WMC Women Under Siege Conflict Report: North Korea (2012)
North Korea’s government has been enslaving citizens roughly 12 times longer than the Nazis held prisoners in concentration camps. Yet in most circles, the concentration camps run by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are far less talked about than the quirks and nuclear capacities of the regime. Due to a combination of distraction and difficult reporting, the systematic sexualized violence that occurs within those camps rarely garners attention. The information that does leak out from North Korea suggests a brutal campaign against inhabitants that entails mass rape, widespread femicide, and forced abortion for those caught defecting. Amnesty International estimates that 200,000 citizens are currently held captive within North Korea’s gulag. Testimonies of those who have escaped reflect inhumane conditions for children as well as adults. Inmates of all ages are tortured; young teens are regularly raped.
After North Korea emerged as a state following World War II and Soviet occupation, its first leader, Kim Il Sung, began waging war on its citizens. In addition to those who dissented politically, their children and grandchildren were to be destroyed. “Their seed must be eliminated through three generations,” the leader reportedly declared.
Several dictators later, the state continues to operate top-down, with aid groups and reporters given only nominal access to the region. Stephan Haggard, director of the Korea-Pacific Program at the University of California, San Diego, and author of several books about and surveys of North Korean refugees, said that he and others who report on the regime are “struggling to figure out how these systems actually function.” Haggard told WMC’s Women Under Siege that the political party and secret police form some of the “very strong central institutions” controlling the population.
Due to the highly concentrated nature of political power, it may be difficult for those at the top to receive unbiased information from underlings. In a one-leader, oppressive regime, Haggard points out, “nobody wants to deliver bad news.” He and others, including journalist Jasper Becker in his book Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea, reported that widespread famine in the late 1990s—a famine that Human Rights Watch and other sources believe may have killed 1 million citizens—might have occurred in part because the leadership wasn’t aware of its extent.
Becker interviewed Lee Min-bok, a North Korean agricultural expert who defected to South Korea in 1995. “Everyone knew how to please the Great Leader—all you had to do was lie,” Lee told Becker. “Say a party official had to meet a target of 100 tons of grain, and the real harvest was 70 tons,” he explained. The official would simply lie and say that the quota had been met. But the lies were more elaborate than merely fudging numbers on paper. When state inspectors would arrive in person, the men who had falsely reported the yields would, for instance, display a barn with 100 tons of grain—30 tons of which would be borrowed from a neighboring district.
Until the famine hit, Haggard said, the state was for many decades a kind of ward of the Soviet Union. Amid rhetoric of self-reliance, North Korea was in fact “very heavily dependent” on Soviet economic support. In addition, the market sector was suppressed until widespread hunger forced a change. Spurred by starvation and the fact that state-sanctioned jobs simply could not provide enough rations, informal vendors began to pop up. Haggard posits that most of the sellers in this nongovernment market are women—which in turn seems to create a disparity in gender among defectors. Because women over 50 are no longer required to report to the government for work the way men are, according to Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, it may be easier for them to flee across the border without being traced.
Despite the famine, it appears that North Korea’s concentration camps and detention centers have continued to function, if not grow in size. While both New York University’s Korea historiographer Henry Em and journalist Blaine Harden emphasize the difficulties of fact-checking and investigating reports of abuse in repressive nations, aid workers and the United Nation have gathered testimonies indicating decades of rape and other sexualized trauma, as well as trafficking, both within prison camps and at the Chinese border.
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