Shin Dong-hyuk was malnourished, subjected to medieval torture, and worked to exhaustion while imprisoned for 23 years in North Korea’s Kwan-li-so (penal labor colony) No. 14, in Kae'chŏn county, 50 miles north of Pyongyang. He was born in the camp and imprisoned under a guilt-by-association law due to the crimes of his parents—his father’s crime was that his brothers had fled to South Korea in the Korean War, and his mother never revealed to Shin why she was imprisoned. Shin watched his mother and brother’s executions by hanging. Children in the camp were given enough schooling to be able to work, and he saw a classmate beaten to death.
Reading about Shin’s life in Escape From Camp 14 by Blaine Harden turns North Korea into something more than a joke with Kim Jong-un as the punch line. Mercifully, Shin escaped and was able to tell Harden and the world about the secrets of the North Korean gulag. But crimes committed against the North Korean people—crimes being committed as I write this—are rarely discussed. Up to 400,000 people have died in the camps since the 1960s. “There are now five political labor camps with about 135,000 inmates,” Harden told me by email. The camps work to punish political enemies and serve as a warning to the general population. Most of the prisoners will never be released, meaning we can multiply Shin Dong-hyuk’s nightmarish story by at least 135,000.
I started the book last June. The more I read, sitting at my desk in London, the more I wanted to help. Even though trying to fix one of our day’s greatest geopolitical problems seemed dumb, naïvely idealistic, even meddling.
After I finished the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about the prisoners Shin left behind in the gulag. I’d be standing at the meat counter at the supermarket choosing between the highest quality lamb, steak, pork, and chicken, and I would remember the rat meat that helped keep children alive in the camp, and the undigested corn kernels they pulled from cow dung. I felt an urge to act so strong that I couldn’t ignore it. Perhaps idealism is more than just a slur inflicted on the young and hopeful. Perhaps being idealistic is a principle worth standing up for.
And so I found myself, a few months later, ringing the doorbell at London’s North Korean embassy. I was prepared to demand justice, but my shaking hands betrayed my utter fear of what would happen when someone opened the door.
Idealism is hopeful and motivated, honest and eager. But it tends to shoot first and ask questions never. My idealism about North Korea was tightly bound to ignorance about the country. Beyond the regular news of nukes, floods, and photos of various Kims visiting factories and farms, what I knew about North Korea came from two documentaries: The VICE Guide to North Korea and The Red Chapel, the latter focusing on two comedians who set up a fake Danish theatre troupe in order to visit North Korea. I learned almost nothing from the movies. Each involves Western tourists explaining how scared they are while making jokes and trying to get one over their guides. The summary of the VICE Guide on YouTube explains, “Sneaking into North Korea was one of the hardest and weirdest processes VICE has ever dealt with.” Take that, concentration camp detainees!
Following the viral success of the Kony 2012 campaign, idealism took a beating. The campaign was created by Invisible Children, an organization seeking to raise awareness of atrocities carried out by Joseph Kony’s militia, the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan guerilla group. Criticism of the project centered on how the organization seemed to be asking for military intervention where it wasn’t necessary, acting the white savior, and totally misunderstanding the situation. It was a shock to see the NGO get it all so wrong.
The idealist in me wants to act right now, to feel I’m doing good, not to sit and study in depth and be sure we get things right.
It was the criticism of the founders themselves, and their idealism, however, that was the most strongly worded. Teju Cole, author of Open City, wrote in the Atlantic that when organizations like Invisible Children and people like New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof express a desire to save people, they focus too sharply on the immediate humanitarian disaster, demanding the world to rush in and fix it—something I’m certainly guilty of, too. Cole asked that we instead focus on the constellations of factors involved, to join the dots and see how the West’s militarization and economic exploitation of poor countries helped to create the problems that Westerners now want to fix—with solutions that ignore ongoing militarization and exploitation.
It seems so obvious, but the idealist in me wants to act right now, to feel I’m doing good, not to sit and study in depth and be sure we get things right.
“I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly,” Cole wrote, sounding much like Fowler, the narrator of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, perhaps the greatest fictionalization of idealism run amok. In the book, Fowler says that Pyle, an American state department employee, is “impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.” Idealism is deeply in love with the idea of doing something—anything—but it’s the damage that is done en route that scares Cole and Greene.
