In Siberia's last gulag: Conditions in North Korea's Russian logging camps, originally built for political prisoners, are reminiscent of the old Soviet gulag. But North Koreans fight to be sent to them, because from there they can defect

Andrew Higgins
Saturday 25 June 1994 23:02 BST

CHEGDOMYN, Russia: Kim Il-sung, the Great Leader, surveys the ramshackle room from a framed portrait on the wall. Glowering from a second portrait is his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, the Dear Leader. Under their constant but sightless scrutiny, a shadow-thin North Korean labourer in a soiled T-shirt and baggy black trousers crawls on to a wooden platform and fumbles nervously under a pile of bedding. At night, eight people sleep here. Now, late in the morning, the room is empty.

To get there we have walked across a muddy courtyard emblazoned with red Korean characters. The slogans are spotless. Everything else is smeared with dirt. 'We Must All Struggle to Live Like Heroes,' exhorts a string of characters nailed to the wall. From the corrugated roof screams another command: 'Let us Work and Live as the Party Wishes.'

The skinny Korean pays no attention. He has more modest thoughts on his mind. What he is about to do may help, in some imperceptible way, to undermine the world's most durable dictatorship - a regime which, the CIA believes, possesses and may one day use a nuclear bomb. But that is not his purpose. He merely wants to stay alive.

He inches forward towards a secret cache. He pauses to scan the room and, confident that he is alone with what he assumes to be a desperate Russian and the silent icons of North Korea's delirious but not quite omnipotent personality cult, pulls out his prized contraband: a bottle of rot-gut Russian vodka.

'Pyat tysich.' Five thousand. The Korean mutters the only phrase of Russian he knows. Nothing more is said. The transaction, forbidden but so frequent as to have acquired its own conventions, is always the same: 5,000 roubles ( pounds 1.75), 500ml of vodka. Same price; same bottle; no bargaining. The Russian can drink; the Korean, with luck, can eat.

It is another ordinary day in the most extraordinary outpost of Kim Il-sung's 'paradise on earth', a small archipelago of logging camps spread across southern Siberia. Moscow lies 5,000 miles away to the west, Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, 900 miles to the south. The two capitals, once intimate, are now almost as distant ideologically as they are geographically. But in camps like the one at Chegdomyn, a swampy settlement haunted by long, lovely summer sunsets and merciless winter storms, their interests still merge.

This particular intersection between the terror of unreconstructed Stalinism and the chaos of anything-goes capitalism is a muddy camp at the bottom of a steep, wooded escarpment, just past the slag-heaps of the coal mine that first lured the Russians to this beautiful but desolate spot; but you would find much the same thing at any of the camps, of which there are about 10. Each one is dotted with spotlights, emblazoned with slogans glorifying socialism, bombarded from loudspeakers with praise for Kim Il-sung, monitored by the world's most vigilant secret police and, somehow, sustained - or at least saved from starvation among its inmates - by a furtive, illicit trade in marked- up bottles of low-grade Russian vodka.

THE whole venture began in 1967, six years into a Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation between the Soviet Union and the People's Democratic Republic of Korea. Leonid Brezhnev, secure in the Kremlin after the removal of Nikita Khrushchev and all traces of ideological apostasy, wanted to make a special gesture to Kim Il-sung. Installed in Pyongyang by Soviet troops in 1945, the North Korean leader was already well on his way to matching Stalin's record of a quarter of a century of absolute rule. Unlike Mao Tse-tung in Peking, he had never got too big for his boots, and, while he may have risked nuclear Armageddon by starting the Korean War in June 1950, he did so - as documents in the Moscow archives show - with Stalin's blessing. Kim Il-sung was dangerous, but he was docile.

The special favour offered by way of thanks was this: North Korea would be allowed to build labour camps in Siberia. Kim Il-sung was delighted. He could now send his opponents to a region more inhospitable than anywhere within his own borders: colder in winter, hotter and swarming with mosquitoes in summer.

