IN LABOUR camps across its remote northern reaches, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea detains an estimated 150,000-200,000 political prisoners.
The gulag’s captives are not told of their crimes, though torture usually produces a “confession”—which might admit to defacing an image of the “Great Leader” or listening to a foreign broadcast. There is no defence, trial, judge or sentence, though most inmates remain in the camps for life, unless they escape. They are victims of forced disappearances, in that neighbours, colleagues and distant family members know nothing about the fate of those who vanish. Inmates are held incommunicado, without visits, food parcels, letters or radio. Chronically malnourished, they work in mines, quarries and logging camps, with one rest-day a month. Infractions of camp rules, such as stealing food meant for livestock, damaging equipment or having unauthorised sexual liaisons are punished with beatings and torture. Guards rape women prisoners, leading to forced abortions for the pregnant, or infanticide. Inmates are under pressure to snitch. Executions are routine—and fellow prisoners must often watch (see article).
The North Korean gulag has persisted for twice as long as its Soviet counterpart did. Yet the world looks away. The United States expends its diplomatic energies in negotiations over the regime’s tinpot nuclear and missile programme, with little to show for the effort. South Korean brethren have other things on their minds—the political left wants better relations with the North, while others just wish it was not there. As for China, an ally, it forcibly repatriates North Koreans who have fled across the border, even though they face execution.
A world that places any value on the idea of universal human rights should no longer overlook North Korea’s enormities. China should end its shameful forced repatriation of North Koreans and allow the Red Cross and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees into border areas. It should also cease sheltering the Kims at the UN, which should launch a commission of inquiry. America and South Korea, especially, must not hide behind nuclear diplomacy, but press harder on human rights. On April 15th the state’s young new ruler, Kim Jong Un, marked the centenary of his grandfather’s birth. This third-generation seed of the Kim dictatorship must now be confronted with his own murderous inheritance—a blot on humanity.