Jacob Heilbrunn

North Korea's Gulag Exposed

Interior view of gulag prisoners' house, 1936-1937The "hermit kingdom" is becoming a little less hermetically sealed. At least that is the aim of an organization called the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Together with the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, it held an important day-long conference on Tuesday at the Peterson Institute in Washington, DC to expose North Korea's political-prisoner-camp system. At a panel I attended entitled "Women and the Hidden Gulag," the speakers, a number of whom are survivors of the camps, were informative, persuasive and sober.

Most attention devoted to North Korea focuses on its truculence and its military plans, which is the way Kim Jong-un and his camarilla like it. The Obama administration, which recently announced a food deal with the North, now finds itself scrambling as the communist leadership brags that it is going to launch a new "weather"--in truth, military—satellite into orbit. What to do? Bribe the regime, placate it or remain silent? The options have never been good since no administration, including George W. Bush's, which noisily trumpeted its dedication to freedom, has dared confront the North militarily. America already went through that in the early 1950s, enduring a war that Dwight D. Eisenhower managed to bring to a close, or at least an armistice in 1953. The consequences of a repetition would be horrendous and even more lethal than before, above all for South Korea. And the North knows it.

The focus on North Korea's gulag presents a different avenue of attack. It further chips away at the North's pretensions to be the better half of the two Koreas. During the Cold War, the Soviet dissidents and human-rights activists eroded the communist system's claim to moral superiority over the West. Something similar could happen in North Korea—at the very least, as the speakers at the conference indicated, there is a moral obligation to bear testimony for those left behind in what amounts to a national prison. As various speakers outlined, the North has created a complex system of prison camps that contain several hundred thousand people and rest on intimidation, terror, sexual abuse and infanticide. The parallels with Stalin's gulag are overwhelming, including working a captive population to death. But the regime can no longer keep its system of slave labor a secret. Over the decades, tens of thousands have managed to escape. The ghastly testimony of a few refugees might be dismissed as too unbelievable to be credited. The words of thousands cannot.

Still, North Korea is a problem that no major power seems eager to try and solve. Japan loathes North Korea but is happy to see two Koreas. So is China. America is stuck serving as a military trip wire. Meanwhile, the South dreads the idea of trying to effect reunification, a task that Germany has not yet accomplished economically. Eastern Germany continues to lag far behind the West; North Korea makes communist East Germany look like it was a thriving capitalist economy. The financial costs of trying to absorb the North would be colossal and likely perdure for generations.

A softer landing would be for the current containment policy to mellow the North gradually. Yes, North Korea remains an improbable candidate for reform. But if Burma, which also appeared an intractable case, can alter its repressive policies, then there may be a glimmer of hope that North Korea will eventually change. That day may appear far off. But the fresh scrutiny of North Korea's sprawling camp system might help to hasten its arrival.