Time Out New York's back cover this week is a glossy, upbeat travel ad for tours in... North Korea. We decided to take a look at eyewitness reports of life inside the country's brutal gulags to provide some context.
North Korea is keen to show itself as a paradise, an untouched and blessed kingdom that is merely misunderstood by the rest of the world. That, indeed, is the myth that the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il propagates to maintain some control over his people. Strictly controlled propaganda tours, under the watchful eye of party officials, have been going on for several years. This, we presume, are what Koryo Tours, the company behind the Time Out advertisement, is selling. On the glossy back cover Chris Anderson of CNN describes his tour as "an eye-opening experience," and another CNN reporter, Alyssa Kim, calls it "a holiday with a difference".
They neglect to mention the parts of the country no foreigner is ever allowed to see — gulags which might actually qualify as "Asia's best kept secret." The report on the prisons, put together by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea in 2003, makes for haunting and horrific reading. There is no real criminal justice system. Those who displease the regime, or dare to try and escape starvation and oppression and flee to South Korea or China, are snatched and placed into enormous concentration camps in remote locations "in the valleys between high mountains, mostly, in the northern provinces." Their children and parents are also often captured and imprisoned. That practice is traced back to a statement in 1972 by Dear Leader Kim Jong Il's father, the revered Kim Il Sung: "factionalists or enemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations."
The report estimates that 200,000 Koreans (equivalent to the population of Reno, Nevada), often viciously beaten to extract confessions, live in these forced labor camps, or kwan-li so, where they mine, cut timber or farm from 4.30am to seven or eight at night. Their quarters are infested with lice and maggots. They are deliberately semi-starved on a diet of dry corn, watery soup and grass. Many die of malnutrition. It is, of course, possible that conditions and practices have changed since the report came out. But no evidence of improvement has emerged.
The regime, according to the report, places an enormous value on genetic purity. When raids are conducted into the parts of China that border North Korea, or people are otherwise repatriated, pregnant women are particularly brutalized. According to two former detainees, births are induced with an injection, and babies are suffocated with a wet towel or a sheet of vinyl in front of their mothers. One detainee, a grandmother named only as 'Former Detainee #24' was made to act as a midwife. She reports seeing a baby born, but not suffocated. It was placed into a plastic-lined box. "When the box was full of babies, Former Detainee #24 later learned, it was taken outside and buried."
She next helped deliver a baby to a woman named Kim, who also gave birth to a healthy full-term boy. As Former Detainee #24 caressed the baby, it tried to suckle her finger. The guard again came over and yelled at her to put the baby in the box. As she stood up, the guard slapped her, chipping her tooth. The third baby she delivered was premature - the size of an ear of corn - and the fourth baby was even smaller. She gently laid those babies in the box. The next day she delivered three more very premature babies and also put them in the box. The babies in the box gave her nightmares. Two days later, the premature babies had died but the two full-term baby boys were still alive. Even though their skin had turned yellow and their mouths blue, they still blinked their eyes. The agent came by, and seeing that two of the babies in the box were not dead yet, stabbed them with forceps at a soft spot in their skulls.
The interviewer, says the report, "had difficulty finding words to describe the sadness in this grandmothers' eyes and the anguish on her face as she recounted her experience as a midwife at the detention center in South Sinuiju."
There is too much brutality and heartbreak in the report to fully summarize here. Women made to sit down and stand up until they dropped dead of exhaustion. "Punishment boxes," carefully sized so that those placed inside them cannot sit or stand, but must contort in agony. Detainees forced to beat each other, sometimes to death. On several occasions people ask to be killed by guards. For many of the 200,000, serving indeterminate sentences at the pleasure of Kim Jong Il, there is no other escape. It really is "the trip of a lifetime."