The development of human history was accompanied by the invention of different tools aiming at the deprivation of human rights and freedom. In this respect, concentration camps are probably the most notorious and the most terrible invention of mankind, which still exists in the contemporary world. Strangely enough, concentration camps did not disappear with the ruin of Nazi Germany and the Soviet totalitarian regime, but they survived in other countries of the world, such as North Korea where the worst experience of totalitarian states of the past was widely borrowed to sustain the local regime. Moreover, nowadays concentration camps constituent an essential part of the North Korean regime, otherwise it would probably fall. This is why it is extremely important to discuss in depth the current situation of concentration camps in North Korea, its basic features, conditions, and its role.
The current Korean dictator as a promoter of the concentration camps system
Before discussing the problem of concentration camps in North Korea, it is primarily necessary to briefly dwell upon the person who is responsible for their development as well as for the sufferings of all those people imprisoned in those camps. Unquestionably, this person is the current communist leader of North Korea, whose power is characterized as the dictatorship. It should be pointed out that Kim Jong Il inherited his power from his father. Not surprisingly that he attempts to continue the policy initiated by his predecessor.
In this respect, it is worthy to note that Kim Jong Il’s father was put in power by Stalin and naturally he employed similar methods that Stalin did. As a result, the system of concentration camps was developed in North Korea which strangely resembled Gulag, Soviet system of concentration camps. The current leader of North Korea is unable or, to put it more precisely, unwilling to change the existing system that seems to be quite natural for he absorbed totalitarian ideology since his early childhood. It should be pointed out that he was reportedly born in training camp in Siberia where his father Kim Il Sung was being groomed to power by the NKVD (Friedman 1998).
As a result, nowadays the North Korean leader sustains the development of concentration camps system which is indistinguishable from its Soviet prototype, though with its certain specificities which make this system unique.
Unfortunately, there are no signs that the current policy, which is defined by Kim Jong Il, can be changed in the nearest future since the North Korean leader is still in power and controls the life of the whole country and concentration camps enforce his power dramatically.
Concentration camps as a constituent part of North Korean state
Concentration camps and totalitarian system
On analyzing the current situation of concentration camps in North Korea and attempting to realize the reasons for their existence, the first and the most persuasive argument explaining the current situation in North Korea is the totalitarian system which controls all spheres of life of North Koreans. It should be said that totalitarian system stimulates the development of the system of concentration camps since political power of the state is concentrated in the hands of one individual practically, and formally in the hands of one political party, communist in the North Korean case.
On the other hand, such a totalitarian system cannot exist without concentration camps since it needs total control over all spheres of life and all people living in the country. Otherwise, the system would be simply ruined. As a result, North Korea, as well as other totalitarian states, developed the system of a concentration camp where the ruling regime could imprison all those who attempted to oppose and change the current situation for better. In other words, concentration camps are the element of oppression of any opposition and other elements of democracy. Not surprisingly that North Korean camps are destined for political prisoners.
Practically, it results in the practically unlimited power of secret agents who “arrest people without trial and without forming them about the length of their sentence” (Wilson 2000, p.123), though there is nothing to inform about since traditionally it is a life sentence without any real possibility to be released.
Typically for any totalitarian system, concentration camps in North Korea, such as Senghori concentration camp, deprive practically all civil rights. However, there is an exception, Yodok camp #15, where “the families of the ‘criminals,’ especially those who are deemed ‘recoverable’ are confined” (Wilson 2000, p.379).
Furthermore, totalitarian nature of the state and concentration camps of North Korea is revealed in the extreme deprivation of individuals’ moral identity. In fact, in North Korean concentration camps prisoners are not considered to be moral beings. In this respect, some terrible recent examples are particularly eloquent. For instance, there was a dehumanization act exhibited by a guard in Yodok camp who admonished a pregnant woman, saying “How can a counter-revolutionary and enemy of the people such as yourself dear to bear a child?” (Wilson 2000, p.397).
Concentration camps as communist camps
Naturally, totalitarian system stimulating the development of concentration camps should be based on some ideology. In North Korea, the dominant ideology is communism that affects dramatically concentration camps where prisoners are involved in activities which should lead them to the understanding of the advantages of communism.
On the other hand, it is a very remarkable fact that prisoners of North Korean camps originate from diverse classes. This fact obviously does not correspond to the communist ideology based on the principle of the opposition of depriving and deprived classes. Moreover, a communist state is supposed to be deprived of any form of class division of the society, while in the concentration camps the real situation of North Korean society is revealed.
As it has been just mentioned above, the communist ideology affects the life of prisoners in concentration camps dramatically. Practically, this ideology results in the detainment, justified by the historical ideology, i.e. it is in the name of the People or of the working class fighting for socialism and in the name of the leader who symbolizes them (Friedman 1998).
