Much of the news attention on North Korea focuses on its nuclear and ballistic missile program, and the sanctions placed on the country in response to its increasingly threatening international behavior.
With every new test and exchanges of threatening rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington DC, often underreported is the brutal reality of life in the DPRK.
Behind the image presented by state media and to journalists on official visits to the country lies a penal code with little tolerance for dissent and a rigid system of social organization that punishes even the mildest of infractions. At the heart of this system is the country’s networks of political prison camps, with sentences ranging from brief “re-education” to life imprisonment.
This system has raised concerns for years, with harrowing defector accounts describing mass violations of human rights and a system, as the 2015 United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea described it, without “any parallel in the contemporary world.”
But as that report made clear, North Korea is not interested in allowing international inspectors into its prison camps, rejecting any investigation into its human rights record as part of a sinister plot to undermine its national sovereignty and build a case for more sanctions. The closest we can get, then, is satellite imagery and defector testimony.
A leader in this field has been David Hawk, a former Executive Director of Amnesty International, USA and a former UN official in Cambodia. Author of the “The Hidden Gulag,” a landmark study of the North Korea’s prison system, he’s built on this work in a new report, “Parallel Gulag,” which explores the existence of kyo-hwa-so – a network of North Korean prisons intended to house citizens guilty of both regular crimes and political crimes.
The report, released by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), also features a full translation of North Korea’s 2012 criminal code, with important insights into how justice the DPRK is meted out.
NK News got in touch with Hawk to find out more about the report, which you can read in full here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and consistency with NK News’s style guide
NK News: How did you begin to put together the research for this project?
David Hawk: I thought it might now be possible to produce a more comprehensive and systematic account of political imprisonment in the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) system.
1. I gathered all of my previously published materials on imprisonment in systems run by the MPS including the kamoks, kurujangs, jipkyulso, nodongdanryeondae, kyoyangso and kyohwaso (Over the years, I’ve interviewed a good 40 or more refugees/defectors who had been incarcerated in one or usually several of these places of detention. My previous reports have included summaries of these interviews telling the stories of these former prisoners. We didn’t include those interviews or summaries this time, because many of them have already been published in my previous reports, and this present report was already very long.)
2. I then took all the English language reports on kyo-hwa-so imprisonment published by NKDB and KINU, and had Korean speaking interns in the HRNK office translate for me the Korean-only publications by these two sister NGOs. As you know NKDB and KINU have access to all incoming refugee/defectors while they are still undergoing NIS interviews or the Hanawon orientation program, so they have literally interviewed hundreds of former inmates. [Whereas, I need to find, through the assistance of South Korea or defector NGOs, interviewees once they disperse into the general SK population, usually residing in the far suburban outskirts of metro Seoul.]
3. I then aligned all of the available research, province by province, prison by prison, and produced the outline chart that is on p. 23 of PG, and did write-ups of each prison and prison camp, that appear in the “Working Survey…” pp 24-69. 4. This yielded data on the most precise locations of these prisons that was currently available.
And with the assistance of my colleagues Amanda Mordwedt Oh and Joe Bermudez they lined up satellite photos for these locations.
5. Simultaneously, bilingual staff at HRNK translated into English the 2012 edition of the DPRK Criminal Code, and I did an analysis of the sorts of activities that have been “criminalized” in NK, the violation of which can land NKs in the kyohwaso prisons and camps, comparing these provisions to the international human rights conventions that the DPRK has ratified, pp 9-15.
“The intended socio-political of the bu-wi-bu/MSS-run kwan-li-so system is to pre-emptively purge elements of the Workers’ Party, the army and the administration”
NK News: How did this work differ from “The Hidden Gulag”?
David Hawk: As noted above, both the 2003 first edition and the 2012 second edition of Hidden Gulag included thumb-nail sketches of the former prisoners/interviewees who were my sources. So HG had the prisoners’ stories.
But the major difference is that inevitably more attention was paid to the kwan-li-so system of incommunicado, extra-judicial imprisonment run by the Ministry of State Security, as this system is so globally unique (neither Stalin or Mao imprisoned family members in their “gulags”) and so out of place in the 21st century.
NK News: What would say is the primary distinction between the Kwan-li-so and the Kyo-hwa-so?
David Hawk: There is a Venn diagram on page 5 that describes “at a glance” the different and overlapping phenomena of repression for the kwanliso “political penal labor colonies” and the kyohwaso “long-term prison labor facilities.”
NK News: What is their intended social purpose?
