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North Korea’s Gulag and the Hollywood Dialectic By: Lloyd Billingsley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, July 24, 2009


North Korea is in the news again, but not over missiles. This time it’s a horror story with a show-business sidebar. On July 20, the Washington Post ran “North Korea’s Hard-Labor Camps: On the Diplomatic Back Burner,” by Blaine Harden. The North Korean gulag has been detailed before, and has always been on the back burner of another influential group.

The Washington Post article cites a new report from the Korean Bar Association, which estimates that 200,000 political prisoners work in North Korean labor camps on “a diet of mostly corn and salt.” These prisoners “lose their teeth, their gums turn black, their bones weaken and, as they age, they hunch over at the waist. Most work 12- to 15-hour days until they die of malnutrition-related illnesses, usually around the age of 50. Allowed just one set of clothes, they live and die in rags, without soap, socks, underclothes or sanitary napkins.”

An Myeon Chul, a defector, told the Post that “We have this system of slavery right under our nose.” He wants the United States to take it up in negotiations.

The Post notes that high-resolution satellite photos now corroborate the story of survivors. The images show detention centers where “prisoners were tortured to death and parade grounds where former prisoners said they were forced to watch executions.” The story includes a quote from Kim Il Sung, who invaded South Korea with the blessing of Josef Stalin.

“Enemies of class, whoever they are,” said Kim Il Sung, “their seed must be eliminated through three generations.” The regime of his son, Kim Jong Il, communism’s first hereditary dictatorship, is working hard at this task.

According to the Korean Bar Association, guards can “can beat, rape and kill prisoners with impunity; when female prisoners become pregnant without permission, their babies are killed.” Some of the camps, says the Washington Post hold 50,000 prisoners. Most camps are “complete control districts.” The inmates work there “until death.”

Similar stories have emerged from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), which also cites reports of 200,000 North Koreans in labor camps where “Malnutrition, starvation, torture and murder are reported to be rife and few prisoners ever make it out to tell the world about the horrors of the gulag.” Escapee Kim Yong, told ABC that “We would dig through cow dung to find bits of corn or beans to survive.”

Blaine Harden of the Washington Post did talk to David Hawk, who chronicled similar horrors in The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps. That 2003 work from the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea included testimonies on torture and infanticide, along with satellite photographs of the camps. Ann Applebaum, author of Gulag: A History, contributed a preface.

Harden also talked to Suzanne Scholte, an activist who brings survivors of the Korean camps to give testimony in the United States. She laments that nobody on the international scene seems to be on the prisoners’ side. Scholte told Harden that “Tibetans have the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere, Burmese have Aung San Suu Kyi, Darfurians have Mia Farrow and George Clooney. North Koreans have no one like that.”

The article leaves unexplored the reasons for such neglect. These lie in the history of the American left, still influenced by I.F. Stone, author of The Hidden History of the Korean War, which advances the view that South Korea initiated the hostilities of 1950. Celebrity silence also stems from North Korea’s unrelenting hostility to freedom in general and to the United States in particular. For a high-profile show business personality to criticize North Korea is thus to approve of American foreign policy against a socialist country. Capitalist America, on the other hand, is always suspect when it acts in the world.

Open opposition to North Korea from celebrity actors would also meet with disapproval from political mentors in the dream factories, where the political pantheon includes Che Guevara. As a result, one of the most loathsome regimes in history can maintain a gulag of labor and death camps, with no worries of criticism from Hollywood celebrities. The silence is inherent in the system, and continues during the administration of Barack Obama, who is unlikely to bring up the North Korean camps in diplomatic negotiations.


Lloyd Billingsley is the author of From Mainline to Sideline, the Social Witness of the National Council of Churches, and Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s.


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