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Inside a North Korean Labor Camp

Here’s a glimpse of what it’s like inside a North Korean labor camp -- of the sort that American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee will have to endure now

Jul 31, 2020
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Here’s a glimpse of what it’s like inside a North Korean labor camp — of the sort that American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee will have to endure now that a kangaroo court has convicted them for spying. It’s from the most recent edition of the State Department’s annual global human rights report, and is necessarily fragmentary, as few people have emerged from the camps to tell their stories.
Reeducation through labor, primarily through sentences at forced labor camps, was a common punishment and consisted of tasks such as logging, mining, or tending crops under harsh conditions. Reeducation involved memorizing speeches by Kim Jong-il. …
NGO, refugee, and press reports indicated that there were several types of prisons, detention centers, and camps, including forced labor camps and separate camps for political prisoners. Defectors claimed the camps covered areas as large as 200 square miles. The camps appeared to contain mass graves, barracks, worksites, and other prison facilities.
Conditions in camps for political prisoners are even harsher and feature such pleasantries as “prolonged periods of exposure to the elements; humiliations such as public nakedness; confinement for up to several weeks in small ‘punishment cells’ in which prisoners were unable to stand upright or lie down; being forced to kneel or sit immobilized for long periods; being hung by the wrists; being forced to stand up and sit down to the point of collapse.” Variations on these themes occurred at CIA secret detention facilities, Guantanamo Bay, and, in certain cases, in Afghanistan and Iraq as the result of the Bush administration’s interrogation and detention programs — which, at their root, were modeled on methodstaught to U.S. troops to resist torture of the sort practiced by, among others, the North Koreans. So former Vice President Dick Cheney, for instance, can’t call what Euna Lee and Laura Ling may face “torture” on pains of inconsistency. Moral clarity in action.
It’s unclear to me if the distinction between conditions in forced-labor camps and conditions in political reeducation camps is an ironclad one.
Meanwhile, what’s gotten somewhat lost in the justified outrage over Lee and Ling’s conviction is the story that took them to the Chinese border with North Korea in the first place: the plight of North Korean women trafficked into China. This is from that same State Department report, and it hints at the importance of Ling and Lee’s reporting:
There were no known laws specifically addressing the problem of trafficking in persons, and trafficking of women and young girls into and within China continued to be widely reported. Some North Korean women and girls who voluntarily crossed into China were picked up by trafficking rings and sold as brides to Chinese nationals or placed in forced labor. In other cases, North Korean women and girls were lured out of North Korea by the promise of food, jobs, and freedom, only to be forced into prostitution, marriage, or exploitive labor arrangements. A network of smugglers facilitated this trafficking. Many victims of trafficking, unable to speak Chinese, were held as virtual prisoners, and some were forced to work as prostitutes. Traffickers sometimes abused or physically scarred the victims to prevent them from escaping. Officials facilitated trafficking by accepting bribes to allow individuals to cross the border into China.
A different State Department report, this one about human trafficking, found that when the Chinese government obtains women smuggled into the country from North Korea, it treats them “solely as economic migrants” and routinely repatriates them “back to horrendous conditions.”
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Dexter Cooke

Dexter Cooke

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Dexter Cooke is an economist, marketing strategist, and orthopedic surgeon with over 20 years of experience crafting compelling narratives that resonate worldwide. He holds a Journalism degree from Columbia University, an Economics background from Yale University, and a medical degree with a postdoctoral fellowship in orthopedic medicine from the Medical University of South Carolina. Dexter’s insights into media, economics, and marketing shine through his prolific contributions to respected publications and advisory roles for influential organizations. As an orthopedic surgeon specializing in minimally invasive knee replacement surgery and laparoscopic procedures, Dexter prioritizes patient care above all. Outside his professional pursuits, Dexter enjoys collecting vintage watches, studying ancient civilizations, learning about astronomy, and participating in charity runs.
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