If the prison camps of Auschwitz were still running in full operation today, would the entire global community collectively stand by and allow them to continue? One would think not. And yet, here we stand today. Even while the bellicose and belligerent regime of North Korea once again commands the world stage through its threats and showmanship, still the issue of its extensive system of concentration camps slips through the gaps of the world’s attention. Through the testimonies of escapees and survivors, the world has been well-informed of the presence of prison labor camps in North Korea, gulags holding political prisoners and ordinary citizens alike, often until the time of their death. And yet, very little global action has taken place to address this human rights crisis.
The greatest ethical challenge facing the United States in its relations with Asia is the approach it takes in regards to the continual human rights crisis taking place in the gulags of North Korea. Its has been long overdue that the United States take a leading role in shining a light into one of the world’s darkest places, revealing and affirming the truth of the existence of North Korea’s extensive network of death camps. The relative global silence on this issue has been a marked ethical stain against all of our consciences. In its strategic pivot to Asia, the United States has an extraordinary opportunity within its grasp, that it might finally place the issue of North Korea’s prison camps in its proper place on the world stage and pressure international action toward the end of rectifying this global atrocity heretofore under-recognized internationally.
In the recently published Escape from Camp 14, journalist Blaine Harden recounts the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only human known to have escaped from North Korea’s death camps who had also been born in them. Throughout his book, Harden retells the tales and trials of Shin Dong-hyuk’s life, each chapter full of violence, degradation, and inhumanity that defy comprehension. This vivid account, verified by other sources and corroborated by other escapees and former guards, reveals with relative certainty the nature of life within the walls of North Korea’s gulags. It goes without saying that the circumstances of sexual violence, wanton murder, and perpetually inhumane living conditions persisting within these gulags defy the most fundamental precepts of international human rights law. And yet, one might find little international pressure or conversation directed toward the rectifying of these circumstances.
In its last World Conference on Human Rights, the United Nations took many venerable steps toward improving our understanding of human rights, increasing the scope of what constitute human rights, and laying precepts toward the fundamental behavior expected of modern states. And yet, one might find little to no mention within the results of their conference of any agreement upon the acceptability of secret labor camps. This seems puzzling, as one might pause to consider how comprehensive a repudiation of human rights it is to forcibly enslave humans within concentration camps until the point of their death. Rather simply, such an act appears to be perhaps the most fundamental and basic denial of a human’s right, as it takes forcible possession of the remainder of a person’s days on Earth and, often, ultimately takes away that person’s life. Through the use of its extensive system of gulags, the regime in North Korea has quite literally stolen the lives, and, therefore, the right to live, from an estimated hundreds of thousands of its own people. It is common for entire families to be sent to the forced labor camps simply because they are related to an individual who committed a “thought crime,” or any act, speech, or behavior interpreted as being opposed to or critical of the North Korean regime. The nightmare of Orwell’s 1984 has truly descended upon the waking world form in the of North Korea’s totalitarian state. And yet, the foremost international human rights conference left this issue of concentration camps unaddressed.
Today, more evidence than ever exists revealing in plain detail the breadth and extent of the network of North Korea’s prison camps. In January, Google Maps revealed high resolution satellite imagery of concentration camps as large as 16 by 18 miles, capable of holding more than 50,000 people in one facility. Camps 14, 15, 16, 18, 22, and 25 are plain to see. The resolution of imagery is so high that one might even perceive individual North Koreans within the confines of Camp 22. All of the information of this caliber is freely available to any casual browser of the internet. Before finishing this paper, the reader could calmly look up this imagery and see with one’s own eyes the existence of prison camps of North Korea. Despite this, the North Korean government officially refuses to admit to the existence of such camps, characterizing such evidence as “political invectives” and “fabrications.” This, of course, is to be expected. However, what is surprising is the lack of public discussion of such evidence amongst the world’s foremost leaders. For instance, one can not find any instance of US President Barack Obama discussing the existence of North Korea’s prison camps. Even Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon, a native of South Korea, has refrained from publicly discussing the camps. Why has this issue not been addressed at such a level? What do international leaders gain from shying away from the plain-to-see reality of the concentration camps’ existence?
Simply, it is our belief that widespread internment of North Korean civilians in concentration camps should be elevated to the highest levels of public discussion of world leaders in order to spread awareness of the issue. In the words of Blaine Harden, the journalist and author of Escape from Camp Fourteen, as he assessed the general situation of North Korea’s gulags, “knowledge is better than ignorance.” Though the US government has assessed the status of North Korea’s human rights abuses through such official outlets as the State Department’s “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012,” one must consider the public reach of such a document, especially on a global scale. The minutiae of a State Department document, as venerable as its content and intention might be, will not capture widespread, global attention as easily as the words of the Secretary General of the United Nations or the President of the United States. And yet, the simple effort of expressing such words has gone unendeavored.
