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