North Korea's Labor Camps Examined

Two U.S. journalists were sentenced this week to 12 years hard labor. Chuck Downs, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, discusses North Korea's labor camp and prison system. In 2003, his group published The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea's Prison Camps.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

The fate of two American journalists imprisoned by North Korea remains unclear.

On Monday, Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced to 12 years in a North Korean labor prison for so-called hostile acts. Today, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the goal is to reunite the women with their families, but he avoided specifics so as not to, in his words, complicate any of the efforts that are going on.

IAN KELLY: We are exploring a number of different avenues to try...

Unidentified Man: And, and can you assure us and the families and...

KELLY: I can assure you that we are very focused on this.

Man: ...this is - it's being worked?

KELLY: It is being worked.

BLOCK: The threat of hard labor in a North Korean prison is chilling. Information about those camps has emerged from survivors who have fled to South Korea. The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea has collected the former prisoners' testimonies.

And the committee's executive director Chuck Downs joins us in the studios. Thanks for coming in.

CHUCK DOWNS: Thank you, Melissa. Good to be here.

BLOCK: Tell us, based on what you know about this case of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, where they might be likely to be sent.

DOWNS: Well, the North Korean regime views their situation very cynically and sees them as bargaining chips at - which at some point, they will turn over. I'm not sure what their plan is. But in the past, they have tried to get everything they can out of the release of hostages from the outside.

So, I think that the families can get some reassurance from the likelihood that they will not be treated as severely as the stories that can be told about life in the gulag for North Koreans themselves.

BLOCK: Let's talk now about the conditions that North Koreans endure in the prison system there. There are how many political prisoners or prisoners in North Korea, would you say?

DOWNS: There are at least 250,000, and I am afraid that that number is built up from evidence that we have confidence in, which means that probably, there are many more that we don't realize.

The North Koreans engage in deception, not just internationally, but internally. And so, these prison camps sometimes have the markings of military barracks, guard units. From the outside, you wouldn't know that it was a slave labor camp, a prison camp, or a political prison re-education center. Only when you're inside do you really know what you're up against.

BLOCK: And who would be sent to the camps where the harshest conditions exist?

DOWNS: It's unbelievable and it's very hard for Americans to imagine. And before I go any further, I'd like to say to the families of the journalists that nothing I am about to say is meant to increase pressure on them or increase pressure on the U.S. government to try to negotiate quickly to solve this. I think that we have to assume everything that can be done is being done. And...

BLOCK: And that these conditions wouldn't apply to them.

DOWNS: And these conditions would not apply to them. But if you're an average North Korean and you happen to be drinking one night and you start to whistle a South Korean song, you can find yourself assigned to one of these prison camps for nine years or more.

If you're found to have Bibles, if you're found to have things written in English, if you're found to have any criticism or anything that can be represented as criticism, you can be completely innocent of any crime or any action and still end up in a prison camp, if you are a average North Korean citizen.

BLOCK: Describe the conditions in these camps. And I know any word you choose, it pales in comparison to the reality of what goes on there.

DOWNS: The only comparison that comes to Americans' mind is a comparison to the Holocaust and the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. The difference, of course, was that in the concentration camps, the objective was to actually annihilate people. In the prison camps in North Korea, the objective is to work people to death. These are slave labor camps.

BLOCK: Do you have any sense of the mortality rate of those who go into North Korean camps who never come out?

DOWNS: The committee has concluded that there are at least 400,000 people who have died while in these camps, and it could be much more than that. But even 400,000 people in a population of 20 million is a significant number of people to be sending to their deaths, sometimes for doing nothing more than whistling a South Korean tune.

BLOCK: Chuck Downs is executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

Thank you for coming in.

DOWNS: Thank you very much.

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