Photos from the Laogai Museum
(Used with permission from the Laogai Research Foundation.)
All photos by Elizabeth Chu. © Committee for Human Rights in North Korea 2017.
By Elizabeth Chu
During my summer in Washington, DC, I had the opportunity to visit the Laogai Museum on the corner of 18th Street and T Street. It offers a one-of-a-kind exhibition showcasing the history and abuses of China’s vast network of prisons. I was appalled at the similarities of camp conditions between the Chinese laogai and the North Korean political prison camps. Derived from the Soviet gulag system in the 1950s, the political prison camps in North Korea and China were established for the purpose of containing political dissidence against their respective totalitarian governments. Over the last six decades, both systems have grossly perpetuated human rights abuses through the lack of due process, arbitrary detention, re-education, forced starvation and labor, torture, deaths in detention, and execution. The parallel between these two systems is undeniable. However, the North Korean and Chinese prison systems have evolved to possess several distinct characteristics. This article will focus on the implications of these key differences.
I will begin by providing brief context about the prisons. North Korea has two main types of detention facilities that house political prisoners, the kwan-li-so (penal labor colony) and the kyo-hwa-so (re-education prison labor camp); differences account for whether the entity is recognized by the state, which government body oversees it, the presence or absence of a sentence, the length of imprisonment, and the nature of the offense. While the kwan-li-so detains solely political prisoners, prisoners of political and other criminal offenses are detained in the kyo-hwa-so labor camps. China has three main types of prisons: 1) laogai (convict labor); 2) laojiao (re-education through labor); and 3) jiuye (forced job placement). Political prisoners are commonly found in the laojiao but can be detained in the laogai as well. The system encompassing all three types can be referred to as laogai in common parlance. In comparing the laogai and the laojiao, scholars have denoted that “[a]lthough the ways in which people find themselves in the two camps differ, the treatment in both camps is essentially the same.” The complexities of the individual prisons, as well as the amalgamation of political prisoners with regular criminals further complicate the analysis of the two systems. For the purpose of fluidity in this article, I will refer to salient features of the overarching systems as a whole, unless otherwise indicated, when comparing the two entities.
Recognition by State
The North Korean and Chinese governments exercise extrajudicial means in detaining their criminals. The kwan-li-so is not recognized by North Korean law, resulting in an absence of due process in the legal system. “The North Korean government denies the existence of the kwanliso and has threatened prison guards, released inmates and communities near the camps with several reprisals if any information is disclosed.” Due to the fact that the political prison camps are absent in North Korean criminal law, formal charges or trials are not deemed necessary for prisoners of the kwan-li-so. Furthermore, the friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers do not receive any information of those who have “disappeared into the mountains.” Those sent to the kyo-hwa-so may undergo minimal judicial procedures and may be given fixed-term sentences.
In a different vein, China’s labor reform camps were established when the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, and the accompanying laws were instituted in 1954 by the Act of the PRC for Reform Through Labor. The laogai system is completely legal and all citizens, as well as the international community, are fully aware of its existence. Despite being formally recognized by the Chinese legal code, the authorities bypass the guaranteed judicial procedure for some. Those sent to the laojiao are typically imprisoned without trial for mostly ideological crimes for a period of up to three years. Moreover, convicts can be tried without a defense lawyer in a country where the “defendant-to-conviction” rate is among the highest in the world. Although one government acknowledges and the other effectively denies the existence of these political prisons, each continues to circumvent international norms and regulations to repress political deviants.
Composition of Prisoners
The composition of the prisoner population demonstrates the diverging function of the political prison systems. In North Korea, political prison camps achieved a central political objective of the “elimination of three generations of factionalists and class enemies.” The political prison camps still exist primarily to ensure the total control of the people and the stability of the regime. Those who are perceived to possess counter-revolutionary attitudes or associations, including being guilty of what North Korean gulag expert David Hawk describes as “wrong-doing, wrong-thinking, wrong-knowledge, wrong-association, or the wrong-class background,” are taken to prison camps to reform through labor and re-education. Crimes as trivial as sitting on a newspaper with a Kim’s face to being accused of interacting with Christians while trading to obtain basic necessities in China can quickly result in life in the prison camp.
