North Korea's moment of truth about its gulag

In a first, a North Korean official confesses that the regime runs 'reeducation' labor camps. The admission hints at change and a possible rejection of Marxist notions about truth being subject only to the power relations of economic and social conditions.

AP Photo
Defectors from North Korea prepare to release balloons Sept 21 from South Korea carrying leaflets condemning North Korean policies, hoping to reach people in the closed country.

Sometimes history is made simply by shedding a lie. On Tuesday, North Korea admitted for the first time that, yes indeed, it has long maintained detention centers known as “reeducation through labor” camps. 

These are prisons where people out of step with the regime are sent – without charge or trial – to work under horrific conditions for the state. The five main camps were set up based on a communist belief that hard labor could alter a person’s political views and behavior, ridding them of “false consciousness.” 

Yet many of the North Korean prisoners, currently estimated at 90,000 to 120,000, do not survive their detention. They are simply locked away, often for the smallest sign of disloyalty. Beatings and executions are common, based on  tales from escapees.

Any progress in North Korea is welcome, especially if it can be sustained or entails an end to the regime’s denial of its gulag. The admission came at the same time as two high-level officials made a surprise visit to South Korea seeking to resume talks in November. Whether this opening signals a genuine attempt at establishing warm ties remains unclear, given the regime’s past reversals of its charm offensives. But at least North Korea has now come clean about the existence of the labor camps. 

The “hermit kingdom” has reason to open its shell a bit. A United Nations report earlier this year provided a detailed picture of human rights abuses in North Korea, saying the government had committed crimes against humanity that exceed “all others in duration, intensity and horror.” 

In addition, far more North Koreans can now watch smuggled DVDs or listen to foreign radio broadcasts. They share information about the better life in other countries, especially the demonized South Korea, which may make them question official propaganda.

Also, North Korea’s only ally, China, decided in 2013 to abolish its reeducation camps, releasing tens of thousands of detainees, four years after the UN criticized those camps as an “urgent human rights concern.” 

China certainly has other ways of jailing dissidents or political activists. But closing the camps, which dated back to the Mao era of the 1950s, seems to be a rejection of a Marxist theory that truth is subject to the power relations of social and economic conditions. That theory, now discredited, claims individuals are simply victims of powerful forces and not able to discern truth or claim individual rights. If a person speaks contrary to the Communist Party or acts in opposition, the best way to rid them of such behavior is to force them to do manual labor, as millions were made to do in China. 

North Korea’s confession about the camps is only a small step. But it hints at a possible shift in the regime’s thinking. Like China, which still has far to go to operate under rule of law, North Korea may be on a history-making path, one on which truth is not constructed on a theory but simply realized.

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