By Theresa Nguyen, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor and Benjamin Fu, HRNK Research Intern
September 4, 2020
The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn covers the history behind the Soviet gulags. The term “gulag” is a Russian abbreviation for Главное Управление Лагерей (ГУЛаг/GULag), the Soviet agency that overlooked the network of labor camps. In Solzhenitsyn’s account, “archipelago” is a metaphor for the scattered prison camps across the USSR. When it came out, it was a very influential piece in the field of international relations. The piece remains important because the memoir of the Soviet gulags strongly resonates with that of the North Korean prison camps, which are active today.
During the days of Stalin’s reign, civil liberties were eroded by the government’s response to any form of wrong-doing—legitimate and arbitrary. Individuals were sentenced to forced labor in the gulags or publicly executed. In North Korea, this reality has also become normalized. The politics behind the camps are an extension of the leaders’ desperate power play for self-preservation. Politically, gulags are used to instill fear, control the population, and keep order. They provide security for regimes by harshly punishing those who pose threats. The North Korean prison camps were inspired by the gulags in a similar fashion—to punish any perceived dissent, competition or opposition. Unlike the Soviet gulags, however, the North Korean camps have evolved to also include survival measures for the Kim regime.
After Lenin’s death, Soviet leadership was split into factions and competing alliances were formed. By 1927, Stalin was firmly in control of the Communist Party, but the power struggle continued. To consolidate his power, he eliminated dissenting members of the Party and anyone else whom he considered to be a threat to his leadership. Thus, in 1936, began the Great Purge, when rampant terror raced throughout the USSR and thereafter transformed the structure and fabric of society.
Threats, real and imagined, had to be contained and eliminated. The primary form of containment was the gulags. Within the former Soviet Union, the gulags constituted a vast network of detention facilities and forced labor prisons. Initially developed by Lenin, under Stalin, the gulag penal system underwent rapid expansion. Approximately 14 million were incarcerated, many of whom were forced to work themselves to death. Created to address manifold vulnerabilities within Stalin’s regime, the gulags represented an institution of coercive power.
In addition to Stalin’s struggle with political relationships, he also faced challenges corresponding to several critical transitions: economic disintegration, isolation, and famine. His lack of intellectual and professional qualifications in economics, however, bolstered reasons for rebellion against his leadership. To compensate for these shortcomings, he proposed rapid industrialization plans, which the byproducts of gulag labor conveniently supplemented. 
A constant in all of the gulags was their economic raison d’être: the ability to harvest natural resources in otherwise inhospitable conditions. Gulag labor was concentrated in areas, where industrial exploration would have been costly with free labor. The mass forced labor, on the other hand, enabled cost-effective exploration without the loss of productivity; the economic “surpluses” of this practice allowed the government to pursue massive construction projects, and they reinforced Stalin’s strategy for rapid industrialization. Although in hindsight, Stalin’s plans to stabilize the economy failed, the derivatives of the gulag sustained the demagoguery, on which his political safety rested.
North Korean prison camps are modeled after and share many distinctive features with the Soviet gulags. Politically, both systems have an essential role in maintaining authority. The political structure in North Korea centralizes power around the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Throughout three generations, the Kim family has been at the forefront of the regime. Supported by the Korean Worker’s Party and elite factions, the Kim dynasty has been able to maintain regime stability. However, the Kim family, comparable to Stalin, has carried out their own periodic purges of leadership to further consolidate power. These purges generate upheaval, creating a sense of instability and unpredictability in the country, which the Kim family uses to maintain its authority. However, their reliance on purges also implies that Kim’s grip on power is precarious.
Additionally, since the fall of the Soviet bloc, North Korea has been facing economic difficulties. The country relies on the export of underground resources such as coal, ore, and lead, and the mining for these resources relies heavily on human labor. Satellite imagery indicates that several camps, both kwan-li-so and kyo-hwa-so, have mining facilities. Located in geographically remote regions of the country, where prisoners are subjected to torture, starvation, diseases, and back breaking labor, the suffering produces an echo of the Soviet past. Like the Soviet gulags, the forced labor in these camps contribute to politically important economic objectives. Unlike the Soviet gulag system, however, the ties of these camps to the export industry remains solely speculatory due to limited information.
