David Hawk's "The Parallel Gulag"



David Hawk's 2003 The Hidden Gulag was a landmark in the study of North Korean human rights, which made a forceful appearance in President Trump's speech before the Korean National Assembly. Drawing on a combination of satellite imagery and defector and prison guard testimony, Hawk confirmed the extent of the sprawling political concentration camps in North Korea and the abuses committed in them. Hawk updated the report in 2012 and authored a 2015 study of gender repression and disappearances. The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the NGO that sponsors Hawk's research (and on whose board of directors my colleague Marc Noland serves) also began working with Joe Bermudez and DigitalGlobe's Analysis Center to launch a series of updates of particular facilities.

In The Parallel Gulag, Hawk ups his game once again, working with Amanda Mortwedt Oh (coauthor of the report) and Joe Bermudez; NKNews' Oliver Hotham offers up an excellent interview with Hawk on the new work.  In this report, Hawk makes a point that we also found in our defector surveys in Witness to Transformationas well: that the focus on kwan-li-so—what Hawk calls "political penal labor colonies" and Marc Noland and I called "political concentration camps"—by no means exhausts the North Korean penal system or even its political component. In fact, we found that the very small handful of refugees that had managed to escape the kwan-il-so were not reporting depredations much different than those confined—albeit for shorter times—in the remainder of the prison system. This system is administered not by the bo-wi-bu or Ministry of State Security (MSS) but by the an-jeon-bu or the Ministry of People's Security (MPS) and includes "distinctively calibrated prison camps and penitentiaries, termed kyo-hwaso or kyo-yang-so as well as other detention and hard labor facilities usually termed jip-kyul-so or ro-dong-danryeon-dae." Thus, Hawk's use of the term "parallel gulag" to get at this other half of the penal system. As Hawk notes in his interview with Hotham, the line between political and civil crimes is virtually impossible to draw. The Ministry of State Security system is used 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 Ministry of People's Security system, by contrast, "is used for general population control and contains persons guilty of both criminal and political offenses." 

As technology changes, the quality of this research naturally goes up. Hawk has essentially triangulated his existing work with the research of two other Korean-based organizations—the Korean Institute for National Unification and the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights to expand access to refugees and help his team geolocate facilities, a particularly labor-intensive component of this study. On p. 24 Hawk and Oh list about 40 such facilities at the province level, with about two-thirds of them now located with satellite imagery; the remainder of the report goes through them one by one.

An added attraction of the work is a translation of the 2012 North Korean criminal code; like Hawk, we used earlier revisions of the code to track changes in the nature of crime as the underground economy came to occupy a more and more central role in people's lives. We showed how the scope of economic crimes increased in particular. Digesting this translation will require another post, but Hawk shows clearly—if proof were needed—how the code blatantly violates commitments not only under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as well. He also shows that the vague formulation of the law serves to expand the discretion of prosecutors, a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. He also makes a final telling point: if North Korea believes that these charges are false—yet another effort to undermine the regime—then the recourse is simple: open the suspected sites to a neutral observer like the Red Cross. To say that is unlikely is an understatement.

Kudos to Hawk and his colleagues for setting new standards on North Korean human rights research.

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