A series of remote sites was chosen across the Khabarovsk and Amur regions in Russia's far eastern territories. Moscow's motives were not wholly magnanimous, nor Kim Il-sung's entirely sadistic. The arrangement promised profit for both. Kim Il-sung's prisoners would be the Soviet Union's lumberjacks in places where Russians would never work. Moscow would provide the trees - and lorries, saws and fuel; Pyongyang would provide the muscle to cut them down. The lumber could be exported, shipped to factories in Russia or pulped for paper.

In the spirit of 'friendship and co-operation', Brezhnev and Kim Il-sung agreed that profits from the enterprise should be shared. They drew up a contract; Russia would get the lion's share. The exact division changed slightly over the years. A split of 60-40 became 65-35, and since January, when Russia broke up the last contract, the Russians and the North Koreans have been haggling over a new ratio.

The Soviet Union that Brezhnev knew may have collapsed, and Boris Yeltsin, Yegor Gaidar and others may have created a once- unthinkable post-communist society on its ruins, but the Korean archipelago has continued

as if the upheavals of the past decade had never happened. Urgalles, the joint venture set up to supervise the business side of the camps, still has its headquarters in a grey, three-storey brick building on a rutted track called Park Street, down from Chegdomyn's main market. At the entrance are plaques in Korean and Russian. An oil painting half-way up the concrete stairway shows smiling Koreans cutting trees and loading lumber in the snow. Visitors can enjoy back issues of a Scandinavian lumber magazine, and of Korea - in whose pages they can read how the German Communist Party sent a delegation to Pyongyang, as did the Zambian Defence Ministry and the government of Mongolia.

Yet although the most important elements of life in the last Siberian gulag - hunger, cold and cruelty - remain constant, the camps have not been able to avoid change altogether, and two developments, in particular, have been highly significant.

First, in the mid-1970s, North Korea stopped sending prisoners and began filling the barracks at its Siberian logging camps with

ordinary labourers. And then, more recently, as Pyongyang stubbornly refused to acknowledge that the world was changing while Russia discovered capitalism, the ordinary labourers began running away.

MR PARK is one of those who got away. A 36- year-old former driver from Pyongyang, he has found shelter and, he hopes, security behind the locked steel door of a flat in southern Moscow. He fled Siberia nearly a year ago but still frets about being shanghaied and taken back to Korea. He never ventures outside his bleak housing estate hideaway. He never uses his real name: he has a wife and two children in Pyongyang. Also back in North Korea, he says, are the three friends with whom he planned his escape. All of them were captured.

The exact number of runaways from the Siberian camps is not known. North Korea does not admit, never mind enumerate betrayal. The South Korean embassy in Moscow, to which many fugitives have turned for asylum, says that around 170 have fled. Roughly half took refuge in China, where they can blend easily with the large Korean-speaking population; the rest found sanctuary, via an underground railway manned mostly by religious groups, in Moscow and other Russian cities.

Mr Park says that he arrived in Russia in 1990, crammed in a special train with around 300 other labourers. They crossed the border at Khasan, passed through Ussuriysk and then continued - on a railway line now regularly scoured by North Korean security agents for runaways - to Khabarovsk, on the banks of the Amur River, the main clearing-house for Kim Il-sung's Russian camps. From there they split up and fanned out into the forests.

AT THEIR peak, North Korea's Siberian logging camps housed around 20,000 labourers. The number today is nearer half that, and a further 3,000 of those who remain have been ordered back home and are preparing to leave. Some settlements have been reduced to ghost towns. About 60 miles south of Chegdomyn, along one of the old logging roads, sits the remains of the Kim Il-sung Driving Academy, its entrance overgrown, the red paint of faded slogan boards cracked and chipped. The only sign of life is a couple of guards outside, washing their underwear. Behind the academy the forest stretches for hundreds of miles to the mountains. But Kim Il-sung's labourers still dot vast swathes of territory, manning about a dozen outposts from Chegdomyn to Tinda, along the route of what, had it ever been finished, should have been Brezhnev's great monument, a second trans-Siberian railway.

Each camp replicates the basic blueprint: a fuel dump, a central hall, rows of wooden barracks, a huge painting of the thatched cottage where Kim Il-sung was born, slogan boards and concrete totem poles erected in honour of his birthday. Russian officials dislike the word camp. It has the same ugly echoes in Russian as in English. They prefer LesPromKhoz - Timber Industry Settlements. But Korean runaways point to a curious detail of such settlements: each has its own prison - a small windowless room unheated in winter, when temperatures drop to minus 50C, and suffocating in summer.

