Politics & Policy

Got Gulag?

North Korea does.

“They gave me a good time in Cuba,” 15-year-old Afghan former-detainee Mohammed Ismail Agha said in a 2004 interview with the London Telegraph. “They treated us well,” elderly farmer Faiz Mohammed added. “We had enough food. I didn’t mind [being detained] because they took my old clothes and gave me new clothes.” Okay, maybe these are atypical examples, but can you believe even one person who survived the Soviet prison system came out with a favorable recommendation? “Great diet plan,” Ivan Ivanov said, “I lost 130 pounds!”

Amnesty International secretary general Irene Khan’s description of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo as “the Gulag of our time” has come under heavy fire, both for its fallaciousness, and the implicit trivializing of the Soviet Gulag system in which tens of millions were imprisoned and uncountable numbers died. Anne Applebaum, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag: A History noted in the Washington Post that Amnesty has sunk quite a bit from the days when it was revealing what was going on in the actual Gulags. But Khan’s deputy, Kate Gilmore, noted that the gulag comment has served the organization well. “We’re getting more airing of our message than we would have otherwise,” she said. Glad it’s working out for them.

What struck me the most was the use of the phrase “of our time,” as though the moral sense of humanity should be as offended as in the high days of Stalinism (those who were offended anyway). That were it not for Guantanamo, our times would be gulag-free. But there is a more suitable candidate for the sobriquet, namely the Kwan-li-co, the system of concentration camps in North Korea, a lineal descendent of the Gulag. After all, North Korea is a bona fide Soviet state, run by the son of the man who Stalin put in power. Current dictator Kim Jong Il was reportedly born in the training camp in Siberia where his father Kim Il Sung was being groomed for power by the NKVD. In size, scope, reason for being, and manner of doing business, the North Korean camps are indistinguishable from their Soviet kin, with the exception that in the North Korean system they do not bother with even pro forma trials.

Unfortunately there is not as much widely known about the Kwan-li-co. Amnesty’s 2005 country report on North Korea does not go into the camp system, though it does highlight some of the other human rights abuses visited on North Korean citizens–denial of free expression, starvation, torture, extrajudicial executions, and trafficking in women. The non-government U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea has put together a comprehensive review entitled “The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps,” comprised mainly of testimony from former inmates who escaped the camp system, along with satellite photos of the reputed camps. The Democracy Network against North Korean Gulag is an émigré organization dedicated to–well, the name says it all. Another good source is The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan. Kang was imprisoned at age nine with his family and after his release a decade later escaped to South Korea. President Bush reportedly has recently been reading the book, recommended by a Christian missionary who has been making Bible runs inside North Korea.

An estimated 200,000 people are being held in the Kwan-li-co and related systems, in conditions of unspeakable brutality. Accounts of life (such as it is) in the camps remind one of Solzhenitsyn’s narratives, or Primo Levi’s, or other firsthand confirmation of the cruelty and viciousness of the total state in dealing with those it has rendered helpless. How many ways can a person be tortured? How many ways can someone be killed? Is no offense against totalitarian order too small to be overlooked? Are there no limits to the depravity of man? Read some of these accounts and compare. To the average North Korean prisoner, Guantanamo, with its wholesome food, hygienic sanitation, medical care, regular religious services, fresh clothes, forgiving climate, trained personnel, and periodic Red Cross visits would be an astonishing land of plenty. The same goes for the average North Korean citizen.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and an NRO contributor.

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