While much of the world's attention is focused on the Assad regime's appalling assaults against Syrian citizens, with more than a hundred dead in this week's massacre in Houla alone, another human rights atrocity occurring on a much larger scale garners far less attention.
North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong-Eun, has done what few expected when he assumed power after his father's death last December. Instead of loosening control in the most totalitarian nation in the world, Kim Jong-Eun has actually expanded the number of North Koreans subject to forced labor, torture, starvation and death in the totalitarian nation's prison camps.
The camps, known as kwan-li-so, form a hidden gulag where those accused of crimes against the state are imprisoned. An estimated 200,000 people serve in these camps. The regime imposes sentences, often without even the pretense of a show trial, like those that took place in the Stalinist Soviet Union. Summary executions occur regularly in the camps. Although the sentences may be for ten years or less, most prisoners die in the kwan-li-so before completing their terms.
Prisoners work 12-18 hours a day under inhumane and dangerous conditions in mines, quarries, and factories. Accidents maim and kill many, but more often starvation takes an unimaginable toll. The average prisoner receives only 100-200 grams of food a day -- the equivalent of about one cup of white rice -- with virtually no protein. But even rice, a staple of the Asian diet, is often unavailable. Corn is the usual substitute, which leads to pellagra, a disease that brings on skin lesions, mental confusion and eventually dementia.
But perhaps the most heinous aspect of the camps is that not only are those accused of "crimes" but their entire families imprisoned. The founder of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Kim Il-Sung, justified the practice by claiming, "The seed of factionalists or class enemies, whoever they are, must be eliminated through three generations." So, spouses, children, siblings, even elderly parents often serve sentences along with the accused.
Now Kim Jong-Eun, the latest in the Kim dynasty that has ruled the DPRK since 1948, has expanded this barbaric practice. The young Kim has now instructed that both older and younger relatives of anyone caught trying to flee the country will be sent to the kwan-li-so.
Even knowing the horrific consequences, North Koreans will continue to try to leave. Since the devastating famine in the mid-'90s when as many as 2.5 million people starved to death, some 15,000 North Koreans have reached safety in South Korea or third countries.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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