Shadow Government

The Gulags of North Korea

When North Korea makes the headlines, you can be almost certain that it won't be for good reasons. With depressing regularity, we hear stories about military provocations against South Korea and the North's ongoing efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Or we hear about trivialities like the opening of an amusement park or the disgraceful antics of a former basketball star. But an issue of far greater importance than the trivial stories, and of equal importance to the security questions, gets only scant coverage: North Korea's atrocious record on human rights.

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.

Kang Chol-hwan, author of Aquariums of Pyongyang, who was sent to the camps as a nine-year-old boy, recalled, "Every aspect of life there is the worst you can imagine as a human being." When his grandfather was arrested for alleged political crimes, Kang was sent to the gulag along with his grandmother, father, uncle, and sister. He was assigned to forced labor brigades, like other children in the camps. 

Long denied by the Kim regime and often overlooked by the rest of the world, these camps have been exposed by the testimonies of an increasing number of refugees, as well as satellite imagery. Those looking for North Korea to reform are likely to be disappointed. The camps have become an integral part of the Kim dynasty's machinery for maintaining power. Ahn Myeong Chul, who served as a guard in the gulags and saw his family members sent to a camp, noted in a recent interview: "The existence of political prison camps is essential for maintaining the regime. Kim Il Sung created these camps. He wanted to purge people who were against his will."

As dim as this picture looks, the brightest hope for North Korea is not found in its leadership but in its people. Despite the regime's attempts to maintain control, increasing numbers of North Koreans are exposed to information from outside. A rudimentary system of markets exists outside the total control of the state. These developments may one day lead to greater freedom for the country.

Meanwhile, the United States and the rest of the world have a task before them. After the Holocaust, after the horrors of the Soviet Union, Cambodia, China, and Rwanda, the world has pledged "never again." There's now eyewitness evidence that crimes against humanity are being committed by the North Korean state against its people. The U.N. Commission of Inquiry report demands a serious response.

Obviously, North Korea's belligerent actions and determination to field a nuclear arsenal remain profoundly destabilizing and must be a priority for policymakers. But that mustn't come at the expense of efforts by the United States and the world to improve the human condition in North Korea. 

Victor Cha formerly served as Director on the National Security Council staff in the George W. Bush Administration. He is the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, and a Fellow in Human Freedom at the George W. Bush Institute. Lindsay Lloyd is Program Director, Freedom Collection at the George W. Bush Institute.

KNS/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

China Is Overreaching -- Does the U.S. Have a Plan?

Dan Twining's excellent post-mortem on the Shangri-La security summit in Singapore accurately captured China's isolation in Asia on both security and values issues. There is more to the story though. The Shangri-La meeting came just a week after China hosted the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), a once sleepy gathering organized by Kazakhstan that Chinese President Xi Jinping took over this year in an effort to form a new continental security system to counter the United States and Japan's strengthening network of maritime democracies. In another over-reach, Beijing thought that Japan-South Korea tensions over history and growing Sino-Korean economic ties would provide an opening to enlist South Korea in that continental system and to pull Seoul away from the United States. 

In the lead up to CICA, Beijing pushed hard for all the participating countries to sign on to a joint statement that declared bilateral alliances obsolete in Asia and called for a new system of security that would be hailed by Xi Jinping in his keynote speech to the conference. U.S. allies Turkey and Israel signed on, but the Koreans held firm and the joint statement was watered down, though Xi did make his declaration in the keynote speech anyway. The Chinese also tried to get Korea to sign on to a new common front against Japan on history issues, but Seoul rebuffed Beijing again, explaining that these were bilateral problems with Japan and not a reason for Sino-ROK cooperation.

The extent to which Beijing's aggressiveness is pushing the region to the United States for security cooperation was evident in a recent poll we conducted at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) of foreign policy elites across Asia. In the survey we asked experts in 12 countries what future order they expected in Asia in a decade and a majority answered that it would be one led by the United States (as opposed to a Sino-centric system, balance of power, U.S.-China condominium, or East Asian Community). Outside of China, a majority of respondents also said they preferred a U.S.-led system. Koreans were among the most enthusiastic about retaining U.S.-leadership in the region. This was not surprising, given that a significant majority outside of China thought it was having a negative impact on regional security, despite enthusiasm about economic ties with China.

But is the United States up to this leadership? The survey showed enthusiasm for the "rebalance" (also known as "the pivot"), but real concern about whether it will be implemented. More troubling was the curious divergence between American foreign policy elites and their Asian counterparts on democracy and human rights. When we did this survey five years ago, there was a stunning consensus outside of China on the need for Asia's future order to be built on free and fair elections, human rights and rule of law (caveated by Indians and Indonesians on the need for non-interference in internal affairs).

The support for democratic norms increased even more this time, but no thanks to the Americans. The percentage of American foreign policy elites who said it was important to promote free and fair elections in Asia dropped from 86 percent to 66 percent, and those arguing human rights mattered to regional order dropped from 94 percent to 72 percent. This is still a majority, but the Americans were dead last on promoting human rights and women's empowerment -- behind even the Chinese respondents.

Why, as Asians embrace these democratic norms, are American foreign policy elites moving away from them as a core element of our foreign policy? Part of the reason has to be the setbacks in the Middle East and perhaps even frustration with our own democratic process, but I suspect one big reason is the trickle-down effect of the Obama administration's faux realism. My guess is that a content analysis of speeches and public national security documents relating to Asia (and for that matter, the world) would find that the Obama administration references democracy and human rights less than any President since Nixon -- and possibly since Warren G. Harding (Nixon, after all, gave a full-throated endorsement of democracy in Asia even in his famous 1972 Shanghai Communiqué). Oh well. At least we have something to work with, as Dan Twining points out.