The National Human Rights Commission has offered a glimpse into how the North Korean regime survives its extreme destitution. The independent rights monitoring agency issued its first report on North Korean gulags, where hundreds of thousands of people perceived as threatening to the regime are living lives worse than death.
Horror stories defying imagination fill the book, which is based on the testimonies of 60 refugees from the North with first-hand experiences in four concentration camps and two reformatories for political prisoners. It contained the real names of inmates as far as they have been confirmed.
In Jeungsan Reformatory in South Pyeongan Province, the body count reached 3,721 in the first six months of 2005 alone. We know this because one woman refugee had herself checked the serial numbers attached to the corpses. Bodies were buried in shallow graves in what the prisoners called “flower hill,” so called because, like flowers, human remains were revealed after the rain.
At Hoeryeong gulag in the remote North Hamgyeong Province, a Major Han played human angling with a piece of pork fat hooked to a thread and rod. A woman prisoner, also named Han, was dropped into a pit naked. The starving woman had to frog-jump to catch the bait again and again until she was exhausted, simply for the fun of the officer.
The list of confirmed inmates included names of dismissed senior cabinet officials, purged staffers of Jochongnyeon, the North Korean residents’ association in Japan, and People’s Army generals accused of corruption and insubordination. They had no privileges before the barbarism and atrocities of the camps, but some got out alive.
The NHRC said the report was made to use as material for the prosecution of those responsible for crimes against humanity when the time comes. International law does not recognize statutory limitations for such crimes. But the survivors wonder whether justice can be done to these criminals, not only those at the camps but those in Pyongyang who used these camps as a device to prop up the regime.
While the gulags serve as one wheel for the internal security of the North, the other is a mighty special unit that protects the ruling elite from direct harm. Reports have it that Jang Song-thaek, uncle of new leader Kim Jong-un, assumed the command of the outfit called “Howichongguk” or General Security Bureau with some 30,000 men and women recently.
Jang, husband of Kim Jong-il’s younger sister Kim Kyong-hi, is already the most powerful man under Kim as the administrative chief of the ruling Workers’ Party controlling internal security agencies, the prosecution and the court. He now has responsibility as the chief bodyguard of Kim Jong-un, who holds the quadruple titles of party first secretary, first chairman of the National Defense Commission, chairman of the party Central Military Commission and commander-in-chief of the People’s Army.
In the 21st century, characterized by global economic interactions and universal surge of human rights, as demonstrated by the Jasmine Revolution in North Africa last year, the existence of North Korea is a great mystery in itself. Political scientists who failed to find a parallel case in the entire modern history are tempted to guess at the life expectancy of the regime in Pyongyang.
“How many more years, or months, can Kim Jong-un remain on the throne bequeathed to him by his father and grandfather?” they ask, watching the series of extraordinary events since the death of Kim Jong-il last December. After a funeral comparable to that of an ancient emperor, his son ascended to all the top seats of the party, state and military in accordance with his father’s will. The rituals climaxed with the centenary celebrations of Kim Il-sung, founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, on April 15.
The failure of a long-range rocket, which exploded a few minutes after liftoff, ruined the solemn mood of the whole process. Under the guise of a satellite project, the rocket launch was intended to be a bonfire to usher in the new age of “mighty, prosperous state,” the great objective of the DPRK.
The rocket venture, seen by outsiders as a missile test, not only discarded the North’s agreement with the United States for a halt to nuclear and missile programs in exchange for food aid but jeopardized its relations with China and Russia. Beijing and Moscow quickly joined other U.N. Security Council members in adopting a unanimous statement condemning the launch.
The only way for Kim Jong-un to save face is a nuclear test, the third since 2006, probably this time using the enriched uranium the North is suspected of having developed since the late 1990s. Satellite cameras have detected signs that preparations are under way at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in North Hamgyeong Province. Experts expect an underground detonation within two weeks.
Pyongyang wants to be recognized as a nuclear power and treated as such in the international community. And by combining the missile and nuclear capabilities, it will be able to strike the continental United States ― which North Korean strategists see as the ultimate guarantee of its security. Yet, this grand strategy costs Pyongyang too much economically and diplomatically.
The North’s announcement of the rocket launch plan shortly after the Feb. 29 agreement with the U.S. was so surprising that officials here could find no reasonable explanation other than speculation that Kim Jong-un was being manipulated by the military. President Lee Myung-bak observed that the North was abandoning its diplomatic pattern of seeking direct approach to Washington over the head of Seoul. Conversely, he opined, the rocket and nuclear ventures would now help Seoul communicate with Beijing undisturbed by Pyongyang.
A review of the events in the North since the demise of Kim Jong-il portrays the young heir taking inconsistent, unstable steps, under the influences of different power groups, most notably the hard-line military and his close family members led by Jang Song-thaek. If Pyongyang chooses to conduct a nuclear test in defiance of global pressure, it will only hasten the crumbling of a rule sustained by internal repression and geopolitical benefits from its closest neighbor China.
Another clear sign of confusion under immature leadership is the ongoing competition of verbal threats against the South by almost all power organizations in Pyongyang. Their harsh words cannot camouflage the fragility of the regime that requires hellish concentration camps to maintain its existence. As Pyongyang makes its own countdown for a nuclear test, more pundits will begin a countdown on its future.