Greene excoriates idealism throughout the book. In her introduction to a new Vintage Classics edition of The Quiet American, novelist Zadie Smith writes, “To the end [Pyle] remains determined that belief is more important than peace, ideas more vital than people… Fowler is at least idealistic enough to believe that there is not an idea on this earth worth killing for.” So chalk up one point for idealism, but only where its proponents recognize its limitations, not when they’re blinkered to its potential for damage. “Saving” North Korea through military action and liberating the concentration camps could possibly cost millions of lives and risk a nuclear war.
Doing good is not about doing something, but about doing the right thing. That’s not quite as glamorous as Invisible Children’s video, viewed by 94 million people, which demands action, any action. I had a lot to learn.
“It is not surprising that [North Korea] could resort to measures such as a missile or nuclear test to both keep the international community befuddled and on its heels.” This was Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a research organization based in Arlington, Va. Over email he told me that North Korea uses this kind of brinksmanship “to keep the outside world from what it perceives as interfering in its internal affairs.”
Gause has examined the intricacies of North Korea’s leadership network and wants more people studying how it functions. Decoding the puzzle of quasi-Stalinistic hierarchy charts and networks sounded awful to me, but Gause said that the outside world had no other option: “Enhanced sanctions or even a mountain of carrots will not make Pyongyang reform until the leadership reaches the conclusion that its survival is based on the need for change.”
Terence Roehrig, one of the editors of The Survival of North Korea, agreed with Gause—there’s little to be done. “It is difficult for anyone, average citizens, politicians, or academics outside of North Korea to have much influence on what occurs in the DPRK,” Roehrig said. He warned me that we shouldn’t expect a revolution any time soon. But there is a glimmer of hope: “The increased flow of information into the country is slowly breaking down the regime’s control of what the DPRK populace sees and knows.”
I hung up the phone and stared out the window. Two of the world’s leading North Korea scholars had personally told me there was nothing I could do.
North Korean labor camps range from simple prisons to one astonishing large camp that’s 31 miles long and 25 miles wide, bigger than Los Angeles, to village settlements up in the mountains. Settlements are tightly packed, with orchards, mines, and opium farms within walking distance of the prisoners’ barracks. In the winter, prisoners find themselves wading into ice-cold water, gathering stones for a dam until frostbite takes a finger or exposure takes a life. Frogs and rats provide protein in a severely restricted diet mostly made up of steamed corn or cabbage.
In one camp, a self-criticism center is kindly placed between the housing and soy sauce factory for ease of access. For wrongdoing, or during interrogation, torture breaks ear drums, damages eyes to the point of permanent double vision, or leaves shins forever black and blue. Mine workers are so malnourished they look like soot-covered stickmen. Attempted escapees can be found hanged at the execution site. Hospitals have so few doctors they are more like mortuaries where the sick are left to die. The dead are piled unceremoniously on the side of the mountain. One day their skeletons will be found, full of broken bones that never healed, growth stunted by an insufficient diet, spines crooked by hard labor, and bullet holes in the skulls of those who tried to run.
Comparing Nazi concentration camps and North Korean camps is regularly done, but Hawk says that evoking Auschwitz is unnecessary and somewhat inaccurate.
This all comes from the “The Hidden Gulag,” an incredibly comprehensive report compiled by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, an NGO calling for the dismantlement of the North Korean gulag. It was released online in 2003 for free and used satellite images and the testimony of escaped prisoners to expose North Korea’s prison camps to the world. Over a crackly and time-delayed Skype connection, I reached David Hawk, the author of the report, who lives in Seaside Park, NJ. He made his point clear and precise: North Korea’s prison camps “are a clear and massive crime against humanity.”
Comparing Nazi concentration camps and North Korean camps is regularly done, but Hawk says that evoking Auschwitz is unnecessary and somewhat inaccurate. North Korea’s camps work people to death, rather than exterminate them. “The point of the Kwan-li-so camps in North Korea is to exterminate a family line—that’s why the whole family is put in there—but to do it after a lifetime of forced labor.”
Blaine Harden, author of the book about escaped prisoner Shin Dong-hyuk, has said before that North Korea’s diplomats “‘go nuts’ and leave the room” when the subject of the camps in broached in any discussion of human rights. But Hawk says it’s essential, particularly since negotiations on nukes have been set back by North Korea’s nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. “The idea that you would keep human rights off of the agenda for 20 to 30 years while [North Korea] does economic development and allow the present prison population to die off is, to me, extraordinary.” Harden estimates that up to 400,000 people have already died in the North Korean gulag.
