The homeless man next to him was also bare bones, with a cut on his leg next to the knee that had become infected, and flies had laid their eggs in there. He had a little stick and was flicking the larvae that were coming out. Even seeing all this, Mary Lou said, she never thought there was anything wrong with North Korea.

‘Mary Lou’, an escapee of the tyrannical regime in the north of the Korean Peninsula now living in London, described to John Sweeney, author of North Korea Undercover, how she was brainwashed all her life by systematic moulding of the mind to worship the state’s “Great Leader” and his descendants. Despite seeing people she knew being cast aside and mistreated by the state, she thought this was a normal part of life. Indeed, it is a normal part of life in North Korea. Access to information is highly restricted in North Korea: there’s no internet, and owners of mobile phones can only make calls within the country; all communications are monitored for evidence of resistance to Juche, the ideology that demands complete submission to North Korea’s policies and practices.

Information can leave the country, but nothing can go in. ‘Mary Lou’, like many other defectors, don’t even realise there’s anything wrong with their home country. Maybe there’s a hint of something, but they can’t be sure. The reality of the situation only comes to them when they leave North Korea: food, water, and electricity are generally available, one usually has the freedom to say what think think, and people aren’t “sent to the mountains”.

Sent to the mountains.

In order to maintain power in North Korea, the regime must not only stop information coming into the country, but also prevent dissent arising from within the country. Those that dare to speak out against the dictators were – and continue to be – sent to various camps in the mountainous regions in the centre and north-east of the country. From Wikipedia: “detainees are regularly told that they are traitors to the nation who have betrayed their Leader and thus deserve execution, but whom the Workers’ Party has decided, in its mercy, not to kill, but to keep alive in order to repay the nation for their treachery, through forced labour for the rest of their lives.”

North Korea has been described as being very similar to Nazi Germany, in that it demands obedience and purity. More horrifying, perhaps, is the notion that concentration and forced labour camps don’t just exist in the middle of the last century in Europe or the USSR, such camps exist in North Korea right now, where it’s estimated around 200,000 people are interned. These camps are known as Kwan-li-so. One case that comes to mind from Sweeney’s book is that of a group of boys who were fighting next to a statue of Kim Il Sung: one boy threw something that hit the statue. But the statue, just like everything else in North Korea, is a facade: it’s made of plaster and covered in bronze paint. The ear of the statue broke and fell off. The boy and his family were sent to a camp.

North Korea operates a ‘three generation internment’ rule: not only is the accused sent to the camp for the rest of their lives, three generations of that person’s family will also be subjected to the same punishment. Oftentimes, children are born – and spend their entire lives – in the camp, but regularly, pregnant women will undergo a forced abortion, or their child will be killed immediately after birth.

There have been several kwan-li-so – commonly referred to as gulags –  in existence in North Korea over the last few decades, but currently there are six in operation: Kaech’ŏn, Yodŏk, Hwasŏng, Pukch’ang, Haengyŏng, and Ch’ŏngjin.

Prisoners at these camps are given clothes that are to last them until they die; if the clothes are lost or destroyed, the prisoner remains naked: there are no spare clothes. Following their death, the clothes (or what remains of them) are passed on to a new prisoner. Such thin, worn-out clothes are no use against the harsh cold of the Korean winter, where temperatures often drop to -20 degrees C. The result is illnesses such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, all of which must be endured – probably to death – by the prisoner, as there is no medicine or hospitals available.

Food and sustenance in the camps is just as bad. Ideally, a prisoner will be served a few servings per day of a handful or two of corn boiled in water, or maybe some salted vegetables. If a person does not complete their assigned tasks, they will be denied rations, without any consideration of their age or health. In order to obtain any sort of meat, prisoners must eat rats. But they can only eat the vermin with permission from the prison guards.

Transgressions in the kwan-li-so can lead to a variety of punishments outside of denial of food, including cutting fingers off, prolonged torture, or execution. Shin Dong-hyuk was born in 1982 inside the Kaechon camp and was subjected to a host of horrific treatments. When he was 14 years old, he was stripped and his arms and legs bound. He was suspended from the ceiling of his cell, and the guards lit a fire underneath him. Shin also witnessed the execution of his mother by firing squad, and brother by hanging (his family was also imprisoned because of the three-generation rule; his father was interned in the camp because Shin’s uncles defected to South Korea in the Korean War).

