Kwan-li-so: North Korea’s Gulag

While the nation celebrated 100 years since the birth of Eternal President Kim Il-sung the 15th of April this year, the pomp and circumstance masked yet another tragedy within the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea estimates that 23,000 North Koreans live in South Korea, including many former political prisoners – survivors of the world’s most repressive police state.

There are different types of forced labor camp in the DPRK: kwan-li-so, for political prisoners and imprisonment in which is permanent; kyo-hwa-so, penitentiaries for regular criminals; and, finally, detention centers for those who have attempted to flee into China.

Tales of forced abortions under the guise of ‘racial purity’ as well as frequent starvation are common. On top of meager rations, prisoners are often worked 12 hours a day in intense labor, one of the most popular forms of which is mining. Because food is so scarce, prisoners often fend for themselves by eating local flora and fauna like rabbits and snakes, as well as eating grass or even manure.

Estimates vary, but it is believed that more than 200,000 political prisoners are being held in camps in North Korea’s north-eastern provinces. Because of an edict by Kim Il-sung in 1972, three generations of family members can be incarcerated for the crimes of one person. This program was carried out under the guise of crushing the ‘seed of class enemies.’

The seed of factionalists or enemies of class, whoever they are, must be eliminated through three generations.

Kim Il-sung

If you fail to maintain the cleanliness of the required portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, present on the walls of every North Korean home, business, or factory, you could be sent to the kwan-li-so. If you lived in Eastern Europe during the fall of communism in the 1980s, you could be sent to the kwan-li-so. Religious belief, contact with the outside, or the possession of South Korean products are all reasons to be sent to the kwan-li-so. In true Orwellian fashion, not only can one’s actions be criminal, but also one’s thoughts, speech, or appearance.

The mandatory pendants of Eternal President Kim Il-sung worn on the breast of every North Korean is an outward sign of this control: failure to wear it is also a crime.

Comparing the kwan-li-so with the Soviet gulag is not the best analogue because the North Korean government has perfected methods of torture and cruelty that make the kwan-li-so its own unique perversion of justice.

Akin to other totalitarian systems before it, the victims of North Korea’s repression are never told of their crimes, they are never given a trial, nor is anyone ever made aware of what happened to them. When the issue of the kwan-li-so’s existence is brought up in diplomatic meetings with foreign powers, the DPRK refuses to discuss or even acknowledge the camp’s existence.

Similar to the feudal Chosun dynasty, the population is divided into hereditary classes of loyal, wavering, and hostile – the last being the majority of the kwan-li-so‘s prisoners.

The issue remains largely unaddressed by the United Nations and North Korea’s closest ally, China, not only does not condemn the existence of these camps but also repatriates refugees who come into China from North Korea, insuring their incarceration in one of the gulags.


[The Economist]

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