One day, at the age of nine, Shin is picking up coal that’s spilled from a passing railway car. Suddenly, the children of Camp 14’s guards begin throwing rocks at the prison children. One rock cuts Shin just below his eye. Afterwards, the teacher yells at Shin and the other students for failing to meet their quota.
When Shin and his peers had accidents or hurt themselves, the guards and teachers ignored their suffering; their only concern was forcing the children to meet their work quotas. Indeed, Shin’s “teachers’” real purpose was to train the children to obey authority and work hard.
The guards’ children see Shin and his classmates as “irredeemable sinners” who’ve betrayed their country. Beginning in 1957, Kim Il Sung created the modern North Korean class system: the highest group, the “core class,” consisted of farmers, families of soldiers who’d died in the Korean War, and bureaucrats. The next group was the “neutral class,” consisting of soldiers, technicians, and teachers. Then there was the “hostile class,” consisting of former property owners and those whose relatives had fled the country or opposed the government. The hostile classes worked in mines and factories, or in prison camps.
The Kim dynasty was ostensibly Communist, at least at first, so it seized property owners’ land and wealth and sent many former capitalists to labor camps. In the long run, however, it became clear that the Kim dynasty’s only ideology was the family itself. A small inner circle surrounded the Kims—but most of the North Korean population could barely find enough food to survive.
The only people allowed to work as guards in prison camps are the relatives of government workers and other core elites, such as An Myeong Chul. An began working at a camp at the age of nineteen; he was required to sign documents saying he’d never talk about his work. However, An fled the country in 1994, after his father, a government worker, committed suicide. He later became a human rights activist—a crime for which his relatives in North Korea were severely punished.
An is the rare prison camp guard who’s escaped from North Korea, so he can corroborate many of the statements that Shin has made about Camp 14 (and thus confirm that Shin is at least partly reliable as a source). Like Shin, An has become involved in human rights campaigns—also like Shin, partly to atone for the cruel acts he performed in the camp.
When Harden met An in Seoul in 2009, An seemed intimidating. He spoke about studying martial arts and being taught not to care if his beatings severely injured the prisoners. He also told Harden that guards were allowed to rape the prisoners, many of whom consented to sex because they thought it led to a better life. An claimed that many guards beat prisoners simply because they were bored.
An’s testimony fits with general human psychology as seen in studies like the infamous Stanford prison experiment of 1971. When people are given total power as “guards” over “prisoners” who are seen as worthless and guilty, many of those guards will natural become cruel and abusive.
Some “core” families live in Pyongyang in large apartments. In general, the core is believed to consist of approximately 100,000 people out of 23 million. American intelligence agencies have found that core North Koreans who venture outside the country have been involved in counterfeiting, cyberterrorism, and drug trafficking. Members of the core class have also sold weapons in Iran and Syria.
The core class of North Korea serves an important purpose for the Kim family: they’re allowed to travel outside the country and enact the Kims’ foreign policy. North Korea is known to be one of the world’s leading sources of cyberterrorism and arms dealing, thanks largely to the acts of core families.
One elite North Korean, Kim Kwan Jin, spoke to Harden about his experiences in Kim Jong Il’s inner circles. Kim Kwan Jin studied at elite universities and learned how to maintain North Korea’s global insurance fraud, which reaps huge sums on false insurance claims filed with the world’s biggest insurance companies. The scheme works well because 1) each one of the claims is relatively small, 2) the world’s insurance companies have no way of investigating the claims themselves, since North Korea doesn’t allow many visitors, and 3) some insurance workers don’t even realize that North Korea is a totalitarian state.
Few people know that the Kim dynasty supports itself largely through fraud: core families file insurance claims for property or business damages, and insurance companies around the world are forced to send money back to the Kims. It is startling to consider that major Western companies unknowingly contribute to the Kim dynasty’s power (especially considering that the Kims have demonized the Western world in general and the U.S. in particular). It’s even odder that some of these companies may be unaware that North Korea is a totalitarian state—and perhaps by publishing his book, Harden can enlighten the public and theoretically take some money out of the Kims’ pockets.
One of the most baffling things about Pyongyang is that the quality of life there isn’t very good, even for elites. Elites have fairly big apartments and access to “luxuries” such as fruit and liquor. But the electricity is poor, hot water is scarce, and travel is almost impossible. The Kim family, however, lives in luxury: they own dozens of houses, each with swimming pools, horseracing tracks, water parks, and more.
Even for so-called “elites,” quality of life in North Korea is far below the standard in Western countries—with the glaring exceptions of the Kims themselves, who live like kings, with no apparent regard for the starving population.
The present leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Eun, had no real qualifications to run a country. He studied in Switzerland, where he played basketball and liked to draw. However, after Kim Jong Il suffered a near-fatal stroke, the North Korean propaganda industry worked hard to make Kim seem like a great leader. Television programs have portrayed Kim as a kind man who spent time with his wife at concerts and other state events. Kim has instituted reforms, firing some of his generals and proposing economic changes to fight famine. However, he has also approved the launch of three-stage rockets, signaling to the world that North Korea would soon be able to strike the United States with a ballistic missile. Meanwhile, the camps remain open.
Kim Jong Eun is plainly unqualified to lead a country—his main qualification is his status as the dictator’s son. However, the North Korean propaganda machine is very effective, and so even Kim Jong Eun was soon presented and accepted as a brilliant and glorious leader.