Remember, this happened to Shin in the mid-90s, and it happens to people all the time even right now.

Shin eventually escaped Kaechon in an attempt with his friend, who was killed while trying to cross an electric fence on the perimeter of the camp. Shin got away by climbing over his dead friend’s body, avoiding the fence.

Shin Dong-hyuk is the only person known to have escaped a total-control camp in North Korea. He now lives in South Korea, and gives talks to people about his experiences. Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine West covers his life in Kaechon, and his story is told in film in Camp 14: Total Control Zone by Marc Wiese. I thoroughly recommend Wiese’s documentary, which you can probably find online.

The human rights atrocities continuously committed by the North Korean dictatorship, now headed by Kim Jong Un, came to my own field-of-view from a couple of angles. I already had an idea of what was going on in the isolated state, but a number of military exercises, and a threat of nuclear war, by North Korea brought it to the forefront of my thoughts (and to that of countless people around the world, no doubt). As well as this, I have a big interest in shortwave radio, and I’m sometimes able to listen to radio broadcasts from North Korea. I tried several times at first, but didn’t succeed, due to signal jamming from South Korea and other radio interference. But one day I got the Voice of Korea quite clearly, broadcast in English. Shortwave listeners often send reception reports to stations they hear with technical information and obtain a QSL card in return (QSL is radio-speak for “I hear your signal”). I decided to try to get one from the most isolated and brutal country in the world, and sent a report.

A few months later a package arrived from North Korea. It included the normal QSL card, as well as lots of propaganda shouting about how great the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea is. The Pyongyang Times consisted of article upon article of how Kim Jong Un visited factories and schools and gave the infamous “on-the-spot-guidance” on how people should go about their job. I also received a radio broadcast schedule, a postcard, and a military pin.


A few thoughts have been going round my mind ever since: does the Pyongyang Times actually exist in North Korea, or is it something fabricated for foreigners? If it is a real newspaper, why do they give it to foreigners? After all, the government ministry that sent this package is well aware of the international perception of the country, and so it knows that I know what North Korea is like. Did North Korea send me these things just as trinkets and souvenirs, knowing I’m probably very aware of the despotic pantomime? Maybe the staff member who packed the envelope and sent it to me has no idea of the outside world, did it in good faith, and the undertaking of posting it to me was just another act that officials use to convince state employees that North Korea is revered and feared by the world. Did the person who received my letter – along with a postcard of my home town – get sent to a kwan-li-so, for getting an inkling of what the outside world was like?

North Korea doesn’t get the attention it deserves and its people needs. But then, why would it? “This all happened before; we need to invade and rescue the people from the gulags!” I hear you cry. You’re right. They need to be saved – as do those who are brainwashed but not yet in the kwan-li-so. But what happens when North Korea is invaded? Remember the threats of nuclear strikes over the last couple of years: whether or not the country has the capability to actually fly a bomb to the South, or to Japan, or to the USA, or wherever, North Korea is still a nuclear state.

They have the bomb.

I don’t think North Korea has the ability to defend itself, ultimately; it will be the first casualty in an atomic exchange:

  • South Korea and USA invade North Korea
  • North Korea responds with chemical weapons on the South
  • The South and USA drop tactical nukes on Pyongyang or North Korean trade ports with its allies
  • China immediately becomes involved
  • Nuclear war between China, USA, South Korea, and their assorted allies. North Korea no longer exists by this point

North Korea is like a very, very temperamental teenager: you just don’t know when they’re going to blow. But in this case, you can’t just tell them to cop on and chill out in their room.

So what can we do for the hundreds of thousands of people imprisoned in the freezing gulags in North Korea? Who knows. Undermining and dismantling the state by force seems like the obvious answer, but such a path is very difficult without it happening from inside the country. A brainwashed country. Invasion? Even if the worst-case scenario of atomic exchange doesn’t happen, who’s going to deal with a population of 23 million refugees? Can South Korea absorb the North? Amnesty International has published numerous reports on North Korea, but reports can only go so far when there’s no action.

While you go to work, relax at home, go for a beer, meet up with friends, or whatever you do today, just remember that on the other side of the world there are a lot of people shivering with the cold, limbs swollen, coughing up blood from disease, naked, watching their family being hanged, eating rats, forced to work 24 hours a day despite age.

This isn’t 1940s Europe. This is now.