Across the state, the regime operates on eagerness to control and suppress dissent. Similar to Stalin, political insecurity drives the persecution en masse. Grounds for persecution in North Korea include wrong-doing, wrong-thinking, wrong-knowledge, wrong-association, and wrong-class background. Furthermore, foreign media are forbidden, access to the internet is severely restricted, and interaction with tourists and other foreign nationals is tightly regulated. The comprehensiveness of the “wrongs” and the minimal interaction allowed with the rest of the world strips North Koreans of the liberty to voice their concerns and connect with others. Without outside liberal democratic influences or the ability to consistently communicate with others, nationalistic rhetoric and propaganda are absolute.
In North Korea, the reasons for imprisonment are similar to those that existed during the reign of Stalin; however, the repercussions are amplified. For example, both scenarios include wrong-association as grounds for detainment, but in accordance with the penal philosophy “guilt by association,” North Korea may also imprison family members of political offenders. Another distinctive feature includes the disparities compounded by the songbun system, a rigid sociopolitical stratification. Parallel to its effects on North Korean society, the caste system renders those with lower songbun to be more susceptible to incarceration. Like Stalin, Kim Jong-un uses the prison camps as a tangible consequence to contain opposition and suppress the masses. The camps’ distinctive features, however, target the larger, but vulnerable, portion of the population.
The North Korean prison camps share many qualities with Soviet gulags, but whereas the gulags addressed the concerns over state security, the camps have evolved beyond that to also entail state survivability. They are used to consolidate power, instill fear, and reinforce the economy. However, they are also representative of North Korea’s biggest insecurity: its own people. This is reflected in the songbun system, vast carceral policies, and brutal punishments. The population continually faces mass starvation, disease, ill-treatment, and poverty. The people are suffering, and without the means to properly address these issues, the Kim regime is vulnerable to rebellion. Thus, the prison camps are not only vital for regime security, but they also deter people from mobilizing against the government, allowing the regime to survive. There are measures to keep the people suppressed, and the camps are a tangible manifestation of that overwhelming suppression.
Theresa Nguyen is a rising senior at Middlebury College majoring in International Politics and Economics with background in Russian language and culture.
 “Stalin’s Purges and the Gulag.” Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, accessed August 15, 2020,
 “Gulag,” History, accessed August 13, 2020, https://www.history.com/topics/russia/gulag
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 Michael Reiman. “The Stalin’s ‘Second’ Revolution.” In About Russia, Its Revolutions, Its Development and Its Present. (Frankfurt Am Main: Peter Lang AG, 2016).
 Although the term free labor suggests working with no wage, it actually indicates concepts of independence and the freedom to work based on one’s will. It is the opposite of forced labor.
 Paul R. Gregory and Valery Lazarev. “The Economy of OGPU, NKVD, and MVD of the USSR, 1930-1953: The Scale, Structure, and Trends of Development.” in The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag. (Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, 2003), 43-66.
 David Hawk, The Hidden Gulag. 2nd ed., (Washington, DC: Committee of Human Rights in North Korea, 2012), 4.
 Eleanor Albert, “North Korea’s Power Structure.” Council on Foreign Relations, accessed August 13, 2020, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/north-koreas-power-structure
 Kim Kwang-Jin, Gulag, Inc. (Washington, DC: Committee of Human Rights in North Korea, 2016), 34.
 Hawk, The Hidden Gulag. 2nd ed., 25.
 Ghosh Shona, “10 ways North Korea uses technology to keep its citizens in the dark about the outside world.” Business Insider, accessed August 13, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/10-ways-north-korea-uses-tech-to-keep-its-population-ignorant-2019-12#5-the-state-operates-a-split-mobile-network-where-north-koreans-cant-phone-anyone-outside-the-country-5
 Hawk, The Hidden Gulag. 2nd ed., 29.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.