Monday, June 8, 2009

North Korean Labor Camps a Ghastly Prospect for U.S. Journalists

Via LATimes -

If North Korea carries out its controversial court verdict, two American TV journalists sentenced to 12 years of hard labor Monday face a grim future in a notorious gulag system, said the author of a study on the regime's prisons.Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for San Francisco-based Current TV, were convicted by the nation's top Central Court of an undefined "grave crime" against the hard-line regime after they were reportedly arrested in North Korean territory in March.

In a typically terse statement issued Monday, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported that the women were sentenced to 12 years of "reform through labor."

While Pyongyang has not said where the women will serve their time, their future likely includes the possibility of hard labor, starvation and torture in a penal system many consider among the world's most repressive, said David Hawk, author of the 2004 study "The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea's Prison Camps."

Ling and Lee may be sent to a "kyo-hwa-so" or re-education reformatory "that is the equivalent of a felony penitentiary in the U.S., as opposed to a county jail or misdemeanor facility," he said.

"It's extremely hard labor under extremely brutal conditions," said Hawk. "These places have very high rates of deaths in detention. The casualties from forced labor and inadequate food supplies are very high."Because the pair was tried by the nation's highest court, there can be no appeal, analysts say.

Obama administration officials said Monday that the White House is working "through all possible channels" to secure the release of the women.

Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, were arrested March 17 along the China-North Korean border while reporting a story on human trafficking by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's regime.

The group Reporters Without Borders said in a statement Monday that the harsh verdict was "clearly designed to scare journalists trying to do investigative reporting in the border area between China and North Korea"

North Korea experts with knowledge of the nation's penitentiary system worried over the women's fate.

"The first thing that passed through my mind when I heard about the verdict was that, from an American perspective, this is tantamount to a death sentence," said Scott Snyder, director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy for the Asia Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

"There aren't a lot of guarantees in that type of environment. It's different from any prison that exists in the modern-day United States. This is a very sobering challenge for a new administration."

North Korean defector Kim Hyuck, who spent a total of seven months between 1998 and 2000 in a "kyo-hwa-so," said that the percentage of prisoners who die from the harsh conditions would be unimaginable in the west.

"It is not an easy place," he said of the camps. "Centers for men and women are separate. But even [the] women's place is not comfortable at all. . . . When I was in the center, roughly 600-700 out of a total 1,500 died."

Hawk said many of the re-education camps are affiliated with mines or textile factories where inmates labor for long hours, shifts that are often followed by work criticism sessions and the forced memorization of dry North Korean policy doctrine.

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