Facing apathy and the gulags: Ex-North Korean inmates struggle to raise concern in South


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SEOUL — After speaking recently to a group of young South Korean soldiers about North Korea’s harsh labor camps, former prisoner Jung Gyoung Il — himself once a soldier in North Korea’s massive army — was stunned by the questions from the audience.

One soldier asked how many days of leave North Korean soldiers were given. Another asked if North Korean soldiers were allowed to visit their girlfriends.

No one showed any curiosity about the notorious network of gulags, a signature marker of the North’s brutality toward its own people.

In a rare acknowledgment, the South Korean government recently noted in a report that hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are languishing in the prison camps. But Seoul has made no public effort to exert pressure on Kim Jong Il’s regime over the issue. And many South Koreans, who hold deeply conflicted feelings toward their communist neighbor, are reluctant to even concede that the camps exist.

At universities, Jung said, many students sleep through his lectures about North Korea’s gulags. The indifference still shocks him, five years after he defected to South Korea following three long years in the Yodok gulag characterized by back-breaking labor, a sparse diet and long nights of forced study of former dictator Kim Il Sung’s philosophies.

But such apathy is typical in South Korea, where North Korea’s prison camps have rarely been discussed in public or in the political arena.

“South Koreans say, ‘So what? What’s the big deal about it?’ ” said Kang Cheol-hwan, a former gulag inmate who wrote about his 10-year imprisonment in “The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag.”

“What’s more surprising for me,” added Kang, now the director of the North Korea Strategy Center, a human rights advocacy group, “was that South Koreans did not believe gulags ever existed in North Korea. They thought it was a lie.”

The dismissiveness is evident in Seoul.

“Why should we pay attention to [the gulags] since we are already too busy dealing with our own lives?” said Park Eun-young, 28, interviewed recently in Seoul’s Dongdaemun shopping district.

No one outside North Korea has visited the gulags, and the communist regime denies they even exist. But their reality is widely accepted, thanks to a body of evidence that includes satellite images of sprawling camps and testimony from former inmates.

South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission said in a report released last month that 200,000 people are imprisoned in six camps.

Most inmates are political prisoners arrested for “crimes” that range from criticizing the regime to watching smuggled South Korean films, according to the U.S. State Department, former inmates, and research and advocacy groups. Many are imprisoned simply for being related to or knowing other dissidents, and many die in the camps of starvation and disease.

Few inmates are released, and even fewer have escaped to South Korea.

Of the 18,000 defectors living in South Korea, 32 are former gulag prisoners, though there may be more who haven’t come forward, said the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, a research group funded in part by the South Korean government.

At a recent news conference in Seoul, a handful of former gulag inmates told foreign reporters about their imprisonment and released a list of gulag prisoners their organization has compiled.

“If we hold press conferences for Korean domestic reporters, then they do not really come,” said former prisoner Kim Tae Jin, president of the Democracy Network Against North Korean Gulag.

He believes South Korea’s rapid growth — from a Third World country after the Korean War to one of the world’s largest economies today — has eclipsed concerns about the North for most citizens.

“South Korean society has been developing so fast, and building up wealth has become a top priority,” he said. “South Koreans are worried about the cost of reunification, which they believe will put them back in poverty.”

Jung Wook-sik of the Peace Network, a group of civic activists, said the existence of the gulags is “not relevant” in South Korea because many citizens feel their own human rights are being abused. Lee has been heavily criticized for, among other things, subduing peaceful protests and firing members of a teacher’s union that questioned his administration.

David Hawk, author of the study “The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps,” said little was known about the gulags until about five years ago, when large numbers of North Koreans managed to defect from the famine-stricken country.

The international community has widely condemned the gulags through resolutions at the United Nations, but little has been accomplished and North Korea refuses to even meet with human rights officials, he said.

Today, what little dialogue there is between the communist nation and the outside world focuses on its nuclear program.

Both South Korean and American officials have said they want to address North Korea’s human rights violations. But given the chance, South Korea would likely ask the North first for more family reunions and to return South Korean abductees, Hawk said.

U.S. Forces Korea and the U.S. Embassy in Seoul declined to comment on the gulags, though the State Department acknowledges their existence.

Jung, the former inmate who now helps run an anti-gulag activist group, said that while Lee pays more attention to the gulags than previous administrations, the president has done little to try to pressure Pyongyang to shut them down.

In fact, Jung said, the government is still so squeamish about allowing public criticism of North Korea that it won’t let the organization use the word “gulag” in its name. In South Korea, the group calls itself the North Korean Democracy Movement Headquarters. Outside the country, it calls itself — in English — the Democracy Network Against North Korean Gulag.

Jung has a theory about why South Koreans show little interest in the gulags.

“The pain is not theirs,” he said. “They have not gone through this atrocity.”