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North Korea's political penal labour colonies, transliterated kwalliso or kwan-li-so, constitute one of three forms of political imprisonment in the country, the other two being what Hawk translated as "short-term detention/forced-labor centers" and "long-term prison labor camps", for misdemeanour and felony offenses respectively. In total, there are an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners.
|Political penal-labour colony|
|Literally "place(s) of custody"|
(kwalli can also mean "administration", "maintenance" or "care", and the whole term is usually translated as "management centre" in contexts other than North Korea's penal system)
Durations of imprisonment are variable, however, many are condemned to labour for life. Forced labour duties within kwalliso typically include forced labour in mines (known examples including coal, gold and iron ore), tree felling, timber cutting or agricultural duties. Furthermore, camps contain state run prison farms, furniture manufacturing etc.
Estimates suggest that at the start of 2007, a total of six kwalliso camps were operating within the country. Despite fourteen kwalliso camps originally operating within North Korea, these later merged or were closed following reallocation of prisoners.
Origins and developmentEdit
Second only to its developing nuclear program, the violation of human rights that occurs in North Korea dominates the negative international perception of the nation. Tracing the development of these prisons, the ultimate symbol of North Korean state oppression, in a way traces the trajectory of the nation itself. Furthermore, the advent and development of the prisons can be directly linked to the severing of ties with the rest of the world and to the radicalization of the state.
Historical emergence and conceptualizationEdit
In January 1979, a report was released by Amnesty International detailing the harrowing story of Ali Lameda, a Venezuelan poet imprisoned in North Korea. He had been arrested in 1967, held for a year without trial, placed on house arrest, then incarcerated again for six years, a portion of his twenty-year sentence. It was the first ever report on human rights in North Korea. Yet this international awareness did not indicate something new, for long before this report was compiled, individuals had been systematically imprisoned for political crimes in North Korea for decades.
Incarceration of political prisoners is not a uniquely North Korean or Stalinist practice. Yet the system of prisons in North Korea developed under the half-century rule of Kim Il Sung (1945–94) and currently overseen by his grandson is treated like a distinctive abomination, described as “barbaric”, a “modern holocaust”, and occasionally, a “gulag”. Therefore, contemporary use of the word “gulag” in discussing North Korea's intricate system of prisons is a deliberate reminder of North Korea's former Soviet ties. It suggests that, along with communist ideology, centralized economic planning and collectivation, and other practices, the systemic imprisonment of a country's citizens and purging of political enemies are inherited practices from Stalin and the Soviet Union, passed along to North Korea's ruling system.
Stalinist and Maoist influencesEdit
From its inception, North Korea has maintained a complex relationship with Russia and China. Immediately after the end of the Korean War (1953), North Korea and Kim Il Sung looked to the Soviet Union and China for both economic and military support. Prior to the great split between the Soviet Union and China in the early 1960s, Kim visited both capitals often, but the split created enormous problems for Kim, who struggled to keep on good terms with both of them. To a large extent, he owed his career as well as his country's well-being to Russia and China, yet he was always wary of their dominant power. But the Sino-Soviet dispute also gave Kim Il Sung ample space to maneuver between the two great powers of communism, each of which was forced to tolerate his independence for fear of pushing him decisively to the opposite camp.
While according to North Korean mythology, Kim is the sole originator of all policy, the original leader was not original in all of his ideas. Even juche, hailed as the fundamental original Korean ideology, has been attributed to earlier Korean philosophers. In sum, the model for the prison camp system may have come from the gulags established by Stalin in the 1930s, which ironically might have come into North Korea as a reaction against a wave of de-Stalinization, led by the Soviet Union, in the 1950s. Another possibility is that Kim's departure from Soviet doctrine indicated a shift closer to Maoist China.
Development of the prison camp systemEdit
North Korean history produced an endless wave after wave of persecuted individuals, yet there is no coherent trail showing when the political and penal mechanisms developed to systematically accommodate them. The story of persecuted groups in North Korea begins with the country's origin following Japan's defeat in WWII and the liberation of the Korean peninsula. In the North, Kim Il Sung systematically purged his political opponents, creating a highly centralized system that accorded him unlimited power and generated a formidable cult of personality. North Korea instituted a revolution that included genuinely popular reforms such as establishing an eight-hour work day, promoting literacy, and positing the formal equality of the sexes. However, it also included a purge of Koreans in the police and government bureaucracies who had collaborated with the Japanese colonization of Korea and a sweeping land reform program that expropriated the landholdings of absentee Japanese landlords and the native Korean landed aristocracy. Numerous purged police officials and disposed Korean landlords fled to the south, but their family members who remained in the north remained under suspicion, and many would end up imprisoned in the North Korean prison system.
