north-korea-gulag-david-hawk-interviewNearly 200,000 people are thought to live in North Korea’s forbidding labor camps.

The camps were modeled on the Soviet Gulag, though they have long outlasted it. The camps have several distinct divisions, with some reserved for prisoners serving life sentences and others for those who might be “rehabilitated” for reentry into society—if they survive. Large numbers of those incarcerated are criminals in the traditional sense, but most are political or “economic criminals”—i.e., people caught speaking ill of the regime or selling goods.

But operating beneath the state’s watchful internal and external security apparatus—and always in the shadow of these ghastly camps—is an informal network of enterprising smugglers who offer their services to North Korean defectors looking to escape and send help to the families they left behind.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea is a DC-based nonprofit that studies these issues in gripping detail. I spoke recently with David Hawk, a lead researcher for the Committee, about North Korean camps, defectors, and the networks of merchants and sympathizers who operate in the shadows.

Your organization’s report, Hidden Gulag, notes that in 2000 there were only 3,000 North Korean asylum seekers in the South. Now there are at least 23,000. What accounts for the huge jump in that time frame?

Part of it has to do with people essentially voting with their feet. There is a high level of dissatisfaction, particularly in the northeast provinces of North Korea, from which it’s easiest to cross the Tumen River to get into China. There had been larger numbers of North Koreans who fled to China during the late 1990s during the famine. But there were also a small number of people who wanted not just to go to China, but to go on to South Korea. What happened is that the network – the “underground railroad” – essentially got widened. People figured out how to do it easier, better, faster, and cheaper.

And then you also have something of a pull factor: once you have a family member who’s in the South and is able to send money back to North Korea, they often try to get some of their other family members to join them in South Korea. The numbers have [actually] fallen off in the last six months because Kim Jong Un has very strongly tightened up the border. But there was a 10-year period [prior to 2012] when the rates were increasing.

How are North Korean defectors able to get money back into the country?

There’s a networking arrangement that’s essentially made through [contacts among] some 2 million ethnic Koreans living on the China side of the China-North Korea border. Those ethnic Koreans — who are Chinese citizens — are able to go back and forth into North Korea pretty freely. (And that’s also how virtually every city and village in North Korea now has consumer markets and food markets.)

There are businesses for people in South Korea to send money to their relatives in North Korea via Chinese brokers, who get a 30-percent cut. It’s illegal, and you have to pay some bribes to do this. Essentially, the ethnic Korean Chinese have bank accounts in China, get the money transfers, and go into North Korea with the money that will then be used to pay the guards to let them escape back to China and then to pay the transportation fees to South Korea. They also take Chinese mobile phones into North Korea, where the families who want to talk to their relatives in South Korea go up to the North Korean-China border where they are in range of the cellphone towers in China. So you have this networking for telephone communications and also for remittances. And it’s all technically illegal, and if people are found doing this they are punished.

You describe the trafficking route many escapees follow from Manchuria to Southeast Asia. How do they come up with the money to pay the traffickers to evade Chinese authorities, and what do they endure along the way? You mention that DPRK police operate in Russia, for instance, and of course the Chinese repatriate escapees.

People are arrested – no, not arrested, because most of the people being deprived of their liberty for political reasons aren’t given trials of any sort. They’re just picked up by the police and deposited in the prisons or prison camps. But when they’re released, they may remain in North Korea for several months or years while they save money, restore their health, and make the connections necessary to escape to China. And then they work in China for months or even several years to get enough money to make the connections for the trip on through Southeast Asia or Mongolia [Ed. note: North Koreans can claim asylum in Mongolia to gain entry to the South. The route to the Mongolian border goes through the Gobi Desert and refugees using it face many natural hazards.]

In China, it’s dangerous. People go from Manchuria down through Beijing and then Shanghai and Kunming, and then down through Southeast Asia – either to Vietnam or Thailand, or through Laos and Cambodia into Thailand – where they can claim South Korean citizenship at the embassy in Bangkok. And once they do that they’re then flown to Seoul. There a few cases where people have been caught just over the Vietnamese border in northern Vietnam. And they’ve been sent back to North Korea all the way from southern China up to northeast China. But that’s a very long route, so for the right price, once they’re that far along, it’s easier to pay some money and then they’re allowed to continue.

How much does a trip cost?

It can cost $1,000-2,000 on average, but if you pay more you can go faster. It’s essentially run by South Korean businessmen and missionaries who are stationed in virtually all the big cities in China and Southeast Asia. There are usually brokers who will go with [the asylum seekers], or they’ll have guides and escorts who’ll go with them. Not the entire way – the escorts will take them from one city to the next. Often, people pay extra to get forged Chinese documents so they can claim to be ethnic Koreans from China. But if they’re in China and they’re caught, it will be very tricky for them because most cannot speak Chinese.

Are there a lot of bribes going to border guards?

Yes, that would be a pretty safe assumption, but escapees try to avoid border guards altogether. People are crossing rivers in little boats at night. And if they are caught in Thailand by the Thai police, they’re put in Thai jails as illegal immigrants. The Thai police will then notify the South Korean embassy that there’s a Korean in their custody. The South Koreans will take care of those people, but they may have to spend a couple of months in Thai prison before they can get their connection to go on to Seoul.

