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“As terrible [as] Nazi camps”: a chilling new report on North Korea’s prison camps

Kim Jong-Un Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Americans tend to think about North Korea as a military threat due to its growing nuclear program and belligerent rhetoric. This conversation is no doubt important, but there’s another aspect of North Korea that is often ignored, and shouldn’t be: the nearly unbelievable brutality of its government toward its own people.

That brutality is detailed in a stunning new report by the International Bar Association (IBA) War Crimes Committee. Written by three respected international judges and based on interviews with more than a dozen North Korean defectors, the report might well be the most disturbing thing I’ve read this year.

One of the report’s authors, Thomas Buergenthal, survived Auschwitz. He told the Washington Post that “the conditions in the Korean prison camps are as terrible, or even worse, than those I saw and experienced in my youth in these Nazi camps.” According to estimates cited by Buergenthal and his co-authors, there are currently between 80,000 and 130,000 people residing in these modern North Korean gulags.

Here are a few quotes from the report that show in excruciating detail what life in these camps is like, according to the defectors the authors interviewed.

[Warning: the following descriptions are extremely disturbing]

  • “Rape of teenage girls and their subsequent attempts to commit suicide by jumping in the Daedonggang River were so common that prison guards were deployed to the river to thwart them.”
  • “A soldier supervising a forced labor site at a political prison rolled a log down a steep mountainside, killing ten prisoners as they were carrying logs up the mountain.”
  • “A former prison guard witnessed a prisoner’s newborn baby, most likely fathered by a high-ranking official, fed to guard dogs and killed.”

Other sections of the report detail a female prisoner being raped and violated by a wooden stick, and prisoners desperately searching for edible plants on the side of a mountain being shot and killed by their guards.

These are not isolated incidents. Atrocities like mass rape and indiscriminate killings are the point of North Korea’s prison camps: to degrade and terrify the population into submission to Kim Jong Un’s regime. These camps have been around for decades; the report estimates that “hundreds of thousands” of people have been killed in them.

The report concludes by analyzing international law concerning crimes against humanity. It finds that the Kim regime has committed 10 different such crimes, and that there is more than enough evidence to charge Kim himself in the International Criminal Court.

The fact that this is almost certain to never happen absent a devastating war underscores one of the grimmest realities of the North Korea crisis: The people hurt by Kim’s brutality are its own citizens, and there are no obvious or realistic options for helping them.

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