November 17, 2009, Dr. Marcus Noland

(Click to enlarge) Dr. Marcus Noland discusses the North Korean penal system.

Repression and Punishment in North Korea: Survey Evidence of Prison Camp Experiences


(Washington D.C.) November 17– The North Korean penal system has succeeded in controlling the population through intimidation despite the people’s growing dissatisfaction with the government. In an East-West Center in Washington Asia Pacific Democracy and Human Rights Seminar, Dr. Marcus Noland, deputy director and senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and non-resident senior fellow at the East-West Center, presented the findings of his recent report Repression and Punishment in North Korea: Survey Evidence of Prison Camp Experiences , detailing the situation in North Korea’s penal camps, the use of the system to intimidate the population, and the corruption that the system encourages among local officials. This report is based on a series of surveys conducted with North Korean refugees in China and South Korea.


Though North Korea has long maintained a series of penal camps to control its population, a new type of short-term labor camp was developed after the famine and economic collapse of the late 1990s. During this time, the North Korean government no longer had the ability to provide for the entire population, and communities left to fend for themselves began to engage in market activities to survive. Dr. Noland explained that these activities were primarily illegal and included engaging in trade transactions to acquire food and traveling outside of permitted areas to forage for food. When the government began to regain control of the country, it found it necessary to add a new sort of detention center to the existing system of felony, misdemeanor, and political prisons to house people engaged in these market-related activities and to reassert its authority over the general population.


The establishment of these new short-term facilities was accompanied by a change in the penal code, which expanded the range of crimes and strengthened the sentencing guidelines for many of those crimes. However, the rules of the state change very frequently, leading to confusion over permitted and illegal activities, and arrest appears to be quite random and at the discretion of local authorities. Dr. Noland explained that while the intelligentsia, members of the wavering class, and those engaged in economic activities are disproportionally targeted in these arrests, and it appears that all people are subject to random arrest and incarceration in the short-term facilities. Despite the short sentences at these camps, Dr. Noland noted that the level of brutality appears to be as high as that at higher security facilities, and he argued that the short-term facilities provide a useful opportunity for the authorities to expose large numbers of people to high levels of brutality for the purpose of intimidating and controlling the population.


The new penal system, with its ever-changing guidelines, high levels of brutality, and random arrests, has provided opportunities for corruption among North Korean officials. Officials seem to have a high degree of discretion in carrying out the seizure and imprisonment of citizens, and many are using this task to line their own pockets. Dr. Noland explained that North Korean citizens are now resorting to bribing government officials in order to continue engaging in markets activities or to avoid incarceration in one of the penal camps. The state, he argued, is now seen as a platform for predation of the people, and those who wish to get ahead in North Korean society are now likely to seek employment with the government.


Dr. Noland reported that the penal system seems to effectively control the population and that there is no evidence that the people are willing to rise against their government. He explained that while dissatisfaction with the state is increasing due to the rising levels of government corruption, growing access to foreign media, and discontent with the quality of life, the people are still reluctant to openly criticize the government or make any attempts to organize against it. Dr. Noland argued that the penal system has done its job, successfully intimidating the population and keeping it quiescent under the thumb of government control.


Marcus Noland is a non-resident senior fellow at the East-West Center and deputy director and senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He was a senior economist at the Council of Economic Advisers in the Executive Office of the President of the United States, and has held research or teaching positions at Yale University, the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Southern California, Tokyo University, Saitama University (now the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies), the University of Ghana, and the Korea Development Institute. Dr. Noland has authored, co-authored, or edited numerous books including Korea After Kim Jong-il and Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform (co-authored with Stephan Haggard). His book, Avoiding the Apocalypse: the Future of the Two Koreas, won the prestigious Ohira Memorial Prize. He has served as an occasional consultant to organizations such as the World Bank and the National Intelligence Council, and has testified before the US Congress on numerous occasions.