Gulag of the Mind: Why North Koreans Cry for Kim Jong Il

North Korea's forced labor camps sprawl over areas the size of Houston or Los Angeles and hold an estimated 200,000 prisoners, or one percent of the North Korean population, although no one can know for sure. Many are never told why they were arrested, though a common cause is having a relative who defects; some are born in the camps and will die there. Life in the camps is an exaggerated metaphor for life on the outside. People are imprisoned with their families but turned against one another by the relentless competition for food; informing is the surest form of currency. Inmates are told that their only allies are their jailers, who though brutal are the only reliable providers of food and shelter. If an inmate commits an offense, everyone associated with him is punished severely; so cooperation with fellow inmates is dangerous and uncertain, but cooperation with the guards is safe and profitable.

Much as members of North Korea's elite "core" are driven to cutthroat competition over fear of descending to the middle "wavering" class, and likewise members of the "wavering" class over fear of bring driven to the utterly destitute "hostile" class, even concentration camp inmates have something to lose. There is an underground prison beneath at least one of the camps, where inmates are starved and tortured over petty offenses or to force confessions against family. When Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person to ever escape from Camp 14, was dragged out of the underground prison to watch his mother and brother executed for attempting to escape, his response was not grief for his family or anger at his torture, but relief to be returning the camp. Back above ground, he continued informing on other inmates because it was the only life he knew.

The prison guards probably think of themselves as the masters, but they could be called inmates themselves. Most are on the fringes of their own class, exiled to work at the remote camps rather than in Pyongyang. Resources at the camps are scarce and competition between guards is fierce. Like the inmates, they must turn against one another if they want to advance or even be certain of survival. Like most in this country, only the state has ever provided for them. Loyalty to friends and family is conditional in a way that the state's hand is not. The stories it tells them about Dear Leader's virtue and the outside threat he protects them from must resonate in a way that little else -- often, not even family allegiance -- could. To lose the state would be to lose everything, and Kim Jong Il was the state.

A scheme as massive and complicated as North Korea could not possibly function without the consent of most of its 25 million people. That's not to say that North Koreans support Kim Jong Il's regime or like watching his son take over. Their consent comes in the smaller, day-to-day ways that an authoritarian society functions: when a farmer sends his grain to the state-run markets, when a member of the middle "wavering" class buys a jacket produced by slave laborers, when a child informs on her peer to get a few extra kernels of corn for her hungry siblings, when someone ambivalent about Kim Jong Il's rule cries at his death anyway. None of them are necessarily seeking to bolster the Kim regime. North Korean society has been so carefully engineered that simple survival can often require consenting to Kim's rule in the small, hourly ways that seem insignificant in isolation but, taken together, continue the regime's unlikely rule uninterrupted.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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