The penal system has played a central role in the North Korean government’s response to the country’s profound economic and social changes. Two refugee surveys-one conducted in China, one in South Korea-document its changing role. The regime disproportionately targets politically suspect groups, particularly those involved in marketoriented economic activities. Levels of violence and deprivation do not appear to differ substantially between the infamous political prison camps, penitentiaries for felons, and labor camps used to incarcerate individuals for misdemeanors, including economic crimes. Substantial numbers of those incarcerated report experiencing deprivation with respect to food as well as public executions and other forms of violence. This repression appears to work; despite substantial cynicism about the North Korean system, refugees do not report signs of collective action aimed at confronting the regime.
Such a system may also reflect ulterior motives. High levels of discretion with respect to arrest and sentencing and very high costs of detention, arrest and incarceration encourage bribery; the more arbitrary and painful the experience with the penal system, the easier it is for officials to extort money for avoiding it. These characteristics not only promote regime maintenance through intimidation, but may facilitate predatory corruption as well.