WASHINGTON — The U.S. human rights envoy for North Korea said Tuesday conditions in the communist country's "brutal" prison camps are worse than in the Soviet Union's gulag during the Cold War.
Robert King made his comments at a conference examining the North's network of prison labor camps and penitentiaries. A new report estimates the camps hold more than 150,000 inmates, despite North Korea's denial it holds political prisoners.
King said the U.S. has made it clear to Pyongyang that it needs not only to address international concerns over its weapons' programs but to improve its human rights record if it wants to participate fully within the international community.
The international spotlight is currently on the North over its plans to launch a long-range rocket as early as Thursday, as it marks the centennial of the nation's founder – a step that Washington says will derail a recent U.S.-North Korean agreement to provide food aid in return for nuclear concessions. According to South Korean intelligence, the North is also preparing its third nuclear weapons test.
"Clearly the nuclear issue is a critical issue that needs to be dealt with in North Korea. It's an issue that threatens North Korea's neighbors, Japan (and) South Korea," King said. "At the same time, we have also to deal with human rights."
The report on the North's prison camps is by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a U.S.-based private group and the organizer of the conference. It documents the alleged incarceration of entire families, including children and grandparents for the "political crimes" of other family members, and infanticide and forced abortions of female prisoners who illegally crossed into China and got pregnant by men there, and were then forcibly repatriated to North Korea.
"It is not just nuclear weapons that have to be dismantled," said Roberta Cohen, chairwoman of the committee's board of directors, "but an entire system of political repression."
The report, is based its report on interviews with 60 former prisoners and guards, says the camp system was initially modeled in the 1950s on the Soviet gulag to punish "wrong thinkers" and those belonging to the "wrong political class" or religious persuasion.
It cites estimates from North Korean state security agency officials who defected to South Korea that the camp system holds between 150,000 and 200,000 people out of a total population of around 24 million. It urges North Korea to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross access, and to dismantle the camps.
King compared the vast number of North Korean detainees with the hundreds imprisoned in Soviet prison camps in the 1970s. He cited anecdotal reports that people have faced arrest, torture and imprisonment for making a joke about North Korean leaders and being overheard by government informants.
He said conditions in North Korea are worse today than in the repressive Soviet Union during the 1960s to 1980s.
The committee's report described different kinds of detention facilities, including penal labor colonies where it says political detainees are imprisoned without judicial process for mostly lifetime sentences in mining, logging or agricultural enterprises.
The labor colonies are enclosed behind barbed wire and electrified fences, mainly in the north and north central mountains of the country, the report says, alleging high rates of death in detention due to systemic mistreatment, torture, execution and malnutrition.
The report says former prisoners were able to identify their former barrack and houses, work sites, execution grounds and other landmarks in the camps via imagery available through Google Earth.
The committee says the report's findings contradict a December 2009 statement by North Korea to the United Nations Human Rights Council that the political prisoner camps do not exist.
Greg Scarlatoiu, the committee's executive director, said more than 30,000 North Korean defectors have now fled the country, up from just 3,000 a decade ago, so Pyongyang cannot hide the harsh reality of its political prison camps.