Detention is sometimes supplemented by torture. One technique popular with North Korean camp security, says Mr Park, is to force the prisoner to crouch down and hold a log parallel to the ground between his bent knees. The agony starts slowly but builds up to excruciating pain. Other methods are more straightforwardly brutal: beatings. The bodies of dead workers, killed in accidents or in more mysterious circumstances, are quietly transported back to Pyongyang. (The town cemetery in Chegdomyn contains not a single Korean gravestone, though the Koreans have been here for more than three decades. Some reports speak of camp officials waiting to make up job lots of bodies, 10 or more, before sending them back.)

Food rations, says Mr Park, are near starvation level: three bowls of rice diluted with water, occasionally garnished with chunks of carrot or a few leaves of cabbage grown on farms near the camps. Meat is served three times a year: at Korean New Year, and on the birthdays of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. 'It was gruel a pig would not eat,' says Mr Park. He laughs uproariously at the suggestion that they might get kimchi, the Korean national dish. 'If we had kimchi it would have been a spa.'

What makes him laugh even more is another suggestion: that he might have preferred to stay in North Korea. Semi-slave labour in Siberia, he says, is something that North Koreans struggle for, not something that they shun. North Korea under Kim Il-sung, who declared himself President for Life in 1972, is so regimented that all radio sets are manufactured to receive only government stations, newspapers offer nothing but praise for Mr Kim and his son, and anybody who dissents is quickly dispatched to labour camps as brutal as any created under Stalin.

Mr Park counts himself lucky: he wangled himself a job in Siberia. 'My father worked 30 years in the Pyongyang militia, so he had some very good contacts. Coming to Russia was seen as a privilege.' Also helpful were his 10 years of membership in the North Korean Workers' Party, Kim Il-sung's fan club and North Korea's sole political organisation. About 85 per cent of all workers sent to Siberia are, by some estimates, party members.

Competition is so fierce, according to Mr Park, that only one in a hundred applicants is rewarded with a berth on the train to Siberia; and the selection process is hazardous, too: too much enthusiasm might suggest dissatisfaction with 'paradise on earth'. As a result, 'Everyone knows about the camps, but no one mentions them outside of their own home.'

Siberia is grim, but compared with North Korea it offers rare vistas of opportunity and hope - not least in a dusty square opposite Chegdomyn's only public eatery, a vile greasy- spoon canteen. This is the town's market, graced on one side by an oriental pavilion built by Pyongyang. A row of wooden tables displays cans of Great Wall Brand beef from China, foul-smelling Russian papirosi cigarettes, and the forbidden fruit: crunchy prawn crackers and instant noodles from South Korea. Few North Koreans have money to spend here, but some have goods which they can trade. Mr Park says he brought boxes of Korean pencils to sell to Russians. Others bring sweets or clothing.

In North Korea, all trade is speculation, all speculation sin. The same austere dogmas are supposed to apply in the camps, enforced by secret police and reinforced by political indoctrination classes twice a week. At the market, Kim Il-sung's security men - a group of unsmiling North Koreans in old-fashioned cloth caps - can often be seen loitering nearby.

But the system is breaking down. The bacteria of what North Korea has long diagnosed as Russia's ideological sickness are spreading. And, at this critical moment, the camps can hold out no longer. They are missing what every cause needs to survive a siege: food. Supplies from North Korea are drying up. Salaries frozen since the Soviet era (Pyongyang does not recognise inflation) now amount to less than 10p a month. Starvation is eating away at discipline. 'This is not a concentration camp, but their food is practically non-existent,'

Vladimir Olsenko, first deputy director of

the joint logging venture, admitted. 'Their economy has collapsed.'

On an empty side street in Chegdomyn, I offer a banana to a famished-looking North Korean. He thrusts out his hand. But then he stops himself. Instinct and indoctrination are fighting it out. For several seconds his arm, half-extended, and hand, half-open, are frozen. Finally, he grabs the banana and rushes away down a lane, his elbows pumping as he peels the skin and gobbles the banana.

