She hears only her heart as she huddles in the cell. She has just enough room to crawl several inches. The dirt underneath her bleeding knees works its way deeper into her skin. She slows her breathing, having learned that trying to catch her breath only leaves her breathless here in the staleness where the only air enters through the small cracks by the door. It had been five days since she had been given any water. Ten days since she’d eaten. Would they shoot her today?

They are starving. They are suffering. They are silenced.

Over 200,000 men, women, and children are currently prisoners in political penal labor
colonies, prison labor facilities, or detention facilities in the Democratic People’s Republic of
Korea (DPRK). The DPRK denies the existence of any such camps. But satellite photographs,
North Korean defectors, and escaped detainees’ witnesses prove otherwise. The camps have
existed for half a century, twelve times as long as the Nazi concentration camps and twice as
long as the Soviet Gulag.
Although there are several reasons people may be imprisoned, and there are differing
types of labor colonies, all prisoners share one thing in common: they are being brutally
mistreated without fair trial, most for nothing they themselves have done. Public executions,
torture, rape, beatings, starvation, human experimentation, and “retraining” (brainwashing) are
routine parts of these camps.
According to The Hidden Gulag, a book published by U.N. human rights expert David Hawk, kwan-li-so (political penal labor colonies), prisoners are arrested and imprisoned, often for life, without a trial. People may be arrested for any alleged political opposition to the
government, even if they personally did not oppose the regime. People three generations
removed from someone once labeled a political “threat” may be arrested even if they personally
have never caused political opposition. The slightest suspicion leads to immediate imprisonment
and often, the prisoners do not even know the charges under which they were arrested. Religious
opposition is also a major reason for being imprisoned.
The kyo-hwa-so (prison labor facilities) are similar to the kwan-li-so in that forced labor,
executions, torture, and mistreatment of all kinds abound. But the main difference is that unlike
kwan-li-so prisoners, those in the kyo-hwa-so are usually political prisoners tried and given a
definite sentence. Some of them are eventually released. In addition to these, there are several
various types of camps for North Koreans forcibly repatriated from China.

They are bloodied and bruised. They are broken.

These are the brave, those who continue to live while swallowing death each day.
Their bodies are used for cruel experiments. They are poisoned, gassed, burnt. Women are
raped then punished for having had forbidden sex. They are beaten, and forced to undergo
abortions or watch their babies die after birth. Husbands are separated from their wives, children
from their parents.
They are “re-educated,” tortured until they confess to crimes they never committed.
They work 12-15 hours of hard labor each day, surviving on 70 kernels of corn and bits
of salt. Some get nothing and must eat the leftovers of the camp: reptiles, insects, rodents, or
rotten vegetation.
Many of them die before they are fifty. Most all the women become hunch-backed.
They live in crowded cells, some not having even enough space to lie down.

They are flayed. They are forgotten. They are forsaken.

I feel numb, deadened that I am so free. The whys no longer bother me as much as the
hows: how could a country change so quickly, how can a tyrant gain such power? I remember
my own ignorance and ask how can the suffering be stopped? I question whether I can do
anything, and inevitably, how?
I am only one. I do not know what I can possibly do to alleviate the indescribable, unjust
pain. I won’t shut the camps down, or single-handedly halt the regime. But I can write. I can try
to be a voice for the silent. Maybe you won’t care about tortured North Koreans, maybe you
won’t care about protecting basic human justice.
But maybe you will.
Maybe, after understanding the justice that provided you with a chance to pursue your own
good while ignoring others who have no justice, you may listen. You may occasionally think of
the woman who helped Chinese women deliver their babies, then was forced to lay the babies
face down on the dirt, watching helplessly as their cries slowly ceased, or were muted by the wet
vinyl used by the guards to suffocate the babies still alive after two days (Hawk 70) . She had a
name. They all have names. Maybe you will remember hers, it’s very simple: Detainee #26.
Maybe you will remember the man whose mouth was crammed full of pebbles to silence
his screams before he was gunned down 15 feet away from hundreds of other prisoners forced at
gunpoint to watch, to stand close enough to feel his blood splatter on their thin clothing (Blaine).

I cannot forget the living ghosts that haunt me. I see their screams. I hear their innocent
eyes silently plead, crying out for justice.
I must write. For them. For her – the she of the first paragraph, still unknown to me.
I have not read of her, only of children like her. She is in a sense fictional, for she is not a
documented factual person. But the image of her in my mind is so clear that for all I know, she
is real. Thousands of her exist. But there is only one she and only one me. And only one you.

They are calling. They are confined. They are cut down.

How much longer will we contentedly let our self-absorbed lives swallow their deaths?