One of the principal eyewitnesses to the operation of these camps is Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person known to have been born and raised in a camp and to escape to the West. In interviews with me and with many others, he has said that guards at his birthplace, Camp 14, ordered inmates to marry and to breed children, who were then taught by guards to be slaves and snitches. Before his escape in 2005, Shin was a slave and an informer. He says he tattled on his own mother for planning an escape -- a betrayal that resulted in her execution.
Human rights has become a white-hot issue on the Korean Peninsula since Kim Jong Un took over in December. After the South Korean funded report on the camps was released in May, the country's president, Lee Myung-bak, told U.S. lawmakers that human rights abuses in the North are more important than missiles or nuclear weapons. For this, state-controlled media in Pyongyang mocked him and called him a "rat."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pointedly singled out Kim Jong Un's opportunity to end the abuses. "This young man, should he make a choice that would help bring North Korea into the 21st century, could go down in history as a transformative leader," Clinton told reporters in June. "Or he can continue the model of the past and eventually North Korea will change, because at some point people cannot live under such oppressive conditions -- starving to death, being put into gulags, and having their basic human rights denied."
There have been no hints that her message is now welcome in Pyongyang. Indeed, human rights seems as irritating to the new leader as it was to his father, who used the state-controlled press to announce that "there is no ‘human rights issue' in this country, as everyone leads the most dignified and happy life." In May, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency struck back, calling the United States "the worst rogue state in terms of human rights abuses." It labeled as "human scum" defectors who tell stories about horrors in the camps.
Meanwhile, in North Korean schools, the core curriculum continues to instruct kindergarten students in the art of beating up dummy U.S. soldiers. "We love playing military games knocking down the American bastards," said a poster showing children with bayonets attacking a bleeding American soldier, spotted in June by an Associated Press reporter.
Given the abiding abuses and the steady drip of poisonous internal propaganda, do scattered hints at economic and social reform amount to anything real? Is there any meaning behind the near-daily release of warm fuzzies featuring Kim Jong Un and wife? Maybe. If Chinese-style economic reform does come to North Korea, as many outside analysts have been hopefully predicting for years, then it is possible that millions of impoverished people could find real jobs that paid real salaries. They could afford to buy food instead of eating tree bark.
That would go a long way toward solving the country's most important human rights issue -- chronic hunger for millions. For years, the U.N. World Food Program has said that malnutrition and stunting afflicts nearly a third of the population.
But it is still much too early to predict any of this could happen. In the meantime, we should not allow ourselves to be manipulated by images of the jowly young leader and his nicely dressed wife at amusement parks. Until he proves otherwise, Kim is still very much his father's son.