What is most distinct about the North Korean penal system is the concept of guilt by association, or yeon-jwa-je. Kim Il-sung stated in 1972, “Factionalists or enemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations.” This practice of collective punishment results in the immediate conviction and purge of entire families. A recent report by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) claimed that three out of ten political prison camp inmates were incarcerated under this system. Yeon-jwa-je creates a culture of distrust and paranoia, especially among family and friends. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu refers to it as an “anachronistic” repressive system of feudal inspiration. The regime uses this method to exercise ultimate social control over the population to ensure the deepest loyalty and obedience towards the leadership.
The purpose of the laogai and the types of prisoners detained in them have transformed over the past several decades. Official Communist Party documents from the 1950s bluntly state that the laogai is “[t]he process of labor reform of criminals which essentially is an effective method of purging and eliminating all criminals and counterrevolutionaries.” Historically, the Chinese Communist Party has imprisoned political foes as well as people on grounds of religious affiliation and ethnicity. In 1988, the Ministry of Justice altered the definition by publishing a criminal reform handbook. The summary defines the functions of the laogai concretely as fulfilling tasks in the following three fields: 1) punishing criminals and putting them under surveillance; 2) reforming criminals; and, 3) organizing criminals in labor and production, thus creating wealth for the society. This new purpose clearly avoids politically charged terminology and acknowledges another aspect of the laogai—the economic incentive. Whereas the majority of prisoners were perceived counterrevolutionaries or reactionaries in the 1960s and 1970s, at present the government claims that only 0.46% of the prison population is made up of political dissidents. Needless to say, this number should not be accepted as absolute. China’s human rights record has been admonished for years and the government has responded to the international community’s criticisms. It should be noted, however, that there has been a shift in the composition of types of prisoners in the laogai system. Despite the growing prison population in China, due to increased drug use and rising crime rates, the allegedly decreasing detainment of political criminals is resulting in the normalization of the use of prison camps for legitimate criminal rehabilitation.
Inmates from the Chinese and North Korean gulags are required to meet work quotas and labor 12 or more hours per day, six or seven days a week. As each government does not publish accurate information regarding profits from their cryptic prison operations, reliable statistics are difficult to find. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that these operations provide financial gains. According to satellite imagery analysis conducted by the HRNK and AllSource Analysis, mining facilities have been identified in at least half of the existing kwan-li-so. In North Korea, the coal mined goes to nearby plants for electricity, and lumber goes to mountainsides to furnish various government buildings and offices. The agricultural production feeds the prison population (although not well). Moreover, “[a]lthough mining activity at the kwanliso may not be directly tied to the export industry, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) stated that forced labor in the kwanliso contributes to ‘at a minimal cost...the realization of politically important economic objectives including energy generation and the provision of supplies to the security forces.’”
The kyo-hwa-so prison camps, which detain a majority of economic or violent criminals, as well as some political prisoners, are also associated with operating coal and copper mines. Although numbers are not specified, the COI concluded that the labor exacted from inmates meets the criteria for “enslavement” and “forced labor output of the [ordinary] prisons, including precious ores and other goods destined for export, provide the state with important foreign currency earning[s] needed to sustain the political system.” Through grueling forced labor in the prison camps, the Kim regime is able to yield economic gains for the maintenance of the state.
The laogai system is a reliable source of revenue for the People’s Republic of China. The inmates labor to manufacture a variety of goods ranging from textiles to weapons and industrial machinery. Human rights groups estimate that $100 million worth of Chinese prison goods have been exported annually. Harry Wu, a camp survivor and founder of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF), has discovered 120 products on the international market traceable to the laogai, even though international law forbids their trade. According to the LRF, there are 314 businesses listed in the Dun & Bradstreet databases which are clearly linked to Laogai camps. While the camps irrevocably create revenue for the state, the “productive nature and increased marketization of laogai camps does not mean that laogai camps are particularly profitable nor does it mean that the Chinese government relies on them as a large source of revenue.” In 1988, the goods produced accounted for only 0.4% of China’s GDP. The network of laogai function simultaneously as a means of criminal rehabilitation, political repression, and revenue generation.
Consumer products are not the sole source of revenue for the government; China also profits from the execution of prisoners. There is no conclusive evidence that executions conducted in North Korea may serve the same purpose. The North Korean authorities largely utilize public and secret executions to instill fear and discourage dissidence inside and outside of the prison camps. Escape attempts are punished by public execution, sometimes by hanging, but more often by firing squad. The prisoners are compelled to assemble and witness the executions at close range.” Execution in the camps serves as both a disciplinary measure and a deterrent.
