On Tuesday, the North Korean government described President Trump's "America First" policies as an "American version of Nazism." This is not the first time North Korea has offered a stinging condemnation of the United States and the Trump administration. But given its network of brutal forced labor camps, critics have pointed out that North Korea's comparison of America to Nazi Germany is glaringly hypocritical.
The statement from the state-run propaganda outlet Korean Central News Agency reportedly called Trump's policies an "American version of Nazism far surpassing the fascism in the last century in its ferocious, brutal and chauvinistic nature," and blasted U.S. sanctions as "an unethical and inhumane act, far exceeding the degree of Hitler's blockade of Leningrad." It also compared Trump to Adolf Hitler, The Wall Street Journal reported.
But its accusation has renewed scrutiny of the North Korean government's own brutalities: the hard labor camps which, according to reports, have been likened to Nazi concentration camps.
According to the reports of former prisoners and guards alike, North Korea operates a network of perhaps the most oppressive and brutal labor camps in the world today. While the existence of the camps is not publicly acknowledged by the government, Google Earth satellite imagery has revealed many of them from above. It is believed that there are approximately 200,000 North Koreans living as prisoners in these camps, where hunger, torture, and death are reportedly rife.
For one account, take Kang Chol-hwan, a former prisoner at the Yodok camp. Chol-kwan has described living under "another form of Auschwitz" while imprisoned in the camp, and like other defectors and escaped prisoners, has attested to a system of physical abuse, starvation, and public executions ― murder for show, in other words.
A former guard at one of the camps, a 20-year-old woman named Lim Hye-jin, has also attested to the dire conditions. She described prisoners being punished for escape attempts by being beheaded, burned alive, raped, or killed in mass shootings. These same things have been described by other former guards and prisoners ― it's believed there are more than 20 such camps scattered throughout the country.
Lim Hye-jin described watching interned political dissenters set on fire, beheaded and shot dead en masse in... https://t.co/VrOM8RuXtz— Sarah Morehead (@morehead_sarah) May 2, 2017
It's unclear if the late American college student Otto Warmbier — who died six days after he was released by North Korea — was ever slated to serve time in the camps, or ever did. Warmbier was sentenced to 15 year hard labor for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster, but details of what happened to him after his sentencing (which included what many observers considered to be a coerced confession) are scant.
Recent reports suggest he may have been comatose for a full year prior to his eventual release and death, however, which would mean he was only conscious for about five months after his sentencing.
Family statement: Otto Warmbier has died pic.twitter.com/vkkpqhA3qb— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) June 19, 2017
North Korea's brutal punishment tactics are far from similar to the Nazi regime's genocidal purge against the Jews, which some estimates claim killed up to 20 million people. In North Korea, the government's punishment stems from a gross intolerance of dissent. But nevertheless, the country that accused the U.S. of behaving like Nazi Germany is itself devastatingly approximating one of the worst, most harrowing elements of Nazism.
In 2014, a United Nations report declared North Korea's treatment of its own people "strikingly similar" to that of the Nazis. Considering its treatment of its own citizens and that of prisoners from other countries, the intense criticism directed at North Korea for its labor camps gives its government's accusations at the U.S. a crucial sense of perspective.