Are North Korea's Gulags Bolstering the National Economy?

As many as 200,000 men, women, and children reportedly languish in North Korea's vast prison camp system, jailed for defying the state's strict edicts on anything from possession of foreign media to petty theft. Even being associated with someone who has broken the law can be grounds for imprisonment. Now, new satellite imagery of two of North Korea's infamous gulags suggest that the prison population is growing.

Satellite imagery analysis commissioned by Amnesty International and released Thursday reveal new housing blocks and an expanded industrial zone in kwanliso 16, a camp three times the size of Washington, D.C. In 2011, the organization estimated that 20,000 people were imprisoned in kwanliso 16. Another camp, kwanliso 15, is believed to have 50,000 prisoners; satellite images show that within the camp, housing blocks have been recently demolished and replaced. Both camps appear to exhibit significant economic activity, such as mining, logging, and the processing of timber in what appears to be a furniture factory.

The grave human rights conditions inside the camps -- forced labor, torture, rape, executions -- have been documented by eyewitnesses and former prisoners. Less well known is the extent to which activity within the camps benefits the national economy.

Putting aside the moral issues, the economic advantages of forced labor seem obvious -- read: free labor -- but North Korean prison camps didn't start out as an engine of industrial production. When they were first established in the 1950s and 1960s, forced labor ensured that the camps were self-sufficient and not a drain on national resources. It wasn't until the 1990s, amid a food crisis and a declining economy, that the camps assumed a broader economic role, according to the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights. The country's traditional agricultural sector, as well as a general lack of machinery and mining technology, renders human labor particularly valuable. But very little is known about the scope of industrial production in these camps. Former prisoners have asserted that camps produce agricultural and leather goods, as well as manufacture bicycles. Most of the camps are remotely situated near mining areas and, as the satellite imagery illustrates, at least two of them seem actively engaged in mining and logging activities. 

Below are satellite images of what Amnesty International believes is a factory that processes raw lumber, as well as evidence of a logging operation:

The North Korean government, for its part, has never admitted that prison camps exist within the country, so any economic output derived from forced labor obviously isn't acknowledged as such.

With 200,000 forced laborers, industrial production in these camps may be a significant contributor to the national economy. But those benefits may be limited in the long run, simply because harsh labor conditions suppress productivity. That's what happened in the Soviet Union: While the gulag system allowed for high value economic projects, it wasn't sustainable in the long term. By the 1950s, revenues from forced labor weren't sufficient to support the cost of running the camps, and managers -- noting that productivity among forced laborers had decreased by 60 percent -- found themselves in need of government subsidies just to stay in business. The system's inefficiency was a major driver of its demise. 

How long before North Korea's prison camp system meets the same fate? 

Amnesty International


People of Ukraine: Beware the Swedish Gang of Pee-Pee, Turd, and Nixon the Nose

One Russian TV host has had a vision of the awful fate that awaits Ukraine if it moves toward the European Union. It's a picture of Western decadence, and it can be glimpsed in a Swedish public television show that tries to teach children about their bodily functions.

The show is called "Biss och Kajs" -- a play on the Swedish words for pee and poop -- and on Sunday, the Russian news anchor Dmitriy Kiselev delivered a bizarre tirade against the program, denouncing it as a representation of "European values in all their glory."

With hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets of Kiev to protest their government's decision to reject an association agreement with the European Union, the government-backed Russian media turned to propaganda to maintain the Kremlin's  influence in Ukraine, a former Soviet satellite state that Russian President Vladimir Putin would very much like to keep in Moscow's orbit.

To that end, Kiselev held up Stream of Pee and Turd-- a pair of characters on Biss och Kays -- as examples of a culture that has more or less sanctioned a "sharp rise in child abortions," where "early sex is the norm - from the age of nine", and where "it is not surprising that child impotence starts at 12."

This, Kiselev -- and Moscow -- intone is the future in store for Ukraine once it embraces "Europe" and rejects its Russian heritage.

As they debate whether to join the European Union or a Russian controlled-customs union, the Ukrainian people face a difficult choice for their country's future. As Moscow is spinning it, Kiev can put its fate into the hands of a largely all-powerful tsar, Putin, who will provide economic stability and military security for many years to come or choose to embrace a morally depraved Europe.

On Sunday, Kiselev, notorious for his rants and anti-European outlook, put a face to put to the vague concept of the "European community." It includes Nixon the Nose, one of the show's muppet characters who urges kids to shower lest they smell bad. It also features Franz the Foot who sings about how he takes a "love leap" every time he sees himself in the mirror. As the cherry on top, it also features a so-called "butt orchestra," which is more or less exactly what it sounds like, a group of butt-shaped back-up singers. It's exactly as strange as you'd expect a socialist children's show devoted to giving kids a positive self-image and good hygiene. (Let's not dwell on the fact that Swedish public television thinks this is something they need to devote resources to.)

Kiselev called the show "weird," and he's probably not far off in that assessment. American children get their public television potty training from the Sesame Street song "Potty Time," which contrary to its Swedish counterpart is far from literal. ("It's where you sit to do what you gotta do do do.")

But Kiselev didn't stop there and claimed that he actually wasn't surprised by the Swedish debauchery. Childhood sex, abortions, and impotence are just a "new challenge for the progressive Swedes."

From there, the 18-minute segment descended into a predictable spiral of pure crazy. Apparently "Vilnius 2013" -- the summit where Ukraine was supposed to sign the association agreement with the European Union -- is exactly like the 1938 agreement in Munich where Great Britain and France agreed to Hitler's annexation of Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland region. "The only difference is that today's goal is to deprive Russia of its allies, and tear Ukraine away." No surprise there.

After checking off the mandatory Munich reference, Kiselev reached further back into European history to prove an anti-Russian conspiracy -- to the 1709 battle of Poltava, of the important, if obscure, Great Northern War between Russia and an alliance of northern European countries. Despite the fact that Russian won the battle against the Swedes, marking the beginning of an era of Russian domination and Swedish decline, Kiselev sees the Vilnius deal with Ukraine -- headed by some of the same countries that fought against Russia in the Great Northern War, Poland, Lithuania, and Sweden -- as a "thirst of revenge for Poltava."

The only thing missing for Kiselev was a bloodthirsty general in the slightly belated retaliatory battle. In Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, he found the perfect candidate. Bildt, one of the masterminds of the EU's partnership plans with Ukraine, traces his lineage to a number of prominent Scandinavian political and military leaders, which the Russian anchor duly noted. To add some contemporary flair to his historical conjectures, Kiselev also accused Bildt himself of being a CIA agent during his youth.

This, then, is the great Western bogeyman Russia's propagandists have cooked up: a poop-related children's show, blathering about Munich, and something about a long-forgotten battle. It all carries a whiff of desperation.