Contrastingly, executions in laogai are conducted at a larger scale and possess an additional monetary incentive. Amnesty International claimed that in 2014, China continued to execute more than the rest of the world combined and sentenced thousands to death. “The renewable source of prisoner organs provides the Chinese government with a strong economic incentive to sell human organs to foreign buyers,” with foreigners paying as much as $200,000 for an organ transplant. Some Chinese transplant specialists estimate that up to 99% of the organs used for transplant surgeries in China come from prison cadavers. The Chinese government has developed a “highly lucrative, yet clandestine market for the sale of prisoner organs,” which in turn leads to the mistreatment of prisoners.
Furthermore, laws in China permit the removal of organs from prisoners, as evident in the 1984 Provisions. The rules allow for the use of dead bodies and organs, if and only if, they are: 1) uncollected dead bodies or the ones that the family members refuse to collect; 2) condemned criminals who volunteer to give their dead bodies or organs to medical institutions; and 3) upon approval of the family members. With over 68 capital offenses, each rule leaves plenty of room for coercion and corruption towards a vulnerable population. Moreover, the 1984 Provisions rank the order recipients of extracted organs should be treated, favoring the affluent and powerful. Although the profit from these illicit activities cannot be quantified, it is clear that the laogai generates capital for the authorities through the execution of inmates. The Chinese and North Korean governments have succeeded in what the Soviet gulags failed to do. Namely, they have learned to kill two birds with one stone by capitalizing on the incarceration of millions.
Prospect for Change
There has been progress, albeit gradual, towards human rights for the people of China and North Korea due to the increasing attention of the international community and information made available through satellite imagery and testimonials of defectors. The approach towards either is distinctive due to the inherent differences between the North Korean and Chinese systems. Given the economic undertone of the prison systems in China, human rights advocates have targeted the industry and have taken action against the trade of laogai products, already deemed illegal by U.S. trade laws. Harry Wu has submitted evidence to outlaw products which continue to find their way to U.S. markets. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency has issued 26 detention orders on such products since 1991. It is unknown how many products continue to be traded today.
In the case of North Korea, a country infamous for systemic human rights violations and illicit activity, the international community has increased the severity of sanctions. In 2014, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on the human rights situation in North Korea published a report of the egregious human rights violations of the regime, including the existence and operation of the political prison camps. Earlier this year, the UN Security Council imposed Resolution 2270, which some media networks deemed as the “toughest” sanctions against the Hermit Kingdom. Last August, the UNSC passed the even tougher Resolution 2371. Furthermore, the U.S. government has made “remarkable strides towards accountability for the Kim regime’s human rights abuses.” The unprecedented amount of pressure is demonstrated by the recent North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016, as well as the U.S. Department of State and the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioning of 11 individuals, including leader Kim Jong-un. The impact of these sanctions on the average North Korean and the impact on causing change in the political prison camps is yet to be determined, if it occurs at all.
The governments of China and North Korea created their individualized forms of the Soviet gulag to ensure power and stability within their respective countries, yet the function of these institutions are changing with time. Some scholars believe that change is happening and “as conditions in China broadly improve so do those in the laogai.” However, there remain at least two areas in which the laogai system is failing to make drastic improvements, including the ongoing detainment of thousands of political prisoners and sentencing laojiao prisoners without trial. The Chinese government should acknowledge and address these human rights abuses by providing the opportunity for representation and a fair trial.
Conditions in North Korea, however, are only deteriorating. North Korea continues to carry out widespread, grave violations of human rights by violating the right to food, freedom of expression, the right to life, freedom of movement, and conducting torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, discrimination, enforced disappearances, and the full range of violations associated with the prison camps. As demonstrated by the former Soviet example, so long as the totalitarian government stays in power, these repressive mechanisms will remain as well.
 David Hawk, designed by Rosa Park, “Kwan-li-so vs. Kyo-hwa-so,” NK Hidden Gulag, last modified 2016, http://www.nkhiddengulag.org/kwan-li-so-vs-kyo-hwa-so.html Edition (Washington, DC, The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2015).
 Ramin Pejan, “Laogai: ‘Reform Through Labor’ in China,” Human Rights Brief 7, 2 (2000), https://www.wcl.american.edu/hrbrief/v7i2/laogai.htm.
 Michael Pareles, “Hard Times, Hard Labor: Prison Labor Reform in China from 1978 to Present,” Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs 61, p. 3 (2006), http://web.stanford.edu/group/sjeaa/journal61/china3.pdf.
