North Korea admits to prison camps—or does it?



Today I received at least eight news stories, all with variants on the headline “North Korea admits to Labor ‘Gulags’” referring to a statement yesterday by North Korean foreign minister Choe Myong-nam that “both in law and in practice, we do have reform through labor detention camps – no, detention centers – where people are improved through their mentality and look on their wrongdoings.” This statement was interpreted by most sources as a startling admission of the North’s system of prison camps, and in some stories was paired with statements by Saenuri Party National Assemblyman Yoon Sang-hyun that the North Korea’s prison camps were “twice the size of Seoul” in scale.

So I will start with the admission that I did not hear Choe’s statement either in English or Korean. But my guess is that most of these press reports are misinterpreting what he said.

North Korea has a highly institutionalized and differentiated penal system. As Steph Haggard and I explained in our book, Witness to Transformation, the system today has four components: the rodong danryeondae or labor training camps to which I think Choe was referring; the jipkyulso or “collection centers,” which are roughly equivalent to a jail; the kyohwaso which could be thought of as prisons; and the kwanliso, what we commonly think of as political prison camps, or the gulag.

The first two institutions, the collection centers and labor training or education camps, are used extensively to incarcerate people charged with anti-socialist crimes for periods typically on the order of weeks or months. The severity of conditions across these institutions appears to vary idiosyncratically. While conditions are generally not as harsh as in the prisons or political prison camps, one of the truly striking results to emerge from our research was that once the length of incarceration is taken into account (we cannot call it a sentence since the vast majority of those detained had no formal legal proceedings) the rate of abuse—such things as beatings, including killing of prisoners—was at nearly the same rate as observed in the higher level institutions.

As Haggard and I observed, the severity of conditions in these facilities together with the informality of the procedures—virtually anyone can be detained for an in-determinant period of time—make them a perfect platform for extortion. Knowing what goes on in these institutions, people will pay to keep themselves and their loved ones out, and once in, people will pay to get them freed. Even these lower level institutions play a key role in the North Korean economy.

So perhaps Choe did not admit to the gulag. But this parsing of language should not blind us to what he did admit to—the existence of a thoroughly lawless and malignant system of penal institutions.

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