In their recently released East-West Center Working Paper Repression and Punishment in North Korea: Survey Evidence of Prison Camp Experiences, EWC Senior Fellow Marcus Noland and UC San Diego Professor Stephan Haggard detail the results of two unique refugee surveys—one conducted in China, one in South Korea—that document the changing role of the North Korean penal system.
One particularly striking finding, they write, "is that the conditions that are frequently seen as characteristic of the country's infamous gulag of political penal-labor colonies such as extreme deprivation and exposure to violence in fact pertain across the penal system, from the penitentiaries designed to house felons to lower-level jails used to punish a widening array of other economic and social crimes.”
Even among North Korean refugees who said they had been imprisoned for relatively brief periods at lower-level penal facilities, a substantial number reported witnessing such abuses as forced starvation, deprivation of medical care, deaths due to beating or torture, and public executions.
The frequency of abuse appears surprisingly uniform over the different institutions, the authors report, a point that is particularly underscored when the generally shorter sentences in the lower level facilities are taken into account.
"This is a system for shaking people down," Noland said in an Oct. 5 Washington Post article on the report. "It really looks like the work of a gang, a kind of 'Soprano' state. But it succeeds in keeping people repressed."