'They can't feed us any more,' Mr Park told me in Moscow. 'They have to look the other way. They are losing their grip.'

The big business is vodka. Korean labourers started selling liquor when Mikhail Gorbachev took over the Kremlin and trumpeted temperance. They made and sold a home-brew, samogan. Now that vodka is available again in state shops, the Koreans have cornered the market in off-hours booze. They buy a bottle

for 3,600 roubles at a rusty metal kiosk and sell it for 5,000 to Russian drunks.

Outside a camp at Urgal, down the railway line from Chegdomyn, a North Korean crouches next to a field of cows with a plastic bag stuffed with goods for sale: a frilly dress, a scarf and a pair of socks from China. On a hillside outside of Chegdomyn dotted with summer dachas, North Koreans have become Chegdomyn's all-purpose hired hands, digging gardens, building greenhouses. On a road back into town, a rusting sign offers a lesson in Soviet civics: 'Democracy means Rules, Obligations, Responsiblity and Discipline.' Nearby, two Korean loggers crouch by a wooden box hawking cabbage and pepper. Camp officials sometimes lash out, detaining and beating traders: the fear has not vanished from camp life. But hunger is clearly stronger.

Only one thing is never for sale: the Kim Il- sung badge worn by every North Korean. This, at least, remains sacred. An offer to break the taboo prompts a frantic, mantra-like chant: 'Kim Il-sung khorosho, Kim Il-sung khorosho, Kim Il-sung khorosho.' Kim Il-sung is good, Kim Il-sung is good, Kim Il-sung is good.

GOOD or not, the representatives of the Great Leader seem reluctant to allow outsiders to inspect his works. Two years ago, a German journalist who had flown in by helicopter to one of the Siberian camps had his visit cut short by a mob armed with a chainsaw. Disturbed by the bad publicity resulting from the assault, the North Koreans built a showcase pavilion at a logging camp at Urgal, some 30 miles from Chegdomyn, and, for a brief moment of glasnost, invited a Japanese television crew for a chaperoned visit.

The ploy was soon abandoned. Today, at their administrative compound on the outskirts of Chegdomyn, North Korean guards shoo away anyone who even pauses at the gate to admire a Kim Il-sung totem pole inscribed with birthday greetings: 'We Hope the Great Leader Will Live For Ever without Illness.'

At Chegdomyn, among the workers shuffling through the streets in their filthy rags, one sleek, middle-aged Korean cadre, the face of Kim Il-sung pinned to his immaculate suit, stands out. He is the camp administration's head of 'foreign relations'. He scurries away at the first sight of a foreigner. 'You smile to our faces,' he mutters huffily in Russian, 'but say evil things behind our back. You are not our friend. Go away.'

Yet North Korea is far from friendless in Siberia. At Chegdomyn's pleasant, leafy railway station, stony-faced North Korean agents patrol the platform, on the lookout for runaways. Most of the Russians waiting for the 10.40am train to Khabarovsk (journey time 18 hours) seem oblivious to Kim Il-sung's enforcers, making their boisterous farewells without a thought to these servants of the last Stalinist state. But those Russians who do know what's going on seem positively eager to help.

Nina Odintsova, a chunky, jolly woman who collects tickets and serves tea in carriage No 6, also roots out stowaways with glee. She checks each passport and work identity card - documents no North Korean on the run will ever have - with scrupulous care. She is not cruel, just conscientious.

So, too, is Vladimir Sovorkin. Should any North Koreans manage to get as far as Khabarovsk, they will find no sympathy from this enthusiastic paragon of police discipline. He stands guard outside a grey brick building on the platform, watching each train come and go, a proud officer of the Ministry of Interior Transport Police.

'It is very difficult for them to get through,' he boasts. 'We are very tough.' And if they get caught? 'We hand them over.' And then what? He runs his finger across his throat. It

is meant as a joke. It is probably not far

from the truth.

But perhaps the most uncompromising Russian cheerleader for Kim Il-sung's Siberian gulag is Petr Titkov, former Communist Party functionary and lumber boss, now head of Chegdomyn's local administration. He is North Korea's bulldog, benefactor and beneficiary. It is Titkov who protects the gate.