I, Soohong, and I, Peter, are both currently students of the University of Missouri-Columbia. Recently, North Korean defectors have visited our campus and given talks about the conditions present within North Korea. These defectors described the current ubiquitousness of knowledge of the outside world. According to their testimony, the exchange of flash drives containing South Korean films, music, or television shows has proliferated dramatically amongst the common people of North Korea. The intensive brainwashing undertaken by the North Korean state has encountered its kryptonite. The people of North Korea are increasingly freeing their own minds. This indicates, however, that people must essentially live double lives, putting on the face of ignorance and total fealty whilst in reality understanding the grim truth of their circumstances. They must put on such a face in order that they avoid the fate of those condemned for “thought crimes,” the internment of themselves and all of their closest loved ones in one of the concentration camps. Furthermore, the defectors described how internal travel is tightly restricted. One may not travel from one province to another without extensive documentation. Documentation, of course, that is nearly impossible to come by. This Orwellian control of freedom to travel essentially nullifies any chance the North Korean people have of assembly. Coupled with their nearly complete inability to even verbally discuss ideas contrary to the ideology of the North Korean regime, this circumstance seems to forestall any hope the North Korean people might have reforming their nation from within.
In all, these circumstances reinforce the responsibility resting upon the United States shoulders, that it might bring this issue to the forefront of international discussion of North Korea and exert some external pressures encouraging reform of the North Korean state. Admittedly, this is no easy task. The political turmoil surrounding the Korean Peninsula has proven to be one of the world stickiest and most implacable problems. Multiple parties with diverse intentions and interests influence with heavy hands the juggling of power and politics across the peninsula. Old Cold War tensions flare up between the West and the East. Geo-military fears and precautions are stoked between suspicious neighbors. Hearkening back to the origins of the divided peninsula, China and the United States still wrestle with the desirability of a unified peninsula favoring one superpower over the other. These multiple influences, and the trials and tribulations associated with their playing out, have petrified the peninsula into the deadlock at which it currently stands and at which it has perpetually stood for decades.
What is interesting to note is that there is one party involved in the whole tumultuous, international grappling for influence and conflict resolution that always comes out the victim: the people of North Korea. The longer the status quo remains as is, the longer North Korea may uninhibitedly imprison, torture, rape, and execute its own people through use of its concentration camps. In order to save the North Korean people from the persistence of such a fate, the international community must organize to take direct action in pursuit of pressuring the close of such gulags.
Recently, in a positive step, the United Nations Human Rights Committee authorized an investigation into the existence of state-sponsored human rights abuses in North Korea to take place over the course of a year. The investigation, of course, will receive no accommodation or cooperation from the instruments of the North Korean state. As such, they will be forced to rely on the testimony of escapees and the imagery of satellite photos. Ultimately, we will likely be presented with the same information at the close of the investigation as we already have before us now.
Thus, the United States holds a unique and crucial position in the furtherance of any effort to alleviate the suffering of those North Koreans held in their state’s concentration camps. The United States alone holds the geopolitical and economic influence to bring interested parties to the table in discussion of events surrounding the Korean Peninsula. In its strategic pivot toward Asia, the United States is crafting a multitude of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements in the hopes of deepening regional economic integration and incorporating the United States as a major trading partner of growing Asian economies. It is our belief that the United States should use the platform of such economic agreements as a stage upon which the issue of North Korea’s prison system might be practically engaged by a multitude of actors. Trade agreement negotiations have served before as a platform for the discussion of human rights, and we believe that they ought to be used in such a way in this instance as well. Utilizing economic incentives as a motivation for committing practical, international action toward the purpose of closing North Korean’s gulag may prove an effective strategy.
Moreover, regional political forums, such as the six party talks begun in 2003, will play a crucial role in the United States pivot towards Asia. Through the course of such talks, the United States should place the continuing humanitarian crisis of North Korea’s extensive gulag system as a top priority for the entirety of the region’s practical and ethical consideration. Every nation with a stake in the political control of the Korean Peninsula shares some culpability in the continuing abuse of the North Korean people, as the status quo has clearly placed no restrictions thus far on North Korea’s inhumane behavior. Recent satellite photos even show evidence of the fact that the network of gulags and forced labor camps is currently growing. Key regional powers, such as North Korea’s closest ally, China, should be encouraged to exert their influence on North Korea toward the end of forcing the closure of their secret prisons. The United States might coordinate such discussion and encouragement through the revival of regional political talks similar to the six party talks of recent memory.
Ultimately, the existence of a vast network of concentration camps in North Korea stands as a convicting, ethical blight upon the collected consciences of nations the world round. North Korean citizens are subjected to unthinkable abuse and unbearable living conditions within the confines of these secret prisons. In its pivot toward Asia, the United States possesses a unique opportunity to push the discussion of this human rights crisis to the forefront of regional discussion and influence regional powers to facilitate greater conversation of the issues as well as practical action toward the rectification of the issue. The United States stands in a unique position to help the people of North Korea, as it is poised to engage in greater economic and political cooperation with the nations of the Pacific region and may thereby include the pressing issue of this humanitarian crisis in its interactions with these nations. The United States must tackle this ethical challenge head on and with full conviction in order to resolve one of the greatest ethical crises afflicting our world today.
Chonnam National University
University of Missouri-Columbia
United States of America