Last Friday, the latest atrocity to come out of North Korea went viral over the Internet. Shot secretly by staff members of the U.K’s The Sun during a visit to the country, the video shows the distressing abuse of tightly muzzled baboons and bears, forced to rollerskate and jump rope up to three times a day as circus entertainment.
Death by starvation and execution are everyday occurrences in North Korea’s Soviet-style gulags, some of which are larger than the city of Los Angeles.
These kinds of medieval acts are what pass for healthy diversion in the reclusive, totalitarian nation. Forcing baboons to rollerskate and trotting out hobbled bears is a tragedy, say animal rights activists, who are up in arms over the animal abuse video. Equally horrifying? The treatment of people who work and perform in North Korean circuses is no better, and perhaps worse, than beastly.
According to estimates, more than 200,000 North Koreans are currently working in prison camps, known as kwan-li-so, which house any dissenting voices in the totalitarian regime. Death by starvation and execution are everyday occurrences in North Korea’s Soviet-style gulags, some of which are larger than the city of Los Angeles. Here, prisoners live on 120 grams of rotting corn a day and supplement their diet with mice, insects and grass to survive.
Said Kang Chol-Hwan, who spent 10 years in a prison camp before escaping to South Korea, to CNN: “It was like Hitler’s Auschwitz concentration camp, not as large and there is a difference in the way people are killed. Hitler gassed people; Kim Jong Il sucked the life out of people through starvation and forced labor.”
Instead of loosening this death grip, the new regime of Kim Jong Un has actually expanded the number of prisoners. In so doing, he’s also expanded the interpretation of a horrifying rule established by his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, which said that the entire families of those caught trying to escape would be sent to the camps. Now, even older and younger relatives are being sent as well.
Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14, released in March, details the life of Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born into the camp in a rare prison “marriage” allowed by the guards. When he was a teenager, he caught his mother and brother scheming to escape, and jealous that she had given him a final meal of white rice saved up over months, he turned them into a guard, hoping to curry favor. Instead, Shin was tortured, and both his mother and brother were executed (he later escaped when he was 23).
If there’s a silver lining in any of the latest horrors, it’s that they’re taking place in the information age and finally being noticed by international powers and organizations. Last week, South Korean president Lee Myung-Bak announced that the the North’s human atrocities were just as unacceptable, if not more so, than the prospect of Pyongyang controlling nuclear armaments: “The issue of human rights for the North Korean people should rather be dealt with more urgently [than tests or launches].”
On Friday, Suzanne Scholte, head of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, agreed. Speaking to Lee Ching-Dong of the Yonghap News Agency, the longtime activist seemed hopeful that public attention had shifted. “We have turned a corner in North Korea human rights advocacy…It is on the agenda now.”
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Oliver Lee has been covering social justice and other issues for TakePart since 2009. Originally from Baltimore, he lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn. Email Oliver | @oliverung