The Surprising News From North Korea's Prisons

Over the years, North Korea's gulag population has quietly dwindled. Now, Kim Jong Un can't afford to refill the prison camps.
A little more freedom, but at a cost to someone.

North Korea is hardly known for its permissive attitude toward political dissent. For some 70 years, open political challenges to the government have been met with precision brutality. No wonder, then, that North Koreans visiting Communist China tend to bask in that country's "unbelievable freedoms virtually bordering on anarchy," as one North Korean businessman I met last year on the mainland told me.

The international community has good reason to condemn North Korea's human-rights record. And yet: While North Korea remains a brutal place, the last two decades have also been an era of slow-motion liberalization.

A good indicator is prison statistics. Somewhat surprisingly, we have fairly reliable figures about the number of North Korean political prisoners. This is possible because of one of the peculiarities of the North Korean penitentiary system. Political prisoners are always segregated from common criminals and housed in separate camps, whose locations are widely known and whose size can be estimated through satellite imagery.

In the early 1990s, the number of inmates peaked at around 200,000. Recent estimates put the number between 80,000 and 120,000. In other words, the number of political prisoners has roughly halved in the last 20 years.

What's more, there have not been any significant mass releases comparable in scale to, say, the massive emptying of Soviet gulags after Joseph Stalin's death in 1953. Most North Korean political prisoners die in captivity or serve out their sentences. Therefore, the significant drop in numbers indicates that the prison population has not been replaced with the alacrity that used to be common.

This has much to do with the regime's abandonment of the so-called family responsibility principle. Previously, all immediate family members of a convicted political criminal (so long as they shared his or, far less frequently, her household registration) were deemed to be political criminals as well, and thus were also dispatched to the gulag.

After the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994, his son and successor Kim Jong Il ordered that this approach be applied selectively. A few years later, the authorities were instructed to punish relatives only in cases of especially hideous crimes -- such as writing anti-government graffiti. By North Korean standards, this represented a substantial improvement.

There are other areas, too, in which North Korea has become notably less repressive. Crossing the border into China without permission once represented a major crime punishable by a lengthy prison sentence. Nowadays, it is a misdemeanor; only those known to have met with missionaries or the media while in China face the risk of substantial punishment.

It's worth noting that these changes are being pushed from below. As I wrote yesterday, corruption has become ubiquitous in Pyongyang, and officials have become willing to take bribes to overlook various misdemeanors, including those of a political kind. In the past, anyone caught with a tunable radio would face a few years in prison. Now, a few hundred dollars (admittedly, a substantial sum) can stop the police from investigating the crime and might even ensure the return of the offending item.

Let us be clear: North Korea remains a brutal place. The ratio of prisoners to the general population remains roughly the same as in the Soviet Union just before Stalin's death. Nonetheless, the spike in cross-border traffic to China in particular -- which has brought a flood of radios, DVDs, and Chinese mobile phones -- has significantly widened the picture that North Koreans have of the outside world.

The spread of DVDs with South Korean television dramas and movies seems to be especially important. While it is illegal to import, copy, sell, possess and watch such videos, these bans are widely ignored. Most of the dramas are rather syrupy love stories, but they are set in present-day South Korea, so few people have any doubts about the affluence of their neighbors below the 38th parallel.

The results are obvious even to outsiders: In recent years, North Koreans have become less afraid of their government and more willing to raise rather risky topics in conversation among trusted friends. Further liberalization is likely to encourage even more criticism.

As with the growth of a private economy, these changes will continue to erode the legitimacy of the regime. Even if Kim Jong Un remains in control in the North, there's no way he can afford to fill the gulags again. Unfortunately for him, in the long run he probably won't survive emptying them, either.

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