Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a prison camp in North Korea. ‘Guilt-by-association’ (with his parents) meant that he faced a lifetime of imprisonment. He was tortured along with his father. He was forced to watch the execution of his mother and his brother. He witnessed the deaths of many children under the impossible demands of forced labor.
On May 4, Amnesty International released a new report on prison camps in North Korea, accompanied by satellite images that reveal the scope and location of these facilities. Most are located in vast tracts of wilderness: isolated, remote, harsh. And, over the last ten years, they have grown.
Amnesty estimates that these camps hold at least 200,000 men, women and children (estimates by other human rights groups are much higher.) Untold numbers of innocent North Koreans have passed through and passed away in the camps since they were created 60 years ago. Most have no idea why they were arrested; they are held without charge or trial, without access to an independent judiciary.
Offenses that might lead to arrest include: criticizing the ruling family; listening to unauthorized radio broadcasts; trying to leave the country; performing poorly on the job. Many are held simply because they are related to someone who was detained – husbands, wives, children, grandparents, siblings, cousins.
These citizens of North Korea endure inhuman conditions uncomfortably close to our common understanding of concentration camps. The head of Amnesty’s Asia division has said,
“Hundreds of thousands of people exist with virtually no rights, treated essentially as slaves, in some of the worst circumstances we’ve documented in the last 50 years.”
The majority of these prisoners, including children, are held in areas known as ‘Total Control Zones.’ They are destined to spend their entire lives in filthy, infested, grotesque conditions. Food is scarce and medical care minimal. Forty percent will die of malnutrition. No clothing or blankets are provided, even during the harsh and bitter winters.
Inmates, again including children, are used as slave labor. They spend most of their working hours suffering through arduous and pointless manual labor. Before and after such work, they attend ‘Ideology Struggle Sessions.’
In the camps, torture and execution are routine. Amnesty has found evidence of the use of torture cells, small cubes in which it is impossible to either stand or lie down. Researchers revealed the case of a boy of thirteen confined to a cube for eight months. Many camp infractions, including trying to escape, are punished by executions that inmates are forced to watch.
This is not just a cause for concern, this is an outrage. One way to make sure that nothing changes is for the rest of the world, the rest of us, to remain silent and disengaged. When Amnesty International was founded 50 years ago, one of its aims was to give a voice to the voiceless, to spur the free to act on behalf of the unfree.
If ever there were a time for us to raise our voices, it is now.