Politics & Policy

Gang-Run Gulag

"There are two worlds in North Korea, one for the senior military and the elite; and a living hell for the rest."

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a week-long series of excerpts from Rogue State: How a Nuclear North Korea Threatens America by William C. Triplett, which as released Monday. The first installment of this series can be read here and the second here.

While the Kim family and its supporters live like royalty, the bulk of the North Korean population lives like serfs. Survival depends on your rank and circumstances. North Korea has the most rigid class system in the world.

We see this most clearly in public health. At the top is Ward 2 of the Ponghwa Clinic in Pyongyang, which has modern facilities and serves the Kim family and their immediate relatives. The clinic has a “special section” and a “general section.” Full politburo members and their families use the first and candidate members the latter. The next level down is the Namsan Clinic, which takes vice minister level patients and foreign diplomats. There are two more levels of modern hospitals for the civilian elite. The military has its own set of graduated hospitals and clinics. From there, the bottom falls out. The healthcare needs of the vast bulk of the population are covered by makeshift clinics at factories and rural areas. In most cases, this means a building or a room labeled “clinic” with no modern medicine.

The best witness is German pediatrician Norbert Vollertsen who spent eighteen months treating children in North Korea. After volunteering his own skin as a graft for a severely burned patient, Vollersten received a medal from the North Korean government and a “VIP passport” to travel around the country. This was a big mistake by the North Koreans because it gave him the opportunity to see what is normally hidden from outsiders.

Vollersten writes of what he found in most hospitals, “In each one, I found unbelievable deprivation. Crude rubber drips were hooked to patients from old beer bottles. There were no bandages, scalpels, antibiotics, or operation facilities, only broken beds on which children lay waiting to die. The children were emaciated, stunted, mute, and emotionally depleted.” Vollersten compared this to what he found in military hospitals, “Unlike any other hospital I visited, this one looked as modern as any in Germany. It was equipped with the latest medical apparatus, such as magnetic resonance imaging, ultrasound, electrocardiograms, and X-ray machines.”

The doctor’s conclusion? “There are two worlds in North Korea, one for the senior military and the elite; and a living hell for the rest.” What applies in the case of public health is true for all aspects of life in North Korea. On one side, there are strict restrictions on ordinary people–whether it is food, clothing, housing, or transportation. On the other, as Vollertsen describes it, “The system’s beneficiaries are members of the Communist Party and high-ranking military personnel. In Pyongyang, these people enjoy a comfortable lifestyle–obscene in the context with fancy restaurants and nightclubs.”

GOVERNING BY GULAG

What sustains this system is the terror. “Gulag” is a Russian acronym standing for the Soviet organization that ran the vast system of political prisons and forced labor camps that existed during the Soviet era, later exposed by Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. We now know that all Communist regimes have such systems. The Soviets were the first to institute forced labor camps for political prisoners, followed by the Chinese. In current times, the communist Chinese gulag has been exposed by Harry Wu, a survivor of nineteen years in the Chinese camps, in his book Laogai: The Chinese Gulag.

North Korea also has such a gulag system. North Korea built on the Chinese model and added a new depravity–child political prisoners. Neither the Soviets nor the Chinese sent children to the concentration camps but the Dear Leader sends the entire family. One of the best accounts of the North Korean gulag is written by someone who was sent to the camps at the age of nine, because his grandfather had offended the system. His sister was only seven; she was also sent to prison. In North Korea, the children of political prisoners are called “seedlings.” Official propaganda proscribes the proper treatment of these children, “desiccate the seedlings of counterrevolution, pull them out by their roots, and exterminate every last one of them.”

The camps are designed to exploit the prisoners’ labor until they die. Prisoners are given difficult and dangerous labor such as mining under unsafe conditions. Children are assigned heavy work as well, such as logging. Even before the famine of the mid-1990s, prisoners, including children, were on rations that would not sustain life in the long run, much less allow for any sort of normal growth. Since the political prisoners are never released, there is no danger of them divulging military secrets; they are assigned to work on missiles and other special weapons. One camp, Camp #14, is notorious for its use of prisoners “as guinea pigs for developing chemical warfare technology,” according to information obtained by the Seoul Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights.

