Laura Ling & Euna Lee: North Korea Prison Camps
Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced to twelve years' hard labor in a North Korean labor camp earlier today. The reason for the sentencing, unusually harsh for such cases, was due to their "grave crime against the Korean nation", but aside from illegally entering the country, no further detail was made public.
The US has no formal diplomatic ties with North Korea, and even in normal situations, the US Consulate does not step in if a US citizen is arrested for breaking local laws.
This case, though, has made headlines around the world. Laura's sister, Lisa Ling, who used to co-host The View, has kept a brave face for the public eye so far, even as support for state intervention grows via the Internet. Ling and Lee worked for Current TV, which was founded by Al Gore; White House officials are considering sending either Gore or New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (a former UN ambassador and envoy to North Korea) to Pyongyang to negotiate for the reporters' release.
What, though, does a sentence of "hard labor" mean in North Korea? The prospect is grim once one looks more closely at this element of that nation's penal system. The prison camps (kwan si lo) are described by former detainees as brutal detention centers where prisoners work long, back-breaking days with very little food, and are often sent there without trial.
Many of the kwan-li-so involve mining for coal, iron deposits, gold, or various other ores, or logging and wood-cutting in the adjacent mountains. Prisoners undertake farm labor during planting and harvesting seasons. This back-breaking labor is often performed twelve or more hours per day, seven days per week, with time off only for national holidays (such as New Year’s Day and Kim Il Sung’s and Kim Jong Il’s birthdays, for example).
The U.S. government and human rights groups estimate that 150,000 to 200,000 people are now being held in the North's prison camps. Many of the camps can be seen in satellite images, but North Korea denies their existence.
Once in jail, the conditions rival that of the worst Soviet gulags. Former prisoners have described their initial shock at seeing walking skeletons with matted hair, clad only in rags. They soon discovered why: In the gulag, starvation is used as method of control. Guards use food deprivation to force prisoners to inform on one another and to coerce sex from women.
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