The North Korean Gulag

In February, an unprecedented United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) released a report that exhaustively documents the scope of North Korea’s repression. In uncharacteristically blunt language drawing in part on hours of testimony from North Korean refugees and defectors, the COI laid out the systemic and unparalleled horrors of human rights abuses in the country. It concluded that North Korea’s government was committing crimes against humanity against its own people and called on the nations of the world to act.

Foremost among these crimes is the continuing existence of political prison camps that share many attributes of the Nazi concentration camps or the Soviet gulags. While hard numbers understandably vary widely, most experts agree that between 100,000 and 200,000 North Koreans are currently held in a network of vast camps, some of which are the size of small cities. Maintained separately from the prisons for ordinary crimes, North Korea’s gulags subject prisoners to appalling conditions. Torture and public executions are commonplace. Prisoners lack adequate food, clothing, healthcare, and housing. And under North Korea’s ruthless system, three generations of families are punished for the so-called offenses of a single person.

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