This journey, if they have a lot of money, can go fairly quickly. But for some it can take three, four, five, six, seven, eight months. And in each of these cities along the way there are safehouses. It’s a very complicated and elaborate network. But there are some of these brokers who will do it with the expectation that once the North Korean arrives in South Korea, they will get paid from the grant that the South Korean governments gives these refugees to get started in their new life.

How often are some handlers actually North Korean or Chinese agents sent to infiltrate the networks?

I don’t know. We know that the North Koreans send police agents into China looking for escapees. Sometimes they’re looking for a particular person, sometimes they’re just looking for North Koreas [Ed. note: North Korean and Chinese police reportedly cooperate in conducting sweeps seeking out undocumented ethnic Koreans, who are then deported back to the North.] And the North Korean intelligence agencies also try to infiltrate the refugee route so that they can send spies into South Korea via the refugee network.

Why was the practice of incarcerating the families of political prisoners “up to three generations” for “guilt by association” only instituted in 1972? And is it still practiced now that Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are both deceased?

I actually think that it was instituted in the late 1960s, and it may still be going on. The statement [by Kim Il Sung] that this was the official policy was just the first time he was quoted in the newspapers on it, in 1972; it may have been going on since as early as the late 1950s, when they did the songbun classification system where they tried to get the family background of all the North Korean citizens, going back to the grandparents. They were looking for people who had a history of either owning land or collaborating with the Japanese and Americans.

Right after Kim Jong Un took over, they put out a statement warning that the family members of people who try to flee the country would be punished. I only saw the statement in English, so I don’t know if they used the “up to the three generations” language, but they were still talking, several months ago, about punishing the families too. [It’s hard to know if it ever is going to be rescinded] because there’s always a two-to-four year delay between the time when violations are committed and when we find out about them.

How many people actually reenter society from the camps, and what are their prospects?

Everybody has an identity card, and the police will know when they look at that identity card that people were held in these places. The former prisoners will always be under surveillance and they won’t get assigned to good jobs — and job assignments in general are very hard to come by because factories are operating at half- or quarter-capacity. Remember, the people I meet are the ones who can’t hack out a new life; the people who can are still in North Korea. A lot of people take menial jobs – women work as seamstresses – and some try to trade in the markets.

The kyo-yang-so (a labor detention facility for women border crossers) is an institution that seems to be focused not simply on punishment, but on enforcing ethnic purity. Are the forced abortions for Korean women who got pregnant in China racially motivated?

It’s racial. The North Koreans – and some South Koreans – think of themselves as having a different bloodline from the Japanese or the Chinese. The rates of intermarriage in South Korea are actually very high, but the North Koreans still stress a lot on the “racial purity of the Korean people.” As B. R. Myers notes in The Cleanest Race, this is all part of the North’s propaganda regime. [The forced abortions] are a slice of this perverse phenomenon.

What sort of hierarchy emerges among the camps’ inmates? Are political prisoners treated differently from criminals?

That has to be broken down. In the political penal labor colonies, the kwan-li-so, all those inmates are political prisoners with life sentences. There are no criminals in there, no people who have been arrested, prosecuted, convicted and sentenced for offenses in the North Korean criminal code. In the kyo-hwa-so (long term prison-labor camps) and the jip-kyul-so (short term detention centers), you will have mixtures of people who are punished for [allegedly] committing real crimes, and you will also have people in those facilities being incarcerated for committing political offenses.

I’m sure there are hierarchies, but I don’t have details about how the internal prison hierarchy works. Prisoners who meet their production quotas are favored, though, and those who have trouble meeting them are disfavored and punished within the prison system. I have no statistics as to the frequency of how many people fall out of official favor and end up in the camps. I’ve heard weird anecdotal stories about guards falling in love with prisoners and becoming prisoners to stay with the woman they’ve fallen in love with. [Ed. note: Hawk has written elsewhere about how people in the gulag may be sent to the “re-revolutionizing zones” of certain labor camps with the possibility of release after “reeducation” is applied, while others are given life sentences and sent to “total control zones” that, despite being inside labor camps that people have been released from, are kept isolated from the other inmates.]

The government isn’t even fooling its own people with these camps, is it?

There are true believers still. But people know that some of the propaganda that they were raised on is not true. They know that the South is no longer impoverished or a dictatorship [as it was until 1987] and that the Chinese are not worse off than they are [because of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution]. There are lots of Koreans outside of Pyongyang – whose population is very privileged – who do not accept the propaganda line as much anymore. Large portions of the North Korean people know vaguely about the prison camps. They can’t talk about them directly, so there’s a euphemism about people who are “sent to the mountains.” [Ed. note: Those released from the “re-revolutionizing zones” are forbidden to discuss their time in them, and if someone reports that they have spoken about their imprisonment, the police will arrest them and send them back to the camp.]

A large majority of refugees interviewed in Seoul said they did know about the camps before their arrest, but only vaguely. Former prisoners I’ve interviewed who have gone back to where they used to live and met their former neighbors and friends found out that they didn’t know specifically where they were. All they knew was that they had been taken away. The conditions that being were being held in are not generally known. The level of knowledge is that people have been deported and are living somewhere else – the circumstances of their disappearance made it clear it was for “a very bad thing.”

Paul Mutter is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.