 Jasmine Koehn, “The Continuation of Slavery in the Modern World: The People’s Republic of China and Forced Labor Practices,” Human Rights & Human Welfare, Human Rights in China (2009), http://www.du.edu/korbel/hrhw/researchdigest/china/SlaveryChina.pdf.
 Roberta Cohen, “Human Rights and Humanitarian Planning for Crisis in North Korea,” International Journal of Korean Studies Fall / Winter 2015 (2016), 3, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Roberta-Cohen-NK-art-reunification.pdf.
 David Hawk, The Hidden Gulag, Second Edition (Washington, DC, The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012), 29-30.
 Ibid, 83-84.
 Melissa Pearson Fruge, “The Laogai and Violations of International Human Rights Law: A Mandate for the Laogai Charter,” Santa Clara Law Review 38, 2, Art. 4 (1998), http://digitalcommons.law.scu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1451&context=lawreview.
 See footnote 3.
 See footnote 3.
 United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council, Twenty-fifth Session, Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, (2014), para. 1061.
 See footnote 7, 25.
 Ibid, 25.
 Ibid, 29.
 Kim Jeong-woo, ““North Korea Guilt by Association (yeon-jwa-je), an Anachronistic Human Rights Violation” Human Rights Experts,” Voice of America (Korean service), August 2, 2016, http://www.voakorea.com/a/3444508.html.
 Committee on International Relations House of Representatives, Fourth Session, Hearing on Chinese Prison System “Laogai”, (1995), http://library.uoregon.edu/ec/e-asia/read/laogai.pdf.
 Nathan A. Adams IV, “A Human Rights Imperative: Extending Religious Liberty Beyond the Border,” 33, 1, Article 1 (2000), http://scholarship.law.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1457&context=cilj.
 See footnote 18.
 See footnote 9.
 See footnote 3.
 See footnote 7, 32 and footnote 3.
 Kim Kwang-jin, Gulag, Inc.: The Use of Forced Labor in North Korea's Export Industries (Washington, DC, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2016), 33.
 See footnote 7, 31-32.
 See footnote 24, 34.
 Ibid, 37.
 See footnote 3.
 See footnote 9.
 Emmy Chang, “Murderous Favored Nation, A Review of Troublemaker: One Man’s Crusade Against China’s Cruelty, by Harry Wu with George Vecsey,” Yale Free Press (1997), http://yalefreepress.sites.yale.edu/news/murderous-favored-nation.
 Laogai Research Foundation, Laogai Forced Labor Camps Listed in Dun & Bradstreet Databases, (2008), http://www.laogai.org/system/files/u1/Laogai-DB-Report.pdf.
 See footnote 3.
 See footnote 3.
 See footnote 3.
 See footnote 7, 33.
 Amnesty International, “Death Sentences and Executions 2014,” (Amnesty International Ltd, 2015), 26.
 Joan E. Hemphill, “China’s Practice of Procuring Organs from Executed Prisoners: Human Rights Groups Must Narrowly Tailor Their Criticism and Endorse the Chinese Constitution to End Abuses,” Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal Association, (2007), https://digital.lib.washington.edu/dspace-law/bitstream/handle/1773.1/595/16PacRimLPolyJ431.pdf;sequence=1. 437-438.
 Ibid, 435.
 Ibid, 435.
 Jessica Neagle, “China Profits from Prisoners: Organ Procurement and the Ethical Issue of Consent,” (Master’s thesis, Georgetown University, 2009), 18-20.
 Ibid, 18-20.
 Laogai Research Foundation, “Laogai Factsheet,” https://laogai.org/system/files/lrf_laogai_factsheet.pdf.
 Yoon Min-sik, “UN Passes Toughest Sanctions Against North Korea,” The Korea Herald, March 2, 2016, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20160302000075.
 Amanda Mortwedt Oh, “The Human Rights Factor: Changes Under Kim Jong-un,” HRNK Insider, August 15, 2016, http://www.hrnkinsider.org/2016/08/the-human-rights-factor-changes-under.html.
 See footnote 3.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleague Katty Chi. A native of Chile and graduate of the London School of Economics, Katty became a North Korean human rights defender in her early 20s. Katty was chief of international affairs with the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) in Seoul from 2010 to 2014 and worked with the Seoul Office of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) from 2019 to 2020. A remarkable member of our small North Korean human rights community, Katty brought inspiration and good humor to all. Katty passed away in Seoul in May 2020, at the young age of 32. She is survived by her parents and brother living in Chile. With the YPWP series, we endeavor to honor Katty’s life and work.