The truth about North’s prisons

Korea JoongAng Daily - - Opinion & Perspectiv­e - An­drei Lankov

North Korea is hardly known for its per­mis­sive at­ti­tude to­ward po­lit­i­cal dis­sent. For some 70 years, open po­lit­i­cal chal­lenges to the gov­ern­ment have been met with pre­ci­sion bru­tal­ity. No won­der, then, that North Kore­ans vis­it­ing Com­mu­nist China tend to bask in that coun­try’s “un­be­liev­able free­doms vir­tu­ally bor­der­ing on an­ar­chy,” as one North Korean busi­ness­man I met last year on the main­land told me.

The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity has good rea­son to con­demn North Korea’s hu­man rights record. And yet, while North Korea re­mains a bru­tal place, the last two decades have also been an era of slow-mo­tion lib­er­al­iza­tion.

A good in­di­ca­tor is prison statis­tics. Some­what sur­pris­ingly, we have fairly re­li­able fig­ures about the num­ber of North Korean po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers. This is pos­si­ble be­cause of one of the pe­cu­liar­i­ties of the North Korean pen­i­ten­tiary sys­tem. Po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers are al­ways seg­re­gated from common crim­i­nals and housed in sep­a­rate camps, whose lo­ca­tions are widely known and whose size can be es­ti­mated through satel­lite im­agery.

In the early 1990s, the num­ber of in­mates peaked at around 200,000. Re­cent es­ti­mates put the num­ber be­tween 80,000 and 120,000. In other words, the num­ber of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers has roughly halved in the last 20 years.

What’s more, there have not been any sig­nif­i­cant mass re­leases com­pa­ra­ble in scale to, say, the mas­sive emp­ty­ing of Soviet gu­lags after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. Most North Korean po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers die in cap­tiv­ity or serve out their sen­tences. There­fore, the sig­nif­i­cant drop in num­bers in­di­cates that the prison pop­u­la­tion has not been re­placed with the alacrity that used to be common.

This has much to do with the regime’s aban­don­ment of the so-called fam­ily re­spon­si­bil­ity prin­ci­ple. Pre­vi­ously, all im­me­di­ate fam­ily mem­bers of a con­victed po­lit­i­cal crim­i­nal (so long as they shared his or, far less fre­quently, her house­hold reg­is­tra­tion) were deemed to be po­lit­i­cal crim­i­nals as well, and thus were also dis­patched to the gu­lag.

After the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994, his son and suc­ces­sor Kim Jong-il or­dered that this ap­proach be ap­plied se­lec­tively. A few years later, the au­thor­i­ties were in­structed to pun­ish rel­a­tives only in cases of es­pe­cially hideous crimes — such as writ­ing antigov­ern­ment graf­fiti. By North

The re­sults are ob­vi­ous even to

out­siders: In re­cent years,

North Kore­ans have be­come less

afraid of their gov­ern­ment.

Korean stan­dards, this rep­re­sented a sub­stan­tial im­prove­ment.

There are other ar­eas, too, in which North Korea has be­come no­tably less re­pres­sive. Cross­ing the bor­der into China with­out per­mis­sion once rep­re­sented a ma­jor crime pun­ish­able by a lengthy prison sen­tence. Nowa­days, it is a mis­de­meanor; only those known to have met with mis­sion­ar­ies or the me­dia while in China face the risk of sub­stan­tial pun­ish­ment.

It’s worth not­ing that th­ese changes are be­ing pushed from be­low. As I wrote last week, cor­rup­tion has be­come ubiq­ui­tous in Py­ongyang, and of­fi­cials have be­come will­ing to take bribes to over­look var­i­ous mis­de­meanors, in­clud­ing those of a po­lit­i­cal kind. In the past, any­one caught with a tun­able ra­dio would face a few years in prison. Now, a few hun­dred dol­lars (ad­mit­tedly, a sub­stan­tial sum) can stop the po­lice from in­ves­ti­gat­ing the crime and might even en­sure the re­turn of the of­fend­ing item.

Let us be clear: North Korea re­mains a bru­tal place. The ra­tio of pris­on­ers to the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion re­mains roughly the same as in the Soviet Union just be­fore Stalin’s death. Nonethe­less, the spike in cross-bor­der traf­fic to China in par­tic­u­lar — which has brought a flood of ra­dios, DVDs and Chi­nese mo­bile phones — has sig­nif­i­cantly widened the pic­ture that North Kore­ans have of the out­side world.

The spread of DVDs with South Korean tele­vi­sion dra­mas and movies seems to be es­pe­cially im­por­tant. While it is il­le­gal to im­port, copy, sell, pos­sess and watch such videos, th­ese bans are widely ig­nored. Most of the dra­mas are rather syrupy love sto­ries, but they are set in present-day South Korea, so few peo­ple have any doubts about the af­flu­ence of their neigh­bors be­low the 38th par­al­lel.

The re­sults are ob­vi­ous even to out­siders: In re­cent years, North Kore­ans have be­come less afraid of their gov­ern­ment and more will­ing to raise rather risky top­ics in con­ver­sa­tion among trusted friends. Fur­ther lib­er­al­iza­tion is likely to en­cour­age even more crit­i­cism.

As with the growth of a pri­vate econ­omy, th­ese changes will con­tinue to erode the le­git­i­macy of the regime. Even if Kim Jong-un re­mains in con­trol in the North, there’s no way he can af­ford to fill the gu­lags again. Un­for­tu­nately for him, in the long run he prob­a­bly won’t sur­vive emp­ty­ing them, ei­ther. The au­thor, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Kook­min Univer­sity in Seoul, is the au­thor of “The Real North Korea: Life and Pol­i­tics in the Failed Stal­in­ist Utopia.” This is the third of three ar­ti­cles.


John Rogers, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Eu­gene Bell Foun­da­tion, right, pre­par­ing to dis­trib­ute tu­ber­cu­lo­sis med­i­ca­tion to pa­tients at a TB treat­ment cen­ter in Ryokpo, North Korea.

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