“Few people outside of the pro-apartheid figures in South Africa argued to ignore apartheid for a generation until the economic situation of the South African population improved,” Hawk said, sounding genuinely moved and outraged. I asked him what I could do to help. The best thing, he said, was to encourage my government—to send a letter urging my foreign minister to support UN resolutions on North Korean human rights.
I’ll admit I was hoping he’d tell me to jump on a flight to Seoul tomorrow, decked out in camouflage gear with a knife between my teeth. Wasn’t writing letters to the government the kind of thing done by old people and crack-ups? Anyway, hadn’t those people heard of email?
As idealistic young journalists, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, and William T. Vollmann each wanted to fix something: World War I, the Spanish Civil War, and the Soviet war in Afghanistan, respectively.
As an idealistic young person, at a similarly nascent stage in my journalism career, I’d like to think I understand their drive. But I can’t say I’m idealistic enough to fight or die for the freedom of North Korea, if that option were available to me. The old idealists fought in the mountains; I scroll over North Korean mountains on Google Maps. They suffered on the front line; I read a little of the news from North Korea before going to a restaurant and gorging myself on beef ribs to the point of severe stomach pain.
Orwell went to Spain to report on the war for English newspapers. When he arrived in Barcelona, “at that time and in that atmosphere [joining the fight] seemed the only conceivable thing to do,” he writes in Homage to Catalonia. “Unlike the young people who were affected by the depression of the 1930s and unable to do anything to stop that, or halt the spread of fascism, when Franco tried to overthrow a democratically elected government, people could do something by joining the fight.”
Thou shalt be humble, not #humble. Honor thy newspaper and thy academic, for learn’d is their word. Thou shalt not like a Facebook page instead of liking the donation of monies.
Orwell doesn’t shy away from documenting with exacting detail why the anti-Franco forces failed, or from explaining the severe deficiencies of his own idealism. “It was difficult to think about this war in quite the same naively idealistic manner as before.” This was after he came back from the front line and read in the papers about the internal arguments between factions on his side. Disillusionment followed. Though he didn’t lose his idealism—he had become besotted with democratic socialism—he echoed the words a newspaper correspondent told him when he first arrived in Barcelona: “This war is a racket the same as any other.”
In 1982, author and journalist William T. Vollmann, then 22, went to Pakistan, hoping to make it to Afghanistan with his idealistic desire to somehow help its people in the war with the Soviet Union, to comprehend what was happening there, to help "in the Best Possible Way," and to “save the world.” After making a nuisance of himself in Pakistan and getting nowhere, he eventually convinced the Mujahideen to take him into Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Army. Vollmann’s journey in An Afghanistan Picture Show is one of incessant self-questioning and self-doubt about what action he should take, how he can help, what refugees and rebels most desperately need, and what he should do to help when he returns to the U.S.
Ultimately Vollmann wasn’t able to make the difference he sought. Late in the book, he writes, “I pray that this record of my failures may somehow in its negative way help somebody.” Writing in the third person as “The Young Man,” Vollmann just wanted to know what to do: “Whether it could or would be done did not yet concern him… before all else he must draw up his ideal plan.”
My ideal plan for North Korea was unclear. I gazed into the stars, as Teju Cole recommended, and tried to make sense of many factors. I didn’t get far. I wondered how Shin Dong-hyuk must feel, carrying with him 23 years in a gulag. I wondered what he was doing at the moment.
Through the web, I found that after getting his life back together Shin briefly lived in Southern California where he worked for Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), an NGO, as a senior ambassador. I sought salvation in the words on one of their analysts, Sokeel Park.
LiNK helps get refugees out of North Korea and bordering countries to safe places such as South Korea and the U.S. Sokeel said that LiNK hopes to build a substantial diaspora network of North Korean defectors who can make information and money flow back in, seeding dissent in grassroots rather than trying to shift a concrete statue. Sokeel’s optimism beams like a sunflower: “Ultimately to people who are overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge, I would say ‘if you can’t help a hundred people, then help just one,’” Sokeel said, and I took it as instruction.
Manifesto for the Modern iDealist:
I. Thou shalt be humble, not #humble.
II. Honor thy newspaper and thy academic, for learn’d is their word.
III. Thou shalt not like a Facebook page instead of liking the donation of monies.
IV. Thou shalt write a real letter to thy representatives, not an email.
V. Watching a documentary does not an expert make thee.
VI. Under intoxication, thou shalt not argue the merits of intervention.
VII. Thou shalt read more than thou retweets.
VIII. Thou shalt think for thyself.
The North Korean embassy didn’t reply to the emails of the iDealist. They would not return his calls. He calls again in the middle of afternoon: A sleepy voice answers and it sounds aggrieved. “Please call later,” the iDealist is told repeatedly. It is the first of the month but the press attaché is not available. “What’s this about?” the voice says again and again. “Yes,” he says, “the embassy does have office hours tomorrow.” The voice says its name is Dru.
