On April 10-11, AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights (JBI) and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea convened an expert conference, “Hidden Gulag,” which called for closing down the extensive North Korean political prisoner camp system. The conference launched a groundbreaking 200-page report by David Hawk pointing to over 150,000 persons incarcerated in these “kwan-li-so” camps, based on eyewitness testimony of former prisoners, guards, and satellite images of the camps. JBI Director Felice Gaer, who moderated a conference panel on “Seeking Legal and International Human Rights Remedies,” commended the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, whose message to the Conference expressed interest in “setting up a more detailed method of inquiry such as a [UN] Commission of Inquiry” to investigate the government-run camps and hold those responsible accountable.
The conference, “Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Political Prisoner Camp System,” took place in Washington DC and featured eye-witness analyses of former North Korean political prisoners; U.S., South Korean and Japanese government officials; human rights experts, including specialists on the dismantling of Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet Union’s “Gulag ”; and Korea specialists. A Washington Post editorial, calling the conference “unprecedented,” argued that governmental indifference to these camps is “inexcusable.”
The event also brought the release of David Hawk’s report “Hidden Gulag” which presents a new and detailed account of the prison camps based on direct testimony from more than 60 former prisoners and several former guards. The conference called for closing down the vast North Korean political prisoner camp system in which 150,000 to 200,000 are incarcerated, and documented that entire families, including children and grandparents are often detained for the “political crimes” of other family members. According to HRNK, “North Korea's gulag system has turned into a vast network of detention facilities intended to punish those perceived as being 'wrong thinkers,' 'wrong-doers' or with 'wrong associations' or belonging to the 'wrong political class' or religious persuasion.” Further, “Hidden Gulag” documents how individuals are banished, deported, imprisoned without judicial process, and subjected to forced labor for mostly lifetime sentences in mining, logging or agricultural enterprises, behind barbed wires and electrified fences. This reportedly has led to “exorbitant rates of deaths in detention” as a result of what the report calls “systemic and severe” ill-treatment, torture, executions and "induced" malnutrition.
The panelists, witnesses, and speakers called for political prison camps in North Korea to be addressed as one of the world’s most severe human rights abuses. The government of North Korea has denied that any such system of camps exists.
One objective of the conference is to encourage U.S. policy to address human rights in North Korea more effectively at a time of change and new leadership. Said JBI Director Felice Gaer, “These first-hand accounts of cruelty and abuse in North Korea’s gulag are shocking and remind us of the urgency of bringing human rights into higher profile in U.S. relations with North Korea.” As HRNK’s Roberta Cohen stated, “It is not just nuclear weapons that have to be dismantled in North Korea, but an entire system of political repression.” The conference also addressed the humanitarian agenda that closure of the camps would trigger.
Ambassador Robert King, U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, delivered a keynote address, and Ambassador Glyn Davies, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy, attended the meeting, as did officials from numerous embassies in Washington. A message of support for the conference was delivered by Marzuki Darusman, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea.
Among the proposals for policy addressed at the conference were the following:
(1) The need to broaden U.S. policy on North Korea to include both bilateral and multilateral approaches to human rights abuses, including on a bilateral level, by having the U.S. implement the North Korea Human Rights Act fully, and, on the multilateral level, by strengthening the UN General Assembly human rights resolution on North Korea by including references to closing the prison camps in the operative paragraphs; and at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, initiating a Commission of Inquiry to investigate claims about the abuses in the prison camps, and encouraging thematic special rapporteurs to speak out more vigorously on North Korean cases, perhaps acting and writing a report jointly (as they did in one other case);
(2) The need to address refugee issues in various ways, including to persuade China to respect the rights of North Korean refugees, to establish a program to aid North Korean asylum seekers in obtaining refugee status in the U.S. and elsewhere;
(3) The importance of ensuring that food aid reaches the most needy in North Korea, including persons in prison camps; and
(4) The need to prepare contingency plans for a humanitarian crisis in North Korea, including new challenges that would likely arise from the dismantlement of the prison camps.
A conference report will be forthcoming.