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North Korean Death Camps…opps, did I say death camps? I meant happy labor camps…where nothing bad ever happens.

“Labor camps? We have no such thing,” claim North Korean officials. However, on March 21, 2013, U.N. Human Rights Council launched a one year inquiry that will collect evidence based on eye witness testimony from the estimated 278 defectors of North Korea now living in either South Korea, Japan, or the Philippians. Most of these testimonies have been collected from actual labor camp escapees. Sordid tales of gross human rights violations have been told from defectors since the 90’s, yet suddenly the world is taking notice? According to CNN, “the council’s decision to take action on [reports] comes amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula following the North’s latest underground nuclear test last month that prompted tougher U.N. sanctions on the regime of Kim Jong Un.” It would seem, there are many reasons we should be concerned about what kinds of actions young Un would take. According to So Se Pyong, the North Korean U.N. representative, the resolution on the issue of human rights violations are “no more than an instrument that serves the political purposes of the hostile forces [attempting] to discredit the image of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea,” and warned the U.N. that there will be “serious consequences” if the investigation went any further. (You can read the U.N. report here.) Yet, with an estimated 200,000 N. Korean gulag-esk prisoners, can we really afford to ignore the issue of human rights violations anymore, especially against such obscure threats?

Kim Jong Un

Gerard Corr, an Irish representative in the U.N., spoke on behalf of the European Union, stating that, “For too long, the population of the [North Korean] country has been subjected to widespread and systematic human rights violations and abuses,” yet we hardly ever hear about such violations. Labor camps never stay for long in mainstream media. Only recently has North Korea garnered enough widespread attention, with random threats of missile strikes, [UPDATE] or assassinated uncles of the Kim Jong dynasty (who so happened to also be second in command of DPRK forces), to bring the focus back on the people who actually live there. As more and more defectors come forward, the more information will be revealed about what Kim Jong Un is really doing behind his iron curtain. One such testimony is the story of Shin Dong-hyuk.

Shin Dong-hyuk

Consider Shin, now thirty, who is the only defector known to have been born inside a North Korean labor camp and escape. Until the age of twenty-two, the only world Shin knew, according to the Washington Post, was inside the “electrified fences, where inmates tended pigs, tanned leather, collected firewood and labored in mines until they died or were executed.” After escaping in 2005, Shin’s account puts a human face on the secretive horrors going on in North Korea’s labor camps; a brutal system that has been going on longer than any of Stalin’s or Hitler’s concentration camps ever did. In an interview, Shin laments that “the existence of prison camps in the North should be known to the people around the world. There are some people born and raised as an animal in North Korea. I have to explain that to everyone.”

Released back in 2012, journalist Blain Harden captured Shin’s story in the book, Escape from Camp 14. The most horrifying and heartbreaking account from Shin’s story comes from his account of his mother and brother. When Shin was thirteen years old, he overheard his mother planning an escape. Without hesitation, Shin reported to the guards everything his mother was planning to do and watched as she and his brother were dragged off. At the time, Shin believed they deserved to die for their treachery. Shin also thought he might be rewarded a full meal for his allegiance. Instead, after watching his mother hanged and brother shot by a firing squad, he reports “I was taken to a chamber full of torture instruments.” Inside the torture chamber, after being stripped of his clothing, Shin was restrained and hung by his hands and legs from the ceiling. A charcoal fire was brought in and placed underneath Shin’s back. Today, crisscrossing Shin’s body are terrible burn scars left from his “interrogation,” and from other wounds from a life inside a North Korean labor camp. The last scars Shin took were from his eventual escape, as he crawled over the burning body of another escapee who had died navigating an electrified fence.

labor camps

Shin’s betrayal of his own mother may seem extreme to those hearing his testimony, but in an interview with Anderson Cooper, Shin confessed that he never knew, still doesn’t, of what love is. Shin was born into a system of reward marriages given to prisoners who worked hard and were allowed, during certain periods, to have sex. Shin does not know if it was a consensual “reward” marriage. From Shin’s perspective, being born inside the camp, his family was not a real family, they were just prisoners. “You wear what you’re given, you eat what you’re given, and you do only what you’re told to do, so there is nothing the parents can do for their children, and there is nothing the children can do for their parents.” Shin’s mutilated “inheritance” is part of the three generations of punishment; a linage that began with the imprisonment of his grandfather and father, each sent to live and die inside camp 14. Kim Jong Sung, North Korea’s first dictator, instituted this “three-generations” of punishment back in the 1950’s in order to remove the revolutionist spirit that fought against the newly established Kim Jong regime. According to David Hawk, a leading human rights investigator, the largest number of people being held inside North Korea’s labor camps are children and grandchildren born from “wrong doers and wrong thinkers.” A majority of prisoners in labor camps are guilty of no crime, but are being kept simply because the policies of North Korea fervently believe that the  “sins of the father” are a justifiable reason to punish generations of the same linage…creating essentially a biocratic political system.

This, of course, stinks of a similar string in historical memory…

…and begs the question: how in a post WWII world, a post Khmer Rouge world, a post Darfur world, can North Korea have this kind of labor/death camp practice?