The iDealist goes looking for Dru the next day.
The iDealist takes the tube toward Heathrow from central London and gets off 14 stops from Westminster. Turning right at the gas station, wandering up the leafy road, the iDealist passes the embassy without noticing it before he turns back. This is suburbia, not embassy country. Only a gold plaque tells the iDealist he’s looking at the Embassy of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea.
There is basketball hoop in the back garden, a window wide open above, and steam drifting out of a vent. A workman on a ladder cleans the windows. Another is sanding the front door. The iDealist rings the doorbell on the gate. The workmen pause their labor to see what happens next. The iDealist holds his breath. His hands shake. The iDealist is sweating from the long walk and from the fear he feels closing around his throat.
“I want to know about visas so that I can come and help the people of North Korea,” says the iDealist, having drafted, redrafted, and practiced the line on the journey.
A cheery diplomat emerges from the front door and makes his way over to the gate. He is wearing a plain white shirt with the top two buttons undone, smart black trousers, black shoes, and a raincoat that is so worn and faded it looks like it was bought at a thrift store. He matches the iDealist’s height, but he is middle-aged, with a chubby face that smiles as he walks over to the side of the gate and asks what can be done to help.
“I want to know about visas so that I can come and help the people of North Korea,” says the iDealist, having drafted, redrafted, and practiced the line on the journey. The iDealist tries to make it sound spontaneous. The diplomat is evasive and suspicious. The iDealist asks for Dru. “Dru is not here. His replacement is not here either.”
The iDealist realizes he cannot press the diplomat much further, but wants to encourage a dialog, to hear a little humanity really letting loose about the gulag, about the crimes against humanity, and about Shin. He asks the diplomat his name; the iDealist fears reprinting it here. While the iDealist was yesterday told that the press attaché was not available, today he is told that both Dru is not here, and the visa guy, Mr. Moon, is not available either.
“How about you just make some telephone calls,” the diplomat says when the iDealist asks how to help and how to get a visa. It’s the same response that every academic, journalist, and human rights worker has given the idealist so far: To help, an intermediary is required; only someone else can help. But Sokeel said that he did something himself. That he had agency.
The iDealist wants a representative of the North Korean government to answer his question: “What can I do to help North Korea?” And then he will ask about the camps. The iDealist feels so awkward he has to support his weight on the gate—he cannot just stand there, he cannot maintain eye contact. He continually looks away when he’s talking, he is unable to be direct.
And then a moment of brightly shining honesty arrives under London’s grey skies; faced with our naive iDealist (in disguise, of course), the diplomat says: “You see it’s like this: It’s not so easy for my country.” Laughter tinges his sincerity, and he looks away, down the road lined with trees showing the first signs of autumn. Both are lost and looking for a way out, a way to escape the conversation and retreat back inside a building or a subway for safety.
“I think one of the British ambassadors was in a picture with your dear leader,” the iDealist says, to keep conversation going. “On a rollercoaster.” The diplomat’s face drops and goes rather pale at the mention of the dear leader. “That was nice,” the iDealist stutters, trying to soften the mood, trying to massage the diplomat and help him relax into the conversation. The iDealist is not a good masseuse. “I was glad that Britain and North Korea have some relations,” he offers.
The diplomat seems relieved, and smiles knowingly. But he swiftly takes the opportunity to escape the conversation and says, shaking his head from side to side and sticking his palms up in apology, “I’m so sorry but I can’t help at this moment. I have some people inside who need some translations.”
The iDealist watches the diplomat return to the house. It’s cold and threatening to rain. The workmen continue in their work. The iDealist slinks away. He had wanted to stick it to the North Korean Man; after finding one, the iDealist talked about a rollercoaster. As he walks away, the iDealist realizes he didn’t even mention the prison camps once, not even at the end—just shouting the word “gulag” would have been something, just to let the diplomat know that the iDealist knew and that he cared and that more people should know. But he didn’t do any of this.
