The North Korean Crisis and Jewish Responsibility

by 1:39 PM 0 comments
I initially learned about the North Korean prison camps/kwanliso in the Fall of 2009. I had  moved to South Korea as an English teacher, and was trying to learn about the country where I was living. I came across some documentaries on YouTube about the camps in North Korea, and I was horrified by what I saw. For days afterwards, my stomach was sick knowing that only a few hours from where I was living comfortably, children that may have been the cousins of my students were starving to death in forced labor camps.

These camps, which were instituted early in the reign of Kim Il-Sung, are designed to work prisoners to death. They are a more extreme version of Soviet-style gulags; although there are also plenty of gulags in North Korea, the kwanliso are different in that prisoners can only escape through death. A former guard explained that in the gulag, guards are rewarded for killing prisoners, but in the kwanliso, it’s considered part of their job.

North Koreans selected for the kwanliso are chosen because they are believed to have committed a political act. These acts can include saying something against the regime, folding or re-purposing a newspaper that contains Kim Jong-Un’s name, prayer, having a family member that defects to South Korea, etc. Certain ethnicities, particularly families known to have origins in Japan or what is now South Korea, are under constant surveillance, and are therefore sent to the camps more easily. Kim Il Sung created a three-generation rule, which says that if a person commits a political crime, their wife, children, and parents must all be sent to the camps because their blood is dirty. The prisoners are forcibly disappeared without trial or notification.

The kwanliso force all prisoners to work, usually in mines or factories. The prisoners are scarcely fed anything, so the most common cause of death is starvation. Many prisoners extend their lives by eating snakes or mice caught in the field, but if the guards catch the prisoners eating anything beyond their rations, the punishment is death. The most horrific forms of torture,  re-purposed from the Japanese military occupation of Korea, are used on the prisoners. Women are often raped by guards, and if they become pregnant, it’s the guard’s job to torture and kill the woman in public view of the camp. Guards often force prisoners to kill one another: the prisoners will be provided with rocks that they will have to use to beat the victim to death. One former guard explained that in order to meet his quota for deaths, he would take a group of prisoners and tell them that they would have to choose one member to kill, or he would kill the entire group. 

Growing up in a Jewish family, I received a lot of Holocaust education throughout my adolescence and adulthood. The North Korean situation is particularly haunting to me because there are so many similarities between work camps like Auschwitz II and the kwanliso. Like the Nazi camps, North Korean prison camps are highly organized. While ethnic heritage alone isn’t reason enough to be sent to the kwanliso, it expedites the process, and the Kims have similar ideas about dirty blood and cleansing the population. The tactics used in the camps are similar: chemical experimentation, torture, exposure to freezing temperatures, starvation, public executions, and forcing prisoners to kill their fellow prisoners and family members. 

Like the Nazi death camps, the guards of the kwanliso are taught to think of the prisoners as sub-human. Like Nazi Germany, there’s a fear among the population that anyone who speaks or acts against the Dear Leader could be next. And perhaps most tragically, the international community knows what’s happening, just like we did during WWII. Satellite imagery allows us to see the exact locations of the death camps. Testimony of former prisoners and guards, as well as the recent UN report, confirm the methods that are being used in these death camps. However, much like WWII, there is more concern about the military/nuclear capabilities of North Korea than there is about the prisoners in these camps. I honestly believe that in the way that we now ask “Why didn’t we bomb the tracks to Auschwitz?” we will one day ask “Why didn’t we bomb the tracks to Yodok?”

When I visited Auschwitz as part of the Frank fellowship this past December, I was particularly disheartened because I couldn’t take any comfort in the idea that this was an unfortunate but singular chapter in history. I knew that at the moment that I was shivering under a wool coat looking at former barracks with dozens of other tourists, there were thousands of North Koreans shivering in threadbare uniforms inside contemporary death camps halfway across the globe.  

We don’t know how many people have already died in the kwanliso, but current estimates from the UN Human Rights Report of 2014 say that the camps can hold between 80,000-120,000 people, and that the dead are almost immediately replaced with new lives.


I believe that part of the Jewish responsibility following the Holocaust is to say “Never again,” not just for ourselves, but for all threatened peoples. I know that some Jewish organizations like to argue that North Korea isn’t technically perpetrating genocide, so it’s not our responsibility. I think that when tens of thousands of people are perishing in death camps, we need to show our humanity and make our voices heard for those who cannot speak. 

So on this Yom HaShoah, I hope we remember to look at the world around us, not only to be vigilant against anti-semitism, but also to be aware of the mistreatment and murder of other marginalized groups. Learning and applying the lesson of the Holocaust is a way of memorializing those nine million lost lives. 

Marina Gafni

Marina Gafni is a 28-year-old speech pathology student. She lives with her husband in San Jose, CA.

0 comments:

Post a Comment