Today’s Gulag In North Korea

Sunday, October 29, 2017
Glendale, California



Today’s Gulag In North Korea

If you want a really depressing week, try finishing Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelgo and Demick’s Nothing to Envy in the same week.

I don’t recommend it, particularly when you’re the only man in the US not watching the World Series.

(That’s the one with extremely well-paid dudes playing with bats, yes?)

Solzhenitsyn, who won the Nobel Prize for his work about the prison camps during Russia’s Stalinist era, describes his personal experiences in them. The tales are beyond belief. Perhaps he called his work “an experiment in literary investigation” because it’s part memoir and part history of an awful time in Russian history.

Unbelievably, more than 1 million human beings, mostly Russian citizens, lost their lives in the Gulags from 1934 to 1953. These included Russian soldiers who were POWs in Nazi Germany, returned to Russia after the war, and were considered traitors. They included children who turned in their parents, and parents who turned in their children, for so much as harboring a negative thought about Stalin. They included communist leaders favored for decades and later denounced. They included anyone spoke, wrote, or thought critically about the Soviet regime.

These million deaths came before, during, and after the more than 20 million casualties suffered by the Russian people—mostly civilians—during World War II.


If you’re not sufficiently pained by Solzhenitsyn’s tales of unimaginable suffering—the lack of food or water, the forced marches in sub zero weather, the literal holding of one hundred prisoners in cells intended for two, and more—then read Demick’s work. Her writing reminds us that the shadow side of humanity remains alive and well here in the 21st century.

A reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Demick spent years researching her work. She visited North Korea repeatedly; she studied the lives of defectors to the South. She follows the stories of several North Korean defectors.

Here are a few highlights from her book:

In 1910, the Japanese occupied the entire Korean peninsula. Until then, it had been united for nearly 1300 years under the Chosun dynasty. Part of the post-World War II settlement, the peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel. Nothing about the demarcation made any logical sense, as Demick notes:

The bifurcation between north and south was an entirely foreign creation, cooked up in Washington and stamped on the Koreans without any input from them.

The first post-war leader of the north was Kim Il-Sung. He, like his son and grandson after him, ran the country like a cult-leader. Statues of him were erected throughout the country. Citizens paid tribute during holidays centered on his birthdays. He ensured North Koreans remained in stark isolation from the rest of the world.

Kim Il-Sung reigned as head of state, and later the “Eternal President of the Republic,” until he died in 1994. If you found the HBO documentary about Scientology, Going Clear, alarming, wait until you learn about North Korea. Ordinary citizens wept in grief and alarm at his death. They seemed ill-prepared to even consider him a mortal being; they thought him a God.

Shortly after Kim Il-Sung’s death, Kim Jong-il, his son, assumed dictatorial control until his death in 2011. Since then, as you know from history books or Donald Trump’s infantile tweets, Kim Jong-un, the grandson of the original post WWII leader, assumed the dictatorship.

We tend to hear about Kim Jong-un because of his rushing the nuclearization of North Korea. In truth, his developing nuclear weapons remains an acute problem. Of course he should not be allowed to threaten the US homeland with such weapons of mass destruction. However, with Seoul only some 35 miles away from his artillery and other weapons, and Kim Jong-un’s considering the North in a chronic state of war with the US and South Korea, we are in a major pickle.

As a psychoanalyst actively involved in facilitating dialogue between adults, it’s hard to imagine how to get the warring parties to talk. It reminds me of what it might be like to work with an estranged couple if one of them remained a Scientologist. No dialogue would be possible. Trump’s threatening to destroy the country if provoked does less than nothing to resolve the problem.

This topic alone deserves extensive study. But I focus this posting on only one aspect of Demick’s book, namely the disturbing reality of the Gulag-like prison system still operating, right now, in North Korea. Hopefully nuclear war will never break out. Meanwhile, thousands of unfortunate North Koreans, prohibited from even understanding what occurs around them, are imprisoned in the type of conditions which Solzhenitsyn describes in his book.

Ordinary North Korean citizens have no access to print, broadcast, internet, or any kind of commonly available information. They continue to live in more of a cult-like setting than any modern country on the planet.

Further, completely innocent relatives of many persons who have defected from North to South Korea end of getting sent to the Gulag-like North Korean prison camps. Many of these persons were loyal to the bizarre monarchy. They led blameless lives. Once officials learned of the absence of their escaped-relatives, they ordered them arrested and imprisoned—often taken from their homes in the middle of the night.

Even in our current day, these prisons continue to operate; the citizens of North Korea remain oppressed; the totalitarian regime maintains an iron grip on power. Demick writes,

North Korea continues to defy predictions of its imminent demise. Many analysts expected that the regime would implode from infighting after Kim Jong-un purged his uncle. But for now the young man looks to be firmly planted on the throne, running the country as though it were the Cold War, churning out bombastic propaganda, banning most foreigners from visiting, threatening real and imagined enemies with nuclear weapons and missiles. He is practically the last of the dictators in this mold, a living anachronism. 

I, for one, think globalism will not go away, isolationism will fail, and the US in the post-Trump era will need to return to active engagement and dialogue with world leaders.

Meanwhile, I share my surprise at, along with the obscene threat of nuclear war by the North Korean child-dictator, he and his cronies continue to oppress, repress, and imprison ordinary citizens who dare to have an independent thought.

Even though the Gulags of Soviet Russia have vanished, injustice towards ordinary people persists in parts of the world.

We fellow members of the human family must not forget them.



Demick, B. Nothing to envy: ordinary lives in North Korea. New York: Trade Paperbacks.

Solzhenitsyn, A. (1985). The gulag archipelego: an experiment in  literary investigation. New York: Harper Collins.


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