Since the North Korean secret police send entire families to the labor camps, they have a higher proportion of women imprisoned than even Stalin’s gulag or the Chinese concentration camp system today. According to information obtained by a South Korean human rights group, it’s bad luck to be an even moderately attractive young woman in the camps. High Communist Party officials troll the camps looking for victims to be used as sex slaves. If the women become pregnant, they are forced to have an abortion without anesthesia. When their usefulness is over, the women are murdered. Their deaths are covered up as “shot while trying to escape.” In much the same way, the Nazi “Death Doctor,” Josef Mengele, used to comb the arriving trains for an attractive evening companion, only to have her shot the next day.

The prisoners of the North Korean gulags are filthy and disease-ridden. Beatings, torture, and executions are common. There is nothing to check guards from exercising brutality. Perhaps a third of the prisoners survive, for a while, as informers. In the end, death comes to nearly all of them, sooner rather than later.

The Dear Leader’s concentration camps are very efficient both for removing any real threat to the regime and in reinforcing the system of state terror. By some estimates, the North Korean gulag currently holds 200,000 men, women, and children. An estimated 400,000 people have perished in the camps over the past several decades. Rumors of the camps-of-no-return circulate in the general population and fear of denunciation prevents an organized opposition from forming.

ARMY FIRST

In the 1990s, events began to turn against the Dear Leader’s hold on power. The Soviet Bloc countries turned to democracy and free enterprise economics. That meant a sudden halt to the subsidized imports, which had propped up the North Korean economy from its inception. Since the communist Chinese no longer had to compete with Moscow, they too reduced their handouts. Years of agricultural mismanagement were also catching up with Pyongyang. Kim Jung Il’s legitimacy to rule was also in question, his father, the Great Leader, having died in the summer of 1994. Kim Jung Il was forced to execute a number of people, some for disloyalty and others, such as the agriculture minister, as scapegoats for the food crisis. 45 A number of high-level defectors escaped to Seoul with tales to tell about Kim’s troubles.

There was a lot of speculation in Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul (and probably in Beijing as well) about the possible collapse of Kim’s regime. But cleverly, the Dear Leader found a savior in the military. Communist Chinese leader Mao Zedong is famous for saying “Power comes out of the barrel of a gun,” but he also said, “The [Communist] Party controls the gun.” Kim has invented a new ideology called “Army-first,” which declares that “the [North Korean] regime comes from the barrel of a gun and is maintained by the barrel of a gun” and “the gun barrel should be placed over the hammer and sickle.”

North Korea has always been a heavily militarized society. It is one of the policies that drove so many refugees to flee to the South even before the Korean War. During the 1980s, North Korea almost doubled the size of its military establishment. By the end of the 1980s, Pyongyang’s defense spending was far beyond the country’s ability.

“Army-first” first emerged as a slogan in 1997. Under this policy, the Dear Leader instructed the people of North Korea “to concentrate greater efforts on military activities and strengthen national defense capabilities in every way–no matter how difficult the economic situation and no matter how great the financial burden.” According to the official newspaper of North Korea, the Army-first strategy “calls for giving priority to military issues over everything.”

This announcement came in the middle of the worst part of the North Korean famine (1995-1998). John Tkacik Jr., a Heritage Foundation research fellow, notes, “The very legitimacy of ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong Il’s regime rests on the so called ‘Songun’ or ‘Army First’ policy that Kim personally articulated….This terrifying ideology has made serfs of North Korea’s civilian population. They are subservient to a war machine–a move transparently designed by their ‘Dear Leader’ to ensure loyalty and the support of the military.”

At the top of the North Korean power pyramid is the military and the National Defense Commission of which the Dear Leader is the chairman. Next are the secret police and the Worker’s Party officials, which include the higher government leaders, amounting to perhaps 1 percent of the population. Together they constitute a gang of ruthless criminals bound together by a common interest in maintaining their privileges over the rest of the population.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Coming Thursday: “International Aid to Kim’s Rescue”

William C. Triplett, a national-security expert, is the author of Rogue State: How a Nuclear North Korea Threatens America.

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