David Hawk: In a nutshell, the intended socio-political of the bu-wi-bu/MSS-run kwan-li-so system is to pre-emptively purge elements of the Workers’ Party, the army and the administration, and general population that are deemed a threat to the Kim regime or its ideology. The intended socio-political purpose of the an-jeon-bu/MPS-run prison system is general population control. So this system contains persons guilty of both criminal and political offenses, whereas the MSS-run system is for political prisoners by definition.
“My sources of information were always overwhelmingly former prisoners and guards”
NK News: Is there a danger in using unsourced reports?
David Hawk: “Unsourced”? Both the Provincial Chart on p. 23 and each of the prison descriptions pp 25-66 carefully footnote my sources. My sources of information were always overwhelmingly former prisoners and guards. The same is true for NKDB and KINU.
What better sources of information about a detention facility would you suggest, if not former prisoners or guards?
The two exceptions are (1) there are a few high-level “defectors” from the bu-wi-bu and an-jeon-bu now residing in ROK, that I consulted for background about the police systems and how they operated; and (2) for background/history on the DPRK political purges, I relied on reputable scholars such as Scalapino, Cummings, Armstrong, Lankov.
Almost always, they are individually cited as sources. But this is mostly background. Almost all hard info comes from former prisoner, guards – eyewitness or from personal experience. Nothing third hand, or “I heard that…”
And my reports have almost always cited the formal denials by DPRK officials (usually North Korean diplomats in formal sessions at the UN) that kwan-li-so exist, and Parallel Gulag and the earlier 2015 report “Gender Repression and Prisoner Disappearances’ include the statements by An-jeon-bu officials that contradict the assertions made by former prisoners.
NK News: And more generally, how much does the lack of reliable information about the country hamper efforts?
David Hawk: Unreliable? First, to make our information as reliable as possible, we always provide the geospatial coordinates for satallite photos, so that others can easily check our data. Second, because there is not standardized or commonly accepted English translation of North Korean prison terminology, I almost always use the Korean language term as an adjective before the English so that there will not be confusion for either the Korean or non-Korean reader.
“Refugee accounts have been reliable overall”
Second, I think there is a distinction to be made between “sources” who are high-level former NK officials, who may, indeed, have a political agenda to advance, and the bulk of sources who are, overwhelmingly, ordinary, middle or lower-middle class Koreans of low or middling songbun, very few of whom were university educated in NK, and who were not politically involved prior to getting sucked up into the various police systems. Many of their stories are so painfully bizarre that I doubt the individual refugees have the literary imagination to make this stuff up.
Generally, refugee accounts have been reliable overall. In the mid-to-late 70s, the first Cambodian refugees to Thailand escaping the Khmer Rouge were sometimes thought to be unreliable.
But when Cambodia reopened, we found out it was even worse than what the refugees were saying. Who would be more reliable re Burma, the Rohingya stranded on the Bangladesh border, or Burmese gov officials in Naypyidaw or Rangoon, let alone Burmese diplomats in Geneva or New York?
There is an important principle here. When on-site inspections or un-monitored/surveilled interviews are not allowed by the regime, we have to use what we can get because that is all there is. But it is now common practice among most UN Member States for the ICRC to be allowed to visit places of detention – the ICRC only “reports” to the government of the country, unlike UN human rights officials whose reports are “public” as are those of reputable NGOs such as AI or HRW.
The DPRK denies that the kwan-li-so exist, and their diplomats won’t even discuss them, so obviously there is no prospect for on-site visits. But if the regime will not let the UN, AI or HRW, or even let the ICRC visit the MPS detention facilities, then the refugee testimony stands.
If the regime wants to refute the testimony, it is easy to do. Just invite the ICRC to examine the facilities. If they won’t, then the valid presumption is that there is something to hide.
NK News: Could you tell me a little about the process of interviewing defectors? How did you corroborate claims and how did you match testimony to satellite imagery?
David Hawk: Always start by asking the interviewee if his/her name can be used or if testimony must be anonymous. If the latter is the case then insist that we be given the exact name, and place and year of birth. Ask the interviewee to just tell his or her story, without any prompting questions. Then on and on they go.
Virtually no-one speaks in chronological order, and many have been in multiple facilities – first kamok/kurujang, then jipkyulso, then another kurujang, then kyo-hwa-so. After they finish their initial unprompted testimony, it is necessary to go back over notes and establish chronological order, time and place. And the particular repressions and violations associated with each particular facility.