Titkov runs his fiefdom from a timbered town hall on Central Street. He is tanned and leathery, dressed for work in a white polo shirt, barking orders down a cordless telephone. His office is decorated with pictures of animals and a painting of a sunset over the forest. Locals say that he is efficient - they also say that

he is ruthless.

Listening to him defend the North Korean camps, he could just as easily be a redneck American sheriff of 30 years ago defending segregation: 'All this noise about the camps is completely unnecessary,' he drawls. 'This is our affair. How it works is our matter and nobody else's'

Of course, he says, there are a few problems because of food shortages. 'But we all have problems these days. We all get a lot less to eat than three or five years ago, never mind 10 years ago.'

The local militia has orders to hustle unwanted visitors out of town. Titkov has declared the zone closed and requires a special permit. 'I will decline all permission to visit the camps,' he says stonily. 'There will be no visits by any foreigners.'

As well as chasing away intruders, he also collects the money. Around 20 per cent of Chegdomyn's budget, he says, comes from North Korean logging. About 600 Russians also rely on it for work. 'These are not concentration camps. The Koreans are free to move where they want. But like any enterprises the Koreans have their own work regime. They have their own rules and order.'

He has no time for the testimony of runaways: 'Maybe we should ask: why did they run away? What were they afraid of? Did they have political reasons? Or had they broken the rules and were afraid of facing the consequences?'

He sniffs at the idea that North Koreans might practise unorthodox methods of law enforcement. 'There is no fear here. No one has anything to fear. If they work normally, don't drink, don't steal, what can they possibly have to fear? They fear nothing.'

LESS SANGUINE about the camps are a handful of officials at the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow. 'This is a great problem for us,' concedes Mikhail Lebedev, a former arms negotiator recently transferred to work on human rights. 'It is very hard because the psychology of North Korea is so different.'

He has been to Pyongyang twice since last November, with other Russian officials, to try and sort out the logging arrangement. The first round did not go well. 'They lectured us about American imperialism.' What had begun in 1967 as a model of comradely co-operation had become a huge headache.

Worse, it had become a public headache. Amnesty International compiled a report last summer complaining of 'makeshift prisons' inside the camps: 'Conditions of detention are harsh and may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.' North Korea, in an unusual departure, responded in a letter from its mission to the United Nations in Geneva, but this did little to allay concern. It confirmed the existence of a North Korean security force on Russian soil. Their job, it said, was 'to educate workers to properly observe Russian law'. It denounced talk of 'prisons' but spoke of 'education rooms' to 'give knowledge about Russian laws'.

Stoking the issue further was the steady trickle of escapees. No one knew quite what to do with them. Russia worried about upsetting North Korea; South Korea worried about upsetting both. 'It is legally not tidy for us to grant them asylum,' said the South Korean Foreign Minister, Han Sung-joo, in March.

A second round of talks opened last month in Pyongyang between Russian and North Korean officials. This time, says Mikhail Lebedev, the tone was less strident, though members of the Russian delegation did receive copies of Kim Jong-il's pamphlet, We Shall Not Permit Any Slander of Socialism.

Russia, anxious that inhuman conditions reminiscent of the old Soviet gulag were being perpetuated on its territory by North Korea, is demanding a new contract which would commit North Korea to respect certain basic

human rights. The Russians have also told

South Korea that they will not object if it

offers asylum to North Korean runaways from camps in Siberia.

But well-meaning diplomats like Lebedev and his colleagues in the Department of International Humanitarian Co-operation and Human Rights readily admit that commitments on paper will be difficult to enforce. 'The Foreign Ministry has a very small voice,' Lebedev says. 'We are a small part of the Foreign Ministry. One problem is human rights, another is economics.'

A final decision has yet to be reached, but it is now almost certain the camps will stay open. And if any changes are made, it will be people like Titkov, vigilant local policemen and bureaucrats in Siberia who will make them.

Yevgeny Shultsev, another Foreign Ministry official, is frank about the limits of diplomacy: 'We can change the small print, we can change our laws, but we can't change North Korea. These camps reflect North Korean society. This we can't change.'-

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