony of a North Korean Camp Survivor. Columbia University Press.

Muico, N. K. (2007). Forced labour in North Korean prison camp

Salama, P., Spiegel, P., Talley, L., & Waldman, R. (2004). Lessons learned from complex emergencies over past decade. The Lancet, 364(9447), 1801-1813.

#MariaMartin #NorthKorea #foreignpolicy #followup

The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author, and in no way reflect the opinions of Bridge the Divide or its affiliates.

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