Camp No. 22 covered some 775 square miles, a larger geographic expanse than London, New York or Los Angeles.
In a way, the camp was a city in its own right, albeit a locus of inhumanity rather than a bustling metropolis. Camp 22 was one point in North Korea’s constellation of concentration camps that run on unadulterated cruelty, a secret world where prisoners are fed poison for experimentation, women are forced to kill their own children and entire families are murdered in gas chambers.
As the world sits by, North Korea has imprisoned as many as 200,000 people in these camps. Although human rights violations remain unfortunately common in many nations, these camps form a category of their own in today’s world. North Korea’s gulag is a place where people aren’t people but rather objects for exploitation and elimination.
The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea released a report this week detailing the harrowing reality of Camp 22. Satellite imagery suggests the camp recently closed. Good news? Not exactly. According to the report, after a food shortage in 2009-10, Camp 22’s population shrunk to somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000 people from around 30,000 in previous years. Thousands of prisoners seem to have evaporated into thin air — perhaps via Camp 22’s crematoria.
Last week also saw the conclusion of public hearings for a U.N. Commission of Inquiry investigation into North Korea’s human rights abuses. The hearings featured testimony from Shin Dong-hyuk, perhaps the best-known escapee of a camp and the subject of a 2012 book by Blaine Harden, The Washington Post’s former East Asia correspondent. Recounting his punishment for dropping a sewing machine, Mr. Shin recalled: “I thought my whole hand was going to be cut off at the wrist, so I felt thankful and grateful that only my finger was cut off.”
Although the U.N. commission has no formal prosecutorial powers, Michael Kirby, the retired Australian judge who led the inquiry, promised that the report he is overseeing will “not be just another U.N. document.”
It should not be. Other nations have tolerated these camps for far too long. South Korea rarely speaks out about human rights in the northern part of its divided country. The United States has focused (unsuccessfully) on dissuading North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. Meanwhile thousands languish and suffer. Many, as Mr. Shin testified, are bred in the camps like farm animals to be worked and then die with no possibility of ever entering a freer world.
Among the more chilling questions in the history of World War II is how the Allies could know about Auschwitz and other German death camps but take no definitive action, such as bombing the rail lines, to stop them. It is encouraging that the United Nations has stirred itself to pay attention to North Korea’s camps. Still, historians of the future may again wonder how the world could have known so much and done so little.
The Washington Post (Sept. 4)