North Korean Gulag Story Gains Traction — and Opposition — in Social Media

Where did the down-votes that inundated Reddit’s North Korean gulag post come from?

“Dead bodies storage — because rats eat the eyeballs first, most corpses don’t have eyes.”
– Caption to drawing, translated from the original Korean

So begins a gruesome visual accounting of the methods of torture, control and execution practiced in North Korea’s extensive labor camp system, thought to hold between 150,000 and 200,000 inmates (out of a total population of approximately 24.3 million) arrested for “political crimes” against the communist government.

A former guard from one of these camps reportedly drew these images after defecting to South Korea, now home to some 23,000 defectors/refugees, according to The Wall Street Journal. A larger collection of the drawings can be seen at cafe.daum.net, a popular South Korean Internet forum. They were posted there in April, around the same time a report on the enduring scale of the North Korean labor camps came out from the US-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (CHRNK). The report made use of satellite surveillance to pinpoint what are believed to be the five main camps in the system.

This past month, though, these images made the jump to English-language social media through the efforts of South Korean redditor Ryan Yang, who translated two sets of the images on imgur and posted links to them and the original Korean-language images on reddit. “I just wanted to spread awareness to a topic barely anyone knew about,” he said when asked why he chose to translate and publicize these images. He told reddit users that he hopes “[i]f the issue gets big enough, human rights groups, foreign governments may be able to pressure North Korea.”

He was also surprised that only now were the drawings getting such attention in the US media (Gawker, Business Insider, The Huffington Post and Digital Journal have since picked up the reddit post), since they have been going around universities and NGOs in his country for almost a year now, as part of an awareness campaign by North Korean human rights groups. They have been heavily discussed on South Korea’s own social media sites. Ryan, in fact, learned of the drawings from an exhibition at his university in Seoul.

“I’m quite pleased that many people are taking interest in this subject,” Ryan Yang told me in an email interview this week. “I honestly didn’t expect this much attention and the amount of enthusiasm people are having over this.”

And like the haunting sketches of Soviet gulag chronicled in Danzig Baldaev’s sadomasochist cartoons or Joe Sacco’s “Safe Area Goražde,” a graphic novel of the Bosnian War, the images are a form of protest that most viscerally captures the horrors of the system.

The images chronicle beatings, prisoners being forced to stone their fellow inmates, maulings by guard dogs, abject poverty – a man searches for corn kernels in horse dung, boots are crafted from old tires – and in particular, forced abortions on female inmates. The guards, like their predecessors in Soviet service, also find themselves at the capricious mercy of their superiors at times, superiors who may find themselves among the “political criminals” in the course of a power struggle. For all North Koreans, even the most loyal apparatchiks, life in the country is capricious under the watchful eyes of informers and shifting cliques within the ruling Kim family’s inner circle. To be accused of political crimes is a life sentence that encompasses not just the accused, but their family members as well.

In less than two weeks, the album generated over 19 million views on imgur. The post itself has around 2,800 points right now, plus a few hundred comments, on reddit, a substantial number, to be sure but it’s actually lower than one would expect. While nearly 20,000 votes have been cast on it at the subreddit r/pics, around 8,500 of them are downvotes.

Where are they coming from? (“I’m quite surprised,” Ryan stated.) Obviously, those down-votes do not hail from Internet users within North Korea, since Internet access is so heavily restricted. Only a few North Koreans – top Communist Party officials, namely – do have regular Internet access inside (or rather, outside) the country. For all intents and purposes, North Korea still has an intranet consisting almost entirely of state media reports and sanitized foreign “reports.” Los Angeles Times correspondent Barbara Demick noted in her book “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” which features interviews with North Korean refugees who’d fled the country following the disastrous famine of the 1990s, that the government puts on that intranet heavily encyclopedias entries for university students to use.

News on the official Korean Central News Agency of DPRK mainly consists of banal listings off of friendship delegations and veiled threats against the South Korean “government,” a word which is always placed in quotes on these sites to denote Seoul’s illegitimacy in Pyongyang’s eyes. North Korea does have country Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts labeled Uriminzokkiri-Uriminzok (“our people”), but these are devoted to reposting Korean-language editorials extolling the virtues of the country and denouncing “US imperialism” and the “warmongers” of the “puppet south.” It may seem laughable to outsiders, but even such cookie-cutter, propagandistic reports are still seriously scrutinized by South Korean authorities fearful of the North’s intentions.

These camps are, following the collapse of the gulag system in the Soviet Union that was their inspiration, one of the few such camp system left today. A similarly extensive system, the “laogai,” is still maintained in the neighboring People’s Republic of China.

Ironically, it is through the Chinese economy that more and more North Koreans have become aware of the outside world. “Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans saw firsthand the economic progress in China when they went back and forth across the border in the 1990s [during the famine],” notes John Feffer, and even the “Hermit Kingdom” now has a cellphone network.

But “information has its limits,” Mr. Feffer concludes. Ryan Yang explained to redditors that this cellphone network is so heavily monitored that people have reportedly been jailed over their conversations. The fog of paranoia and state control has been stirred about, but not dissipated. North Korea’s ruling class “won’t change their allegiances simply because of what they hear on foreign radio broadcasts or what they see on black-market DVDs,” Mr. Feffer argues. “They will collectively break from the status quo only if their core interests are threatened” in the way that Eastern Europe’s communist regimes collapsed twenty years ago. Even approved outside connections can land North Koreans in prison.

Although it is unlikely the translated images will be seen by many in North Korea – unless the North’s samizdat (“self-publishing”) purveyors are successful in moving these images around the country – it is clear that the social media explosion they’ve generated abroad is not something that Pyongyang’s @Uriminzok Twitter can spam away. But Twitter is hardly a priority for the regime, and in the absence of a coherent policy towards the North, silence is the regime’s greatest asset.

Indeed, revealing drawings of camp conditions have been featured in US media before. Over the course of the past few years, several US media outlets reviewed “Escape from Camp 14,” a 2007-Korean language memoir by the defector Shin Dong-hyuk translated into English. Shin had the supreme misfortune to be born of an inmate mother in Camp 14, located in the mountains 45 miles north of Pyongyang. Shin’s mother was “bought” by a lathe operator in the camp workshops, which is how she was able to avoid a forced abortion.

Shin’s account of his life in the camps – 24 years, from his birth until his successful escape in 2005 – took a surprising turn this year after his admission that he had actually been responsible for sending two prisoners to their deaths by reporting their escape plans to the guards. Shin, who was 14 at the time, confessed that he had done this to gain extra rations (but despite the camp hierarchy that sometimes rewards snitches, his “reward” turned out to be several weeks of brutal torture sessions).

Shin later admitted that two prisoners caught and executed on his testimony were his own mother and brother. At the time, “Shin thought she deserved to die,” his translator, Blaine Harden, wrote. But such betrayals are, as shown in Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” a graphic novel recounting the life of his father Vladek, a Polish Jew and Auschwitz survivor, not exceptional in such camp systems. “Maus,” in fact, opens with Vladek saying to Art “Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, then you could see what it is, friends!”

Shin’s father is either still living in the camps, or may be dead. Defectors’ families are often executed or jailed, making every decision to leave behind a relative a life sentence or death warrant for that person, even if they knew nothing of the escape.