President George W. Bush recently met at the White House with Kang Chol Hwan, author of the book "The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag."
In 1977, when Mr. Kang was nine years old, North Korean authorities arrested him and his family without explanation. Mr. Kang and his family were sent to the Yodok prison camp. Children there were forced to collect quotas of firewood, sift bits of gold from a river, plant corn, mine limestone, and cut down trees. Mr. Kang saw children executed and worked to death. He himself had to eat rats, cockroaches, and snakes to survive.
After ten years in the Yodok prison camp, Mr. Kang escaped to South Korea. He works there as a journalist and director of the Democracy Network Against North Korean Gulag, a group that seeks to publicize the plight of North Korean political prisoners.
According to the latest U.S. State Department human rights report, an estimated one-hundred fifty-thousand to two-hundred thousand people are believed to be held in detention camps in remote areas of North Korea for political reasons, and many prisoners have died from torture, starvation, disease, and exposure.
In 2003, a North Korean defector reported that conditions in the camps for political prisoners were extremely harsh. He said that prisoners received little food and no medical provisions and were not expected to survive.
Kang Chol Hwan says that today “many North Koreans escape the country, risking their lives, [and fleeing] into China." The United Nations' special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Vitit Muntarbhorn, recently called on China to stop repatriating North Koreans who have fled their country and to give them refugee status instead.
According to the State Department's report on the status of North Korean asylum seekers, thirty-thousand to fifty-thousand North Koreans are living in China. Some relief agencies believe the figure is higher. "The people coming from North Korea are ...more than hunger cases because they fear persecution upon return," Mr. Vitit told a U.N.-sponsored conference on migrants and refugee issues in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently said that the people of North Korea in general – not just the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners - have suffered under the communist regime. "You're talking about malnutrition rates that have led to literal height and weight differentials that are dramatic between the South Korean population, which is well-nourished, and North Korean population that is not," she said.
“The sad thing," Secretary of State Rice said, "is that while the North Korean regime seeks nuclear weapons, its population is still totally dependent on food aid to try and deal with its malnutrition.”
The preceding was an editorial reflecting the views of the United States Government.