As you’ve no doubt heard, two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, have been arrested by the North Korean government and sentenced to twelve years hard labor. I’ve been trying to Google around for more information on the DPRK’s labor camps, but part of the nature of the Hermit Kingdom seems to be that there’s relatively little available in the way of up-to-date information. That said, the U.S. Committee on Human Rights in North Korea did publish this report on “The Hidden Gulag” several years ago based on defector reports mostly from the 1990s. You won’t be surprised to learn that conditions are terrible:
The concentration camp is a kind of closed town where a number of camps are linked together by a road. At least two of the camps, Hoeryong and Hwasong in Hamkyong Province, are larger in area than the District of Columbia. All the gulags are located in remote and desolate mountain areas to further their anonymity and isolation to foreigners and dissidents. Presently, there are six gulags known to the outside world where it is speculated that some 150,000 to 200,000 inmates are imprisoned.
As in the Soviet Union during the high tide of the Gulag, it appears that the forced labor camps are important to the regime not just as a mechanism of repression, but as part of the economic model and the internal incentives of the bureaucracy. Spencer Ackerman also links to the State Department’s human rights report on the DPRK:
[P]rolonged periods of exposure to the elements; humiliations such as public nakedness; confinement for up to several weeks in small ‘punishment cells’ in which prisoners were unable to stand upright or lie down; being forced to kneel or sit immobilized for long periods; being hung by the wrists; being forced to stand up and sit down to the point of collapse.
Needless to say, it’s easy to recognize this sort of barbarism as the torture that it is when you read about it being done by North Korea (it appears that the Bush administration and the DPRK were both modeling themselves on the Chinese Communist tactics from the Korean War). And it is being done, and on a massive scale. Meanwhile, a related angle to this is that many of the people in the prison camps are people who actually escaped from North Korea and then wound up getting apprehended in China and deported back. In terms of practical things that could be done to help the population of North Korea, getting the Chinese to stop doing this.