A few days later, I attended a panel discussion at the Frontline Club in central London. The event was organized to promote and raise funds for an animated movie that will tell the true story of six North Korean defectors. The movie, Nothing to Envy, will be based on Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick’s book of the same name. The producers of the movie were launching a campaign to raise $80,000 through crowdfunding to make it happen. I chipped in way more than I could afford. The movie, they said, would be an animated feature in the vein of Persepolis or Waltz With Bashir, animated films about the personal aftermath of the Iranian Revolution and Lebanon War, respectively. These Academy Award-nominated movies demonstrate that animation, through surreal style and real storytelling, can tell near-unfilmable stories that appeal to a wide audience.
Two defectors spoke at the panel: Choi Joong-hwa and Kim Song-ju. A small but sold-out crowd of around 50 was packed into the small room. We mingled, drank free wine, munched on crisps, and asked one another whether we had been to North Korea. Many had. In the panel discussion, through a translator, the defectors explained how they escaped North Korea.
“I escaped during the famine in the mid-’90s,” Song-ju said. “Before I came to the UK I was arrested three times in China and repatriated to North Korea three times.” His father died of starvation, his mother died in a prison camp after a failed escape attempt. Both were 49. Song-ju explained how, in his camp, 50 to 60 inmates lived in a small room with a floor covered in worms, lice, and insects. He described the collective torture, being forced to stand up and sit down hundreds of times, to do a headstand for 30 minutes. He said that beatings regularly took place and that women were raped.
“While I was being transferred to a different detention center, I jumped off a running train and successfully escaped North Korea again,” he said. Song-ju still has a sister in North Korea; he’s eager, he said, to take every single opportunity to spread the message of what’s happening there. “I urge everyone who came to this event to join me—to improve the human rights situation in North Korea, to work towards this cause.” His tone was soft, not exhorting—more influential than a vague idealistic rant. “I hope the people of my hometown can enjoy the freedom that I am enjoying in this country.”
A former camp guard and a defector who once worked within North Korea’s National Security Agency have suggested that approximately 200,000 people are currently in the camps. That's a number equal to the population of Tallahassee, Fla.
Sokeel Park had told me to find one person and help them. Here was my chance. In the Q&A session, I asked about how to get better information to North Koreans and “whether it could persuade North Koreans to defect.”
Song-ju said that DVDs, DVD players, and radios get smuggled into North Korea from China at great cost. But he cautioned that because it’s only middle and upper classes that can afford them, “they don’t tend to get enlightened as much as the world hopes.”
“To my knowledge, the Arab Spring was led by the poorer people who survived in subsistence labor. Rather than depending on digital devices, we think that by approaching the poorer people of North Korea with offline media, it will hopefully enlighten the poor people who can get mobilized easily. Our goal is to reach out to the people who have to worry about what to eat the next day, not people with means, so that they can rise up against the North Korean regime,” he said, with a more vigorous pace than before, correcting the translator’s English at some points and encouraging her.
And I was enamored. The poor people of North Korea could rise up. No one I had spoken to, nothing I had read even suggested that possibility, but here was a North Korean escapee spending his days working to make it happen by producing newspapers to smuggle into North Korea.
As the Q&A came to an end, I asked how I could help. Song-ju said that it depended on how I wanted to help: “Just aid . . . or do you really want to help?” I really wanted to help, I said, to do something with the newspaper.
“The best way to help is sending newspapers through the NGOs… to inform [North Koreans],” the translator said, and then they turned to other questioners. I emailed Song-Ju two days later days to get a more specific answer, but knowing his English was poor, I didn’t hope for much. He didn’t respond.
That evening I resolved to make contact with someone who could introduce me to London’s local refugee community, and then work to help them in any way I could. By helping them, I could help the people of North Korea. I’m already planning to visit a Korean Community Center in New Malden, southwest London, next Friday afternoon to hear and hopefully then tell to a wider audience the stories of refugees.
Concentration camps are a reality in the 21st century. Their existence in North Korea is an incontestable fact proven by hundreds of satellite images and the testimony of thousands who have escaped. A former camp guard and a defector who once worked within North Korea’s National Security Agency have suggested that approximately 200,000 people are currently in the camps. That’s a number equal to the population of Tallahassee, Fla.
In North Korea’s concentration camps, there is no judicial system or right to appeal. Starvation-level rations kill thousands. Prisoners work 12-hour days, seven days a week, with time off only for national holidays. Forced abortions are carried out on pregnant women repatriated from China. Their young infants are often killed. Guards torture, murder, and rape. Almost every act classified as a crime against humanity is being carried out by the North Korean regime. This method of punishment has remained unchanged for more than 40 years. North Korea will eventually collapse. The horrors of the North Korean gulag will continue until that day.