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What's it like to do 'hard labor' in North Korea?

On Thursday, North Korea sentenced U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae to 15 years of hard labor for committing "hostile acts" against the government. The severe punishment raises a pertinent question: What's it like to do "hard labor" in one of the world's most repressive countries?

The answer, based on testimonies of former captives, ranges from slight discomfort to nightmarish torture, so it's unclear what may become of the North's latest detainee. Bae, who ran a China-based tourism business, was apprehended in northeastern North Korea after taking a group of businessmen to the region from China in November. When considering how he may be treated, let's start with the best-case scenario.

About four years ago, two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, found themselves in a similar predicament. They had slipped across the North Korean border from China and were sentenced to 12 years hard labor for committing "hostile acts."

Despite the punishment, they never spent a second in a labor camp for the five months of their captivity and were treated fairly gently despite a violent confrontation that occurred when they were first apprehended. "I was never sent to one of the notorious labor camps," Current TV reporter Laura Ling told CBS News. "I was in a room that had a bed and a bathroom and an adjoining room that had two female guards."

Fortunately for Ling, her sister Lisa Ling was a quasi-famous U.S. journalist, and her employer, Current TV, was partially owned by former Vice President Al Gore, who was able to get his old boss Bill Clinton to fly to the country and free them.

Others have been less fortunate. According to a Newsweek story by New York Times reporter Ravi Somaiya, an American named Aijalon Mahli Gomes was imprisoned in a "brutal labor camp" in 2010 and "tried to commit suicide" due to the poor conditions. "Swedish diplomats, acting on behalf of the U.S.-which has no diplomatic relations with North Korea-are aware of his condition," reported Somaiya. Aijalon's release was eventually secured by former President Jimmy Carter. Another American, Robert Park of Los Angeles, saw the inside of a labor camp that same year after he crossed the Chinese-North Korean border via the frozen Tumen River. He was only held for six weeks, but when he returned to the United States he was institutionalized "resulting from severe sexual abuse he was subjected to in jail," according to Somaiya.

We know more about the treatment of Korean political prisoners. A 2009 Korean Bar Association report based on testimony from survivors and former guards detailed the daily misery of the 200,000-some political prisoners estimated to be inside the country's labor camps.

"Eating a diet of mostly corn and salt, they lose their teeth, their gums turn black, their bones weaken and, as they age, they hunch over at the waist," read the report, according to the Washington Post.  "Most work 12- to 15-hour days until they die of malnutrition-related illnesses, usually around the age of 50. Allowed just one set of clothes, they live and die in rags, without soap, socks, underclothes or sanitary napkins."

In its 2012 annual report, Amnesty International gives a similarly horrific depiction. "The combination of hazardous forced labor, inadequate food, beatings, totally inadequate medical care and unhygienic living conditions, resulted in prisoners falling ill, and a large number died in custody or soon after release," said the group. "We received 120 grams of rotten corn for daily food," said one former prisoner. "So many people with the same year and a half sentence as me didn't survive their term and died of hunger."

Needless to say, let's hope Bae's treatment is similar to Ling's, not your everyday North Korean political prisoner's.

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Mapping the incredible spread of Mexican drug cartels in the U.S.

As Barack Obama heads to Mexico, U.S. involvement in Mexico's battle against drug cartels is getting a lot of press. But it's worth noting that Mexico's notorious narcotics trade isn't just Mexico's problem anymore. And Obama should be well aware of that, considering that this past February Chicago declared Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán its first "Public Enemy No. 1" since Al Capone. "While Chicago is 1,500 miles from Mexico, the Sinaloa drug cartel is so deeply embedded in the city that local and federal law enforcement are forced to operate as if they are on the border," Jack Riley, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Chicago office, told CNN.

The infiltration of the Windy City shows the extent to which Mexican drug syndicates have made inroads in the United States -- the Associated Press and others have reported that cartel cells are operating in Atlanta, Ga., Louisville, Ky., Columbus, Ohio, and rural North Carolina. In fact, according to an excellent National Post infographic based on data from a U.S. Justice Department report and other sources, it's much easier to list states that don't have a drug trade tied to Mexican gangs. There are only twelve that haven't reported the presence of one of four Mexican cartels since 2008: Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. The Mexican drug trade is everywhere else.

Detected cartel operations range from traditional drug-running to using a horse ranch as a front for laundering drug money, as one group did in Oklahoma. The Sinaloa cartel, which has emerged as Mexico's dominant syndicate, has carved out new territory in the United States by controlling 80 percent of its meth trade (Mexican cartels have come to dominate the U.S. market by aggressively bumping up the purity of their meth while dropping the price per gram).

All told, Mexican cartels reside in 1,200 American communities as of 2011, up from 230 in 2008, according to the Associated Press. Below is a map that shows just how many states have been penetrated, according to the National Post's special report on the topic. 


View Cartel Penetration in the US in a larger map

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