…but this line of questioning begs an even more problematic and convoluted question: should we take action?

staged production in Theresienstadt

Consider a lesser known story in history, called simply, “The Führer gives a city to the Jews.” In this story, as the world began to first hear tales and rumors of Nazi concentration camps, the Third Reich decided to put on a demonstration for Red Cross investigators. In the days before the U.N. existed, the Red Cross stood alone and Hitler gave them special permission to come and see how they were “really” treating the Jews. Lasting from 1941 through 1945, Theresienstadt, located in modern Czech, was a transit/labor camp for Czech, German, and Austrian Jews before heading to their final destination, Auschwitz. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum database:

Theresienstadt served an important propaganda function for the Germans. The publicly stated purpose for the deportation of the Jews from Germany was their ‘resettlement to the east,’ where they would be compelled to perform forced labor. Since it seemed implausible that elderly Jews could be used for forced labor, the Nazis used the Theresienstadt ghetto to hide the nature of the deportations. In Nazi propaganda, Theresienstadt was cynically described as a ‘spa town’ where elderly German Jews could ‘retire’ in safety. The deportations to Theresienstadt were, however, part of the Nazi strategy of deception. The ghetto was in reality a collection center for deportations to ghettos and killing centers in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe.”

detainees smile for the red cross

The Führer permitted the International Red Cross to visit Theresienstadt on June 1944. In an effort to mask the true propose of Theresienstadt, the Nazis intensified deportations from the ghetto shortly before the visit, and the ghetto itself was “beautified,” by the Jews living there. Gardens were planted, houses painted, and barracks renovated. Special events were also staged to give the impression that the rumors concerning the Nazi subjugation and annihilation of European Jewry were not true. Their efforts paid off. After a five-hour visit, the Red Cross inspectors gave Theresienstadt a glowing thumbs up and declared that they did not require to inspect any other concentration camps in Nazi occupied territory. They did note however that Theresienstadt seemed to be a bit overcrowded and the people had a certain look about them.

After the Red Cross visit, the S.S. and the Nazi propaganda machine (Joseph Goebbels) decided, fearing a return inspection, to use Theresienstadt as a stage for a mock-documentary in the hopes of tricking both to the Red Cross and the German mainstream. The film is known only today in bits and pieces as “The Führer gives a city to the Jews.” The S.S. forced renowned filmmaker Kurt Gerron into filming their documentary. During the months of August and September 1944, under heavy surveillance, Gerron filmed staged scenes of so-called “normal” life in the “Jewish settlement.” The movie was edited without the director, whom after finishing, was sent to Birkenau (death camp also known as Auschwitz II), where he was murdered in a gas chamber. Over 30,000 people died in Theresienstadt, and an untold number were sent off to killing camps. Of those who passed through Theresienstadt, are an estimated 15,000 children. Approximately 90 percent of these children later perished in death camps. Above the gates of Nazi labor/death camps were the words, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” work makes one free.

"work makes one free"

According to the Huffington Post, “North Korea [still] denies the existence of labor camps and activists do not expect [them] to cooperate with the investigation, [after] having denounced it during a U.N. Human Rights Council debate.” However, the U.N. team selected to investigate these horror testimonies of the labor camps, will not be deterred by the North’s refusal to cooperate. The investigation is set to begin in the early weeks of July and run throughout the year, methodologically consulting with as many witnesses and victims as possible. According to certain diplomats concerning the new inquiry into North Korea’s heinous practices with the labor camps and totalitarian state, that the Kim Jong dynasty has been given a clear message that the international community are not only just paying attention to the North’s actions with banned nuclear and ballistic missile programs, but now also with how they are treating their own people. This begs the question though: just what will actually come of their investigations? Will the U.N. take action against North Korea if enough evidence is considered viable? Will the U.S. take action?

Obviously, today we know now what really happened inside Nazi camps. Yet, somehow, the same darkness continues. Inside the borders of North Korea, right now, people are suffering and dying from the harsh and undignified realities of life in labor camps. And not just adults, criminals, or political dissenters, but also children. According to the Huffington Post, the recent U.N. inquiry “is due to file an interim report by September, with a final report due by March next year [2014].” Until then, we are left to ponder how many tales, like those of Shin Dong-hyuk’s, will surface. And when they do, what are we willing, if anything, to do about it?

Update: 7/16/17. According to the Washington Post, “Shin Dong-hyuk, a North Korean prison camp survivor who has become the symbol of human rights injustices suffered in that country, has changed key parts of the story of his ordeal.” Those “key parts” being of course dates and locations. The ordeal and torture Shin had endured remain fact, the evidence read from the road map of burn scars covering his lower back and legs, not to mention his bowed arms, evidence in itself of child labor. According to the Washington Post, “North Korea has already tried to dismiss Shin’s story and assassinate his character. Last fall, amid mounting calls to refer North Korea’s leaders to the International Criminal Court, the regime released a video titled ‘Lie and Truth,’ in which Shin’s father says that his son never lived in a political prison camp and that his testimony is false.” So who is telling the truth? I think History shows us the lengths political bodies will go to cover the truth of their sins.

tommy1

Thomas S. Flowers writes character-driven stories of dark fiction ranging from Shakespearean gore feasts to paranormal thrillers. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His veteran focused paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served three tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews horror and sci fi movies and books and hosts a gambit of guest contributors who discuss a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can follow Thomas at a safe distance by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.

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