Furthermore, the domination of the communist ideology resulted in the wide use of forced labor in North Korean concentration camps, which is considered to be a punishment on the one hand, and the means of regeneration on the other hand. Practically, it means that forced labor should correct prisoners and return them to the natural origin of the dominant working class.
Concentration camps as Asiatic camps
Since North Korea is an Asian country, its concentration camps are also significantly influenced by the traditional Asian values and norms. As a result, typically for Asian countries, education plays an extremely important role in North Korea at large and in concentration camps in particular.
In such a situation it seems to be quite natural that the transformation of the prisoners of North Korean concentration camps “necessarily involves education of the detainees and their practice of introspection” (Rigoulot 1999, p.271). In such a way, in North Korean concentration camps criticism and self-criticism meetings are organized twice a week, worship is owed to Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. Moreover, lectures are regularly given and reading of communist classics is traditional.
It should be pointed out that in Yodok, for instance, sick, exhausted and starved inmates are given three big copybooks; the first notebook is named “Notebook for Assessment of Life,” used in criticism and self-criticism sessions. The second notebook is titled “Notebook about the Party Policy,” in which speeches of Kim Il Sung are noted and finally the third is the “Notebook of the Revolutionary History” of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (Stewart 2001). In such a way, the concentration camps in North Korea absorbed traditional Asian features where the devotedness to the leaders of the country is practically unlimited that result in the study of their main works and their worship and, on the other hand, it leads to the education of inmates in the context of the dominant communist ideology closely intertwined with traditional Asian values.
Specificities of concentration camps in North Korea
What has been discussed above concerning North Korean concentration camps is typical for different totalitarian states and regimes in different countries of the world. At the same time, it is necessary to underline that North Korean concentration camps possess their unique features and specificities.
First of all, it should be said that the most striking specificity of North Korean concentration camps is their familial disposition. Two main reasons may explain it. On the one hand, there is a clear distinction between the criminal and his family in North Korea. As a result, the criminal is sent to a concentration camp for a life-term detention, while his family is usually sent to a ‘normal’ detention center (Rigoulot 1999, p.405). On the other hand, in these camps, the family is not broken up but is detained as a whole and the relatives of the political ‘criminal’ have to live in villages like poor peasants.
In such a way, the political inmate turns to be completely isolated and separated from his family for the rest of his life, while the family itself remains solid and keeps living in villages, being practically isolated from their traditional social environment.
Furthermore, the real name of each village is ‘Work Group 1, 2, 3, etc.’. In such a way, the name of the camps, or villages emphasize the role they are supposed to play as being places where inmates work and study. To better understand what such camps are like, it is possible to describe Yodok regarding example briefly. In fact, Yodok is about 40 kilometers in diameter, encompassing fields, pits, mines, ‘work groups,’ schools for children, rivers, mountains, etc. (Stewart 2001).
Finally, it should be said that there is another specificity of North Korean concentration camps which distinguishes them dramatically from Soviet Gulag, for instance, which served as a sample for North Korea. This specificity is the clear distinction between ‘usual offenders’, i.e., real criminals, and ‘political offenders,’ those repressed by the system for the difference in their political views, or for any other political reason. In this respect, it is necessary to emphasize that any ‘other’ political reason may be far from politics and active political life of an individual. For instance, an inopportune word or an attempt to leave the country can send an individual to a concentration camp. On the other hand, often ‘usual offenders’ may be not only criminals but also individuals which accusations have one political meaning and origin (Rigoulot 1999, p.448).
Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that North Korean concentration camps are rather products of the totalitarian system that dominates in the country. This is why it is the system that engenders the concentration camps and creates terrible conditions of life for not only political offenders but also for their families as well. As a result, the life of many people is simply broken because of an illusory crime of one member of a family.
At the same time, it is obvious that North Korean concentration camps absorbed the features of traditional concentration camps in different countries of the world and sustained their specificities which make them unique. Nonetheless, it does not make North Korean concentration camps any better. In stark contrast, it is simply another reason to stop the practice of political repression and start the building up democracy and civil society in the whole country that should be started with the elimination and complete prohibition of concentration camps and political repressions.
Otherwise, the human catastrophe in North Korea would be inevitable and its consequences unpredictable.
Friedman, Rachel Zabarkes. North Korea. LA: McGraw Hill, 1998.
Rigoulot, Pierre. The Black Book of Communism. Harvard Univ. Press, 1999.
Stewart, Lewis. North Korean Concentration Camps. New York: New Publishers, 2001.
Wilson, Janet. The Totalitarian States and Human Rights. New York: Routledge, 2000.