In Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, there's a scene in which Jun Do, the orphan hero of the novel’s title, is undergoing a heinous torture session. To cope, he recalls a lesson learned from his “pain mentor,” a man named Kimsan. “He tried to diffuse the pain in his chest across his body…to feel the flame not on the part but the entire, to visualize the flow of his blood spreading, diluting the hurt in his heart across the whole of him.”
The cruelty of the North Korean regime that was laid out in painstaking detail in a voluminous report the United Nations released last week shows that Johnson’s fictional depiction of a “pain mentor” is entirely plausible: The grotesque torture Kimsan is meant to help with suddenly seems uniquely horrific and utterly real.
“The police and security forces of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea systematically employ violence and punishments that amount to gross human rights violations in order to create a climate of fear that pre-empts any challenge to the current system of government and to the ideology underpinning it,” the report notes. “The institutions and officials involved are not held accountable. Impunity reigns.”
The report carries no legal authority so is unlikely to have any immediate effect; North Korea didn’t cooperate with U.N. investigators, and there are no signs that the regime is softening its approach to the West. Nonetheless, the extensive technical details and the wealth of survivor testimony delivered in an official U.N. Human Rights Commission setting gives the report added heft.
“It’s a comprehensive indictment of the North Korean system, and its main purpose is really to establish a legal basis for consideration of North Korean actions as crimes against humanity,” says Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “By proving in a technical way that North Korea is a violator, they ended up with an extensive body of evidence they could present at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.”
On the basis of 240 interviews with refugees, escaped political prisoners, former jailers, and experts on North Korea, the U.N. estimates that between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners are being kept in at least four large prison gulags spread across the country. Entire families have been swept up into the prison archipelago. The regime considers it a crime to be related to someone convicted of a crime.
“What did your family do during the Korean war? Or what did they do to fight the Japanese? If they were sympathizers, then their grandkids will pay the price,” says Nicholas Hamisevicz, director of the Korea Economic Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. He says the U.N. report could prove to be a good tool for helping the rest of the world understand the draconian methods used by Kim Jong-un’s regime to catalog people’s allegiance to the country and their patriotism: “It could give us a new understanding for how the political prison camps work, and how the system of classifying people as far as their loyalty to the regime [works]. People don't even know how they're classified.”
For North Koreans who have taken part in major political crimes, the response is smothering: They are “ ‘disappeared,’ without trial or judicial order, to political prison camps (kwanliso). There, they are incarcerated and held incommunicado. Their families are not even informed of their fate if they die,” according to the U.N. “In the past, it was common that the authorities sent entire families to political prison camps for political crimes committed by close relatives (including forebears, to the third generation) on the basis of the principle of guilt by association.”
Disappearance without due process goes on in autocratic regimes all over the world, of course. But nowhere is the isolation so complete, the inoculation against dangerous counterrevolutionary ideas so ubiquitous, as in North Korea.
“We know that there are a lot of really horrible situations in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, but at least there you have opposition parties. In North Korea it's been one family [ruling the country] since 1945 until today,” says Kongdan Hassig, a North Korea expert at the Brookings Institution. “The political prison has persisted. Once you're in it's hard to get out. You live, die, perish inside. It's like a subterranean world you can't even imagine.”
The U.N. report noted that while summary executions within the prison network were more common in the late 1990s, there has been a recent increase. “In late 2013, there appeared to be a spike in the number of politically motivated public executions.”
A state-run international kidnapping ring is also a hallmark of the regime—as well as the scene setter for Adam Johnson’s novel, for which he drew heavily on real stories of people who had escaped. The U.N. estimates that successive North Korean regimes have kidnapped upwards of 200,000 people, including many children, since 1950. Many of these disappearances have taken place long after the end of Korean War. There are multiple cases of kidnappings from Japan and mainland China.
Beyond describing the brutal nature of the prison camps, the U.N. report details how North Korean has taken on many of the hallmarks of the most totalitarian regimes throughout history. One example is the devotional ideology known as “Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism,” which indoctrinates “citizens from childhood, suppressing all political and religious expression that questions the official ideology, and tightly controlling citizens’ physical movement and their means of communication with each other and with those in other countries,” the U.N. reports.
A particularly painful aspect of the report was a series of six hand-drawn sketches showing, in almost cartoon-like form, some of the kinds of torture described in the document. They include people being hung from irons attached to walls, people eating rats to survive, severe beatings, mass burials, and bodies of the dead sprawled out along the ground.
In almost every drawing, the victims are crying.