March 1, 2013 | National Post

A Look Inside the Monstrous North Korean Gulag System that Dennis Rodman Will Never See

March 1, 2013 | National Post

A Look Inside the Monstrous North Korean Gulag System that Dennis Rodman Will Never See

Dennis Rodman — former basketball player, pro wrestler, cross-dresser, boyfriend to Madonna, B-movie performer and reality-show star — is man who will play to any audience. That apparently includes North Korea’s government, the world’s last truly totalitarian regime.

This week, Rodman was in Pyongyang shooting hoops with local teenagers, and providing state media with propaganda fodder as he made the tour of communist shrines. It is all part of a vaguely defined “basketball diplomacy” TV project, and Rodman is Tweeting the usual bromides expected of celebrities out of their depth, such as “Looking forward to sitting down with [leader] Kim Jong Un. I love the people of North Korea.”

Rodman’s ignorant inanities (another Tweet declared “Maybe I’ll run into the Gangnam Style dude while I’m here”) are especially insulting to victims of North Korea’s gulags — whom Rodman will never meet or see, and whose very existence is denied by the North Korean regime. Just this week, as Rodman was being led around by his North Korean hosts, a new satellite-imagery analysis released by the Committee of Human Rights in North Korea showed that the regime is expanding its gulag network dramatically, even as it struggles to ward off another round of mass national starvation.

The term “gulag” is thrown around liberally in the post-Soviet era to describe any sort of remote prison facility. But the North Korean gulags are the real Siberian-styled deal: sprawling work camps where political prisoners spend years being tortured and worked to death. Only a few dozen former gulag prisoners have made it out of the country, and it is only thanks to their eyewitness reports that we know anything about life in these medieval prison camps.

This week, I met one of those survivors, a middle-aged man called Jung Kwang Il who escaped from North Korea in 2004 after spending three years in the Yoduk gulag. His perspective is especially valuable, because during his time in gulag, he was appointed a prisoner-supervisor of several hundred fellow inmates. After traveling to South Korea, he was able to recite, from memory, the names and identifying details of many prisoners who otherwise would be exterminated by North Korea in total anonymity.

As a young man, Jung had spent a decade as a North Korean military conscript. After his service, the government appointed him a trade manager in the far north, where he sold frozen fish to Chinese buyers for $300 a ton.

The Chinese, he would learn, made a killing by reselling the fish to South Korean buyers for six times that price. Though direct contact with Westerners is a capital offence, Jung secretly contacted the South Korean buyers directly, and negotiated to sell at $900/ton. Some of the profit he passed on to Pyongyang. But much of it, he admits, he kept for himself. When the scheme was discovered, Jung was arrested for “espionage,” tortured, and thrown into a cell.

North Korean gulag guards use a variety of torture methods. The one Jung endured was called the “pigeon” technique: Your two hands are tied behind your back, and you are chained to a wall in a manner that prevents you from either properly standing or sitting. Eventually, the backbone starts to almost force its way out the front of your body.

“There are no guards to hear you scream,” he tells me. Nor are there bathrooms. Sanitation consists of a worker coming by every few days to hose everyone down with a power spray.

In the summertime at Yoduk, workers are required to weed 1,100 square meters of farmland per day — with the 600g/day food allotment dispensed on a pro-rata basis: Finish half the job, and you get half the food. “If a guard wants to kill someone ‘legitimately,’ it is very easy,” Jung tells me. “The worker is given work that he can’t finish, and then he gets less food, which makes him even less productive the next day, because he is starving. It sets off a [self-reinforcing] cycle of weakness and starvation. You can kill someone in two weeks through this method.”

During the winter, prisoners were put on firewood detail. Each was made to drag a tree about four meters long, and about 30 cm in diameter, a distance of four kilometers, up and down valleys, four trees per day.

To motivate a set of four workers, the guards would set out three rice cakes on a table, with the slowest worker arriving to an empty plate. It was a sort of horrible reality-show competition staged for the guards’ own entertainment.

Jung says he saw 60 or 70 people collapse and die on tree duty. Because the ground was frozen during the winter months, the corpses were thrown into a warehouse for burial in the spring. By that time, rats — or other, desperately hungry creatures who’d broken into the warehouse — had devoured much of them.

In summertime, inmates planted vegetables. The temptation to steal and eat the seeds was so intense that guards took the precaution of mixing them with ash and human waste before dispensing the seeds to prisoners. But many inmates are so hungry that they eat the seeds anyway, after doing their best to wash them. In this way, many who escaped death from starvation instead died from colitis and other waste-borne intestinal ailments.

Jung was a model prisoner for much of his time at Yoduk, and eventually he was released. By this time, his wife has divorced him (her only other choice, the regime made clear, was to follow her husband into the gulag). Several months later, Jung got out of the country through the underground railroad that leads to China, Cambodia, Thailand and South Korea.

Thanks to the network of contacts he’d built up in his pre-gulag trading days, he even managed to get his children out, too. Now aged 16 and 23, they live with him in Seoul. Jung himself works for the South Korean military as a lecturing expert on North Korea’s penal system.

In many ways, the Korean peninsula is the most amazing place on the face of the planet — for it is a geographical microcosm of humanity’s enormous moral breadth. On one hand, South Korea’s growth from a peasant dictatorship to a wealthy, high-tech democracy in the space of a single lifetime represents perhaps the most stunning transformation of any society in the history of the human race. And then you have North Korea, just across the DMZ, where the very worst, tyrannical, most monstrous human impulses imaginable are given full expression through the ideology of communism.

The irony is that many North Koreans actually believe that they are the lucky ones — having been fed a steady diet of communist propaganda their entire lives. Jung himself told me that he once was led to believe that modern South Korea “is a dictatorship where only a small elite are well off, and everyone else is poor.”

Having lived in South Korea for the last decade, he now understands that everything North Korea says about the West is a giant lie. Unfortunately, as the example of Dennis Rodman demonstrates, there are those in the West who don’t mind being lied to.

— Jonathan Kay is Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, and a Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.

Read in National Post


North Korea