“If the regime wants to refute the testimony, it is easy to do. Just invite the ICRC to examine the facilities”
Always use the very best translators, and ones experienced at translating/interpreting for North Koreans. Even so, my Korean-English translators often spend more time going back and forth with the interviewees to straighten out the differences between North Korean Korean and South Korean Korean than they do translating the Korean into English. But since the interviews are consecutive, not simultaneous, it is not hard to take good notes. If interviewing men, take time for cigarette breaks.
For each interview, listen and look closely at its internal coherence. (This is particularly important if there are only one or two sources for a particular place or incident.) If something doesn’t compute, tell the interviewee that this is a particularly important point and that I need to understand it more completely.
Then ask follow-up questions probing for more and more detail. (One translator for an interview that didn’t hang together once told me I was more like an interrogator than a reporter.) Most folk, if they are describing something that happened to them can untangle accounts that on initial telling seemed inconsistent. For the well-organized DPRK prison camps this is not terribly hard, compared, say, to the chaotic massacres in the Rwandan genocide.
But obviously, what you want is to have multiple interviewees for a particular facility and to compare their testimonies, and establish a timeline using the multiple testimonies.
To match the testimony with sat photos, I do this at the end, using Google Earth, which is quite good in its Korean version. And usually my translator is much more computer literate and facile than I am, so now this works pretty well.
The first edition of Hidden Gulag was pre-Google Earth, so back then we obtained hard copy sat photos from Digital Globe and sent them in big mailing tubes to our South Korean NGO colleagues who would then call the interviewees back to their office to look at the photos, and make notations on stickies for landmarks the interviewees recognized. Now we just use the Google Earth pins, and translate the Korean notes associated with the pins later.
David Hawk: Parallel Gulag is in this respect very different from Hidden Gulag. For Hidden Gulag, in both kwan-li-so and kyo-hwa-so, I only used satellite photographs that had been identified and confirmed by former prisoners or guards.
For Parallel Gulag, only 4 satellite photos of kyo-hwa-so had been confirmed by former eyewitnesses. Using the locations obtained from interviews we scoured Google Earth, and matched the precise geospatial coordinates with the city neighborhood or possibly ri provided by the interviewees.
This was time-consuming, as the GE coordinates are very exact, but the interviewees often use the name of better-known cities or locations that are more likely to be generally known the precise ri provided by the geospatial coordinates.
We asked Joe Bermudez, a satellite photo analyst expert whose work on North Korean missile and nuke test sites you know from 38 North, to confirm that to his experienced eye these various places have the identification marks of prisons and/or prison camps.
“The ideological reformation sessions are even more bizarre than the general public ones”
Each and every satellite photo has within it an indication if this image has been “confirmed” or “not yet confirmed” by former prisoners or local residents. Since my former reports have been translated into Korean and circulated in Korea, we anticipate that this will be also.
The report concludes by hoping that the provincial charts and the sat photos in the “Working Survey” will be used in Korea to obtain eyewitness confirmation, and for use when interviewing new incoming “defectors.” (There are no known releases from the kwanliso camps since 2007, but there is an on-going stream of released prisoners from the kyohwaso who then (again) flee to China but now intend to travel on to ROK.) So, this is really a “Working Survey of known information” that tells what we now know and how we know it.
NK News: What is the distinction between kyo-hwa-so criticism sessions and the ones all North Koreans have to do?
David Hawk: Not much as far as I can tell. The mutual work criticism session seem very similar. The ideological reformation sessions are even more bizarre than the general public ones. The prisoners recite, often in unison, the slogans from the New Year’s Day editorials or addresses.
These fine exhortations – “Let us build power generating plant throughout the country” – and so on are very far removed from the desperate lives of the prisoners. Many think it just another form of punishment before they can go to sleep.
NK News: One thing that is particularly astonishing about the report is how vague a lot of these laws are. Why did you choose to publish the criminal code and what do you think it says about the country’s justice system?
David Hawk: Precisely because so many are so vague, and many others directly contradict international human rights norms and standards.
NK News: A lot of the labor at these places seems to on products destined for China. To what extent is forced labor-made products part of NK trade with China, and do you think this should be taken into consideration in international sanctions?
David Hawk: I don’t know, and I don’t know if it is really quantifiable or knowable. Luxury goods imported into DPRK can often be spotted, in Pyongyang stores or in satellite photos of the ski resort for example.
Ditto also often for North Korean labor crews working in foreign countries. I would expect the wigs or false eyelashes make by NK prison labors would have “made in China” labels if re-exported. I don’t know how you would trace logs or coal once it has crossed the border into China.
All photos credit to HRNK and Google Earth
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 2801 words of this article.