While Kim attempted to fuse returning Korean exiles (mostly members of the Chinese, Japanese or Soviet Russian communist parties) into the Korean Workers Party, his plans for northern Korea were challenged by other Korean political parties affiliated with two religions: Protestant Christianity and an indigenous syncretic faith known as “Eastern Learning” (Donghak), later called “Church of the Heavenly Way” (Cheondogyo). These religiously-based social movements had led the internal opposition to Japanese colonial rule in Korea and were very well organized in the northern areas of the Korean peninsula. One of these leaders was actually a first choice by the Soviets (over Kim Il Sung) to lead the newly minted North Korean state in 1945, but he turned down the invitation. Suppressing these non-communist parties led to numerous arrests and executions. And again, family members who remained in the north remained under suspicion.
Another round of purges occurred during the fallout after the attempt to overthrow Kim Il Sung in 1956. Here, the practice of “self-criticism” was introduced. People at all levels of the party, including Politburo members and government ministers, were forced to undergo these purposefully humiliating displays of dedication to the Party. These were uniquely cruel, as some victims were ousted from their jobs while a smaller number of individuals even lost their lives. This 1950s wave of persecution finally left the only faction Kim Il Sung desired: his loyal band of Manchuria-based, communist, anti-Japanese partisans who became the enduring foundation of the present North Korean regime. Yet, there are no references in the documentation to a collectivization process or a systemic means of imprisoning accused “traitors” in dedicated camps.
Today, the internment camps for people accused of political offenses or denounced as politically unreliable are reportedly run by the State Security Department. Yet in practice, the distribution of roles between the respective security agencies has apparently varied over time and between provinces, influenced by political priorities, available capacity, the relative power of senior officials, and the extent to which a particular agency enjoyed the trust of the supreme leader. In many cases, the three main security agencies—State Security Department, Ministry of People's Security, and Military Security Command—competed to show their efficiency in identifying ideological opponents to gain favour with the leader. In relation to incidents or issues seen as major political threats, the leader or central-level decision-making organs required security agencies to coordinate their investigations. There are reports, for example, that semi-permanent structures were set up by secret order of Kim Jong-il and maintained under Kim Jong-un.
Such a huge prison camp system – operating in secret and completely outside the law and the reach of the law, such as is the case in North Korea – risks becoming a dumping ground for all sorts of persons. It is widely suspected that the North Korean camps, then, became the sites for un-repatriated South Korean prisoners of war from the Korean War, or for other South Korean and Japanese citizens who have been abducted by North Korean security and police operatives over the course of the last thirty to forty years of the 20th century, and into the 21st century.
In sum, there seems to have been no linear path in the evolution of the North Korean political prison camp system. It appears to have been, at once, a counteraction to de-Stalinization, a doubling down on Stalinist practices to maintain tight control, and a distancing from Stalin and Soviet practices via a gravitation to Maoist policies and influences. But whether it was a pragmatic, and clandestine, work of bureaucracy that absorbed decades of persecution, or more the work of a singular evil actor, remains unclear.
In 2013 there were between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners in kwalliso. The number is down from 150,000–200,000 during the 1990s and early 2000s, due to releases, deaths, and also the near-abandonment of the family responsibility principle, where immediate family members of a convicted political criminal were also regarded as political criminals and imprisoned. The earliest estimates were from 1982, when the number was thought to be 105,000.
North Korea's kwalliso consist of a series of sprawling encampments measuring kilometers long and kilometers wide. The number of these encampments has varied over time. They are located, mostly, in the valleys between high mountains, mostly, in the northern provinces of North Korea. There are between 5,000 and 50,000 prisoners per kwalliso.
The kwalliso are usually surrounded at their outer perimeters by barbed-wire fences punctuated with guard towers and patrolled by heavily armed guards. The encampments include self-contained, closed "village" compounds for single persons, usually the alleged wrongdoers, and other closed, fenced-in "villages" for the extended families of the wrongdoers.
The following lists the operating kwalliso camps:
Notable kwalliso closures are listed below:
- In 1989, Camp No. 11 in Kyŏngsŏng County, North Hamgyong Province was closed. Approximately 20,000 family prisoners were transferred to other political penal-labour camps.
- Prison camp No. 12 in Ch'angp'yŏng, Onsŏng County, North Hamgyong Province was also closed in 1989 because the camp was deemed too close to the Chinese border.
