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What’s it like to do ‘hard labor’ in North Korea?

On Thursday, North Korea sentenced U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae to 15 years of hard labor for committing "hostile acts" against the government. The severe punishment raises a pertinent question: What’s it like to do "hard labor" in one of the world’s most repressive countries? The answer, based on testimonies of former captives, ranges from slight ...

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On Thursday, North Korea sentenced U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae to 15 years of hard labor for committing "hostile acts" against the government. The severe punishment raises a pertinent question: What’s it like to do "hard labor" in one of the world’s most repressive countries?

The answer, based on testimonies of former captives, ranges from slight discomfort to nightmarish torture, so it’s unclear what may become of the North’s latest detainee. Bae, who ran a China-based tourism business, was apprehended in northeastern North Korea after taking a group of businessmen to the region from China in November. When considering how he may be treated, let’s start with the best-case scenario.

About four years ago, two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, found themselves in a similar predicament. They had slipped across the North Korean border from China and were sentenced to 12 years hard labor for committing "hostile acts."

Despite the punishment, they never spent a second in a labor camp for the five months of their captivity and were treated fairly gently despite a violent confrontation that occurred when they were first apprehended. "I was never sent to one of the notorious labor camps," Current TV reporter Laura Ling told CBS News. "I was in a room that had a bed and a bathroom and an adjoining room that had two female guards."

Fortunately for Ling, her sister Lisa Ling was a quasi-famous U.S. journalist, and her employer, Current TV, was partially owned by former Vice President Al Gore, who was able to get his old boss Bill Clinton to fly to the country and free them.

Others have been less fortunate. According to a Newsweek story by New York Times reporter Ravi Somaiya, an American named Aijalon Mahli Gomes was imprisoned in a "brutal labor camp" in 2010 and "tried to commit suicide" due to the poor conditions. "Swedish diplomats, acting on behalf of the U.S.-which has no diplomatic relations with North Korea-are aware of his condition," reported Somaiya. Aijalon’s release was eventually secured by former President Jimmy Carter. Another American, Robert Park of Los Angeles, saw the inside of a labor camp that same year after he crossed the Chinese-North Korean border via the frozen Tumen River. He was only held for six weeks, but when he returned to the United States he was institutionalized "resulting from severe sexual abuse he was subjected to in jail," according to Somaiya.

We know more about the treatment of Korean political prisoners. A 2009 Korean Bar Association report based on testimony from survivors and former guards detailed the daily misery of the 200,000-some political prisoners estimated to be inside the country’s labor camps.

"Eating a diet of mostly corn and salt, they lose their teeth, their gums turn black, their bones weaken and, as they age, they hunch over at the waist," read the report, according to the Washington Post.  "Most work 12- to 15-hour days until they die of malnutrition-related illnesses, usually around the age of 50. Allowed just one set of clothes, they live and die in rags, without soap, socks, underclothes or sanitary napkins."

In its 2012 annual report, Amnesty International gives a similarly horrific depiction. "The combination of hazardous forced labor, inadequate food, beatings, totally inadequate medical care and unhygienic living conditions, resulted in prisoners falling ill, and a large number died in custody or soon after release," said the group. "We received 120 grams of rotten corn for daily food," said one former prisoner. "So many people with the same year and a half sentence as me didn’t survive their term and died of hunger."

Needless to say, let’s hope Bae’s treatment is similar to Ling’s, not your everyday North Korean political prisoner’s.

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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