As executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), I highly appreciate the attention Professor Andrei Lankov has paid to our reports and other activities, including the most recent report by David Hawk.
On page 13 of his latest report, David Hawk states: “Over the course of almost sixty years since Kim Il-sung firmly and brutally monopolized political power in the late 1950s, various prison camps were set up, operated for a decade or so, and then closed. The prisoner population would transfer to a different area, opening up a new prison camp or enlarging an existing prison camp.”
Camp 22 has ceased to function as a political prison camp, and Camp 18 has been significantly downsized. However, according to reports by HRNK/Digital Globe and Amnesty International/DigitalGlobe, Camps 25 and 14 have expanded. The expansion of such unlawful detention facilities clearly indicates that North Korea does not intend to shut down its “hidden gulag,” but merely to “restructure” it.
David Hawk notes that, based on RFA sources inside North Korea, the prison population at Camp 22, which has ceased to function as a political prison camp, “dwindled rapidly from 30,000 to 3,000,” following food shortages. Hawk states: “If even remotely accurate, this [the disappearance of up to 27,000 political prisoners] is an atrocity requiring much closer investigation.”
Contrary to Professor Lankov’s interpretation, the major conclusion of the study is not that things have moved from “being disastrous to being really bad,” but that atrocities may have been committed during the past 16 months in North Korea.
The report acknowledges that recent KINU estimates may be correct, and the prison camp population may have declined to 80,000-120,000. If that is true, the main reason for the decline was the staggeringly high rate of death in detention, due to “executions, […] severe malnutrition and concomitant disease, and work accidents,” as pointed out by both David Hawk and KINU.
This hardly qualifies as indication of improvement of the human rights situation in North Korea.
As indicated by David Hawk, one reason why the prisoner population may have declined is that “the number of incoming deportees to the camps is lower than the high rates of death in detention.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that fewer people are being sent to the camps. Higher rates of death in detention would certainly result in a decrease in the total number of prisoners, if the number of incoming prisoners doesn’t match that of detainees who have died in the camps.
Professor Lankov believes that the decrease in the number of political prisoners began about 15 years ago. However, although there is always a time lag when it comes to acquiring information about North Korea’s political prison camp system, no evidence proving that point was available through defector interviews or satellite imagery analysis collected by David Hawk for his two HRNK “Hidden Gulag” reports, published in 2003 and 2012.
Professor Lankov states that “it seems clear that in the last 15 or 20 years the general trend has been a lessening of repression,” including “the abandonment of the family responsibility principle.” He further states that, from the mid-1990s, the families of perceived “political criminals” were allowed to remain free.
If true, this would have resulted in a marked decrease in the number of children held in North Korea’s political prison camps. That was certainly not the case of Camp 14 in Kaechon. Shin Dong-hyuk, born and raised inside Camp 14 until he managed to escape at age 23 in 2005, did not notice a decrease in the number of children held at that detention facility.
Professor Lankov states that “contrary to what is frequently claimed, most apprehended would-be border-crossers are treated with leniency, and those caught usually get away with just a few months of detention.” But according to the ROK Ministry of Unification, the number of former North Koreans arriving in South Korea declined by almost 50%, from 2,706 in 2011 to 1,502 in 2012.
The number of those reaching South Korea in 2013 is comparable to the lower level recorded in 2012, with 952 North Korean defectors having arrived in South Korea by the end of August 2013.This certainly didn’t happen because the human rights situation and living standards spectacularly improved under Kim Jong-un’s rule. The only conceivable cause for this development is the intensification of the crackdown on attempted defections, confirmed by North Korean defectors and media organizations that rely on stringers in the border areas of North Korea, equipped with smuggled Chinese cell phones.
Professor Lankov cautions that “even the lowest estimates of political prisoners’ numbers […] indicate that the ratio of political prisoners to population is just marginally lower than it was in the Soviet Union at the end of Stalin’s rule.” Certainly, groups dealing with the appalling situation of North Korean human rights must closely follow developments inside the political prison camps, in order to ensure that the Kim regime does not engage in attempts to erase evidence or eliminate witnesses. Our organization will remain appraised of the matter, and we will continue to be grateful for Professor Lankov’s opinions and advice.
Greg Scarlatoiu is Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) in Washington, D.C. At HRNK, he plans, coordinates, manages and conducts research and outreach programs aiming to focus world attention on human rights abuses in North Korea, and to seek creative solutions for improving the human rights situation.
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