People in North Korea have good reasons to fear rebellion against their totalitarian government, with the threat of gulag-inspired prison camps in their minds.
With the recent mysterious disappearance – and then apparent return – of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, the world’s eyes have turned to the reclusive nation accused of cruel human rights abuses.
One of the most distinctive features of North Korea is the rigid enforcement of social conformity. This ranges from personal aesthetic choices around hair and clothing to being politically aligned and never questioning the state.
Both men and women can choose from a selection of 15 government-approved hairstyles – although Kim prefers a completely different haircut.
Blue jeans are banned in North Korea because they are considered a symbol of American imperialism.
Due to the very limited internet access, many North Koreans probably have little knowledge of the rest of the world and therefore almost no context for how restrictive their own society actually is.
They may not even know about the existence of prison camps, which are well documented by the United Nations and humanitarian groups.
There are two different types of camps: internment camps for political prisoners and “re-education camps” for ordinary criminals. However, there are often overlaps between the two types of offenses, as those who turn an enemy of an influential politician into an enemy are often wrongly charged with crimes and imprisoned.
Those in internment camps have been accused of political infidelity or untrustworthiness for showing insufficient loyalty to the regime. It was once the policy that family members of political criminals were considered guilty and imprisoned by association, but this has largely been abandoned since the 1990s.
Those charged with crimes are often tortured into false confessions, exposing former prisoners to ice-cold water. This is followed by a brief show trial before the person is convicted and sentenced to a long prison sentence that could put him behind bars for decades or the rest of his life.
Once in the camps, there is no guarantee that a prisoner will ever leave alive. Regular blows from heavily armed guards are common, as are tortures that can become deadly. Former prisoners have reported that prisoners have to dig their own graves.
Prisoners sleep in filthy tight cells and have to do heavy manual labor every day from 5 a.m. to late at night.
For those living in the countryside where food can be scarce, prison can be seen as a relief from not knowing where the next meal is coming from – but unfortunately that’s not the case.
North Korean prisons have a high death rate because so many prisoners are starving to death as a result of guards refusing food while serving their sentences.
Other prisoners simply die from exhaustion from 18-hour workdays, although official death data is often left in public deliberately.
“When Kim Jong-un came to power, he questioned officials who supervised labor education camps about the high death rates,” a former prisoner told Daily NK.
“As a result, prison officials were instructed not to record the deaths of overworked prisoners.”
Kang Cheol-hwan, a North Korean defector who was imprisoned in a political prison camp as a child after his family criticized the Kim Dynasty, says he remembers seeing a man executed by hanging.
“It was not just the hanging itself, but the fact that the guards forced prisoners to throw stones at the body and leave it there for a week until the birds pecked at it so much that it was unrecognizable,” he told South. Africa Independent online.
The North Korea Human Rights Committee (HRNK), a Washington-based organization dedicated to uncovering the atrocities of the North Korean regime, says there are four known political prison camps and more than 20 labor camps in be the country.
“Kim Il-sung, the first leader of North Korea, has modeled the Soviet gulag prison camps and over the past six decades, North Korea’s prison system has grown tremendously,” said HRNK.
“Today, an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 people are incarcerated in these camps.”