After speaking recently to a group of young South Korean soldiers about North Korea’s harsh labor camps, former prisoner Jung Gyoung Il — himself once a soldier in North Korea’s massive army — was stunned by the questions from the audience.
One soldier asked how many days of leave North Korean soldiers were given. Another asked if North Korean soldiers were allowed to visit their girlfriends. No one showed any curiosity about the notorious network of gulags, a signature marker of the North’s brutality toward its own people.
Many South Koreans are reluctant to even concede that the camps exist.At universities, Jung said, many students sleep through his lectures about North Korea’s gulags.
“South Koreans say, ‘So what? What’s the big deal about it?’ ” said Kang Cheol-hwan, a former gulag inmate who wrote about his 10-year imprisonment in “The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag.”
“What’s more surprising for me,” added Kang, now the director of the North Korea Strategy Center, a human rights advocacy group, “was that South Koreans did not believe gulags ever existed in North Korea. They thought it was a lie.”
A body of evidence includes satellite images of sprawling camps and testimony from former inmates. South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission said in a report released last month that 200,000 people are imprisoned in six camps.
Jung has a theory about why South Koreans show little interest in the gulags.
“The pain is not theirs,” he said. “They have not gone through this atrocity.”