Abolishing 're-education through labour' in China - a glimmer of hope for North Korea?

I recently gave a talk to our Mid-Gloucestershire group on the widespread use of political prison camps in North Korea. After the talk, one of the questions stuck with me: could we put pressure on the Chinese government to use their influence with North Korea to change their human rights record?

My answer? Well, given China’s poor human rights record, and their own ‘re-education through labour’ camps, it would be incredibly unlikely they’d speak out, or that they’d be listened to if they did.

Had I given that talk two or three days later, my answer would have been very different.

Hidden amongst reports that China is relaxing its ‘one child’ policy was the news that the authorities intend to abolish the ‘re-education through labour’ camp system. Around 50,000 people are held within 350 camps.

It’s good news, and not just for those in the Chinese camps. There’s a tiny glimmer of hope that North Korea might follow suit with its own camps, as China remains the main backers of the regime, and has a great deal of influence on it.

North Korea established their political prison camp system around the same time as the Chinese’s, in the 50s and 60s. They share many similarities, both holding those deemed to be a threat to the ruling regime (such as Lui Hua, sent to China's camps 3 times for protesting). Both systems dole out life sentences, and claim to re-educate prisoners through slave-like labour. Both have been compared to the Soviet Union’s gulags, which may have inspired their creation.

But the North Korean system goes a lot further on the scale of cruelty it inflicts. Up to three generations of an inmate’s family are sentenced alongside them under ‘guilt by association’ rules. Brothers, sisters, children and grandparents are often imprisoned without ever knowing which family member is considered the criminal. Extra-judicial killings, torture, sexual assault and forced abortions are widespread.

I hope that this positive step by the Chinese communist leadership could represent the start of a shift across the whole region. A step that, in all likelihood, has come about following years of campaigning from Amnesty and other human rights groups. And a move, I hope, that will make the North Korean government firstly acknowledge the existence of their own prison camps, and start to make moves towards their eventual closure.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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