- At the end of 1990, Camp No. 13 in Chongsŏng, also Onsŏng County, was closed. Approximately 30,000 prisoners were relocated after fears that the camp was located too close to the Chinese border.
- Camp No. 27 at Ch'ŏnma, North Pyong-an Province was closed in 1990.
- Camp No. 26 in Sŭngho's Hwachŏn-dong was closed in January 1991.
- Between 2003 and 2007 it is thought that an additional three camps were closed.
The kwalliso are run by a secret police agency and are therefore not specifically tied to the laws and courts of the North Korean government. However, each camp is expected to operate in strict accordance with state Juche ideology.
Detainees are regularly told that they are traitors to the nation who have betrayed their Leader and thus deserve execution, but whom the Workers' Party has decided, in its mercy, not to kill, but to keep alive in order to repay the nation for their treachery, through forced labour for the rest of their lives. The emphasis of these camps is very much placed upon collective responsibility where individuals ultimately take responsibility for their own class's "wrong doing". Kwalliso guards emphasize this point by reportedly carving excerpts from Kim Il-sung's speeches into wood signs and door entrances. Work teams are given stringent work quotas, and the failure to meet them means even further reduced food rations.
Below-subsistence level food rations coupled with hard, forced labour results in a high level of deaths in detention not only as a result of working to death but also by rife disease caused by poor hygiene conditions. Corn rations are the usual staple diet of any prisoner but these may be supplemented by other foods found during labour such as weeds and animals. Each five-person work group has an informant, as does every prison camp "village". Survivors and commentators have compared the conditions of these camps to those operated in Central and Eastern Europe by Nazi Germany during World War II in the Holocaust calling the DPRK's network of political prison camps the North Korean Holocaust. There have also been comparisons between the North Korean network of political prison camps to the penal labor colonies of the USSR under Joseph Stalin, with many Western media outlets describing "Kwalliso" as "North Korea's Gulag"
Internment of prisonersEdit
Defector statements suggest prisoners come to the camps in two ways:
- Individuals are likely taken and escorted by the State Security Department, detained in small cells and subjected to intense and prolonged interrogation, involving beatings and severe torture, after which they are dispatched to one of the prison labour camps.
- Family members: The primary suspect in the family is firstly escorted to the prison camp, and the Bowibu officers later escort family members from their home to the encampment. Family members are usually allowed to bring their own goods with them into the camp; however, these are usually only used by prisoners as bribing commodities later on.
Guard towers and barbed wire fences usually demark camp boundaries apart from where terrain is impassable. Prisoners are housed within scattered villages usually at the base of valleys and mountains. Single inhabitants are sub grouped accordingly into an assigned communal cafeterias and dormitories and families are usually placed into shack rooms and are required to feed themselves.
Zoning of prison campsEdit
Areas of the encampments are zoned or designated accordingly for individuals or families of the wrong-doers or wrong-thinkers. Both individuals and families are further sub divided accordingly into either a "revolutionary processing zone" or "total control zone":
- The "revolutionary processing zone" (Korean: 혁명화구역; MR: hyŏngmyŏnghwa kuyŏk) accommodates prisoners having the opportunity of future release from the camp back into society. Thus these prisoners are likely ideologically re-educated in so called "revolutionizing" areas of the camp – tasks include forced memorization of speeches by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il with specific emphasis placed on re-education of children. A revolutionary processing zone is thought to be operating in Pukch'ang concentration camp and also at Yodŏk concentration camp in South Hamgyong Province.
- There is no reported re-education of prisoners in "total control zones" (Korean: 완전통제구역; MR: wanjŏn t'ongje kuyŏk) presumably because these prisoners are not seen fit to be released and are deemed counter-revolutionary.
According to North Korean defectors ordinary North Korean citizens are aware that the camps exist, if not the exact locations. Political prisoners are referred to as the "people who are sent to the mountains".
Demand for closureEdit
Amnesty International summarises the human rights situation North Korea's kwalliso camps: "Men, women and children in the camp face forced hard labour, inadequate food, beatings, totally inadequate medical care and unhygienic living conditions. Many fall ill while in prison, and a large number die in custody or soon after release." The organization demands the immediate closure of all other political prison camps in North Korea. The demand is supported by the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea, a coalition of over 40 human rights organizations.
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- Korean: 집결소; Hanja: 集結所; RR: jipgyeolso; MR: chipkyŏlso, literally "place(s) of gathering"
- Korean: 교화소; Hanja: 敎化所; RR: gyohwaso; MR: kyohwaso, literally "place(s) of reeducation"
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