North Korea’s system of prison camps has turned more brutal in recent years but also more difficult to hide, according to new research based on defector testimonies and satellite imagery.
Two recent reports, by researchers in the U.S. and South Korea, portray an acute desperation and horror inside North Korea’s notorious prison camps—a closed and secretive system inside one of the world’s most closed and secretive states. More than 200,000 people are sentenced to live and work in grueling conditions there, many until they die, according to the accounts as well as private and governmental estimates.
Inside North Korean Prison Camps
There are indications that the population of this gulag-like system could grow. In December, shortly after the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, his son and heir to power, Kim Jong Eun, ordered that imprisonment for someone caught illegally leaving the country would also be extended to the person’s older and younger relatives.
The latest reports are built around testimonies from a growing population of North Korean defectors, including former prisoners. Individual testimonies are largely impossible to corroborate and many defectors aren’t named, in some cases out of concerns over possible retribution against family members.
Still, a consistent portrait emerges of North Korea’s six giant kwan-li-so, or “total control camps,” where people are sent, often without trial, for offenses including defacing a picture of one of North Korea’s leaders, attending a church service or leaving the country without permission. Nearly all are in remote, mountainous regions. Some cover more ground than major cities in the U.S. and Europe.
Hunger and fear are constant. Failure to obey rules and guards’ orders can lead to torture and even death. Most prisoners perform difficult labor, sometimes in mines and factories, during the day and spend nights in barracks or smaller quarters without heating and plumbing. Sexual abuse of women is common.
A former female prisoner in one such facility, Camp 18, recalled coming upon a fellow prisoner who, apparently crazed from hunger, had beaten her daughter to death and was cooking the body in a pot. The prisoner, who is identified only by a pseudonym, says she last saw the woman being seized by camp guards. Following this 2008 incident, the prisoner said she escaped to South Korea.
Her account is in a report published this month by South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission. The full report is built on testimony from 800 defectors, including dozens who arrived in the South in the past year. The report also includes accounts from smaller prisons and “re-education centers” that are as horrific as those from the larger camps.
A woman who served time in the Jeungsan Re-education Facility, a smaller prison near the capital of Pyongyang, told the South Korean commission that thousands of prisoners are buried in a mountainside cemetery. The woman said she served on burial detail several times and that, because graves are so shallow, the ground “feels squishy when taking a step.”
The Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, or HRNK, last month published a new version of “The Hidden Gulag,” updated from the 2003 book of the same name. The new volume doubles the number of in-depth accounts of former prisoners, to 60, and includes 30 pages of satellite images of the prisons.
Among its new accounts, Jung Gwang-il, a former prisoner who defected to South Korea after his release from prison in 2003, says that during his three years in Camp 15 he saw 26 fellow prisoners die—one from torture, two in public executions and the rest from malnutrition. He saw six others taken away to what he believed was their execution.
A female prisoner at the same facility described how two other prisoners had been impregnated by male prisoners. “The babies were abandoned in the mountains,” the woman said, according to the report.
North Korea’s government has for years officially denied the existence of the prison camps. Official state media don’t mention them. Earlier this week, its state news agency lashed out at State Department criticism about its human-rights record. North Korea said Washington relies on “rumors concocted by a handful of traitors and criminals to earn living expenses after running away from their country and families.”
But technology has made the giant prisons impossible to hide. The new reports’ authors buttressed witness testimonies with satellite images now accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Human-rights activists and amateur sleuths around the world have banded together with defectors to help document the camps and the buildings, agricultural fields and mines inside.
The reports are part of a wave of new attention on the harshest controls of the North’s authoritarian regime, partly in the wake of Kim Jong Eun’s recent crackdown on defectors’ relatives. Word of the new dictator’s order, disseminated through local political-party meetings, quickly spread to North Korean defectors in the South who often remain in touch with relatives back home through cellphones and other methods the North considers illegal.
“There is new momentum on the human-rights issue in North Korea, and part of it is born of attention being paid to North Korea because of succession,” says Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation, a Washington-based organization devoted to U.S.-Asian issues, and a director of the HRNK.
The testimonies build on attention to the camps that rose with the recent publication of accounts by Shin Dong-hyuk, the only escapee known to have been born in a prison camp. Mr. Shin, whose testimony is in “The Hidden Gulag” and is the subject of the recent book “Escape From Camp 14,” has described a childhood of indoctrination and privation, without knowledge of an outside world, and recounts being tortured and seeing the execution of his mother and brother.
When he was a teenager, Mr. Shin learned that his family was sent to the prison 17 years before he was born because two of his father’s brothers defected, according to the accounts. He escaped in 2005.
Occasionally, moments of humanity and kindness emerge in the reports, typically in the form of tales in which prisoners assist other prisoners. A former guard at Camp 22 told the U.S. researchers that guards were once ordered to reduce their beatings of prisoners.
The United Nations, Amnesty International, the Red Cross and other organizations have pressed Pyongyang for information and access to the prisons, without success.
Suzanne Scholte, an HRNK board member and Washington-based activist involved with several North Korea organizations, said the process of producing formal research about the prison system sends a message to North Korean leaders that their ability to hide what is happening there is diminishing.
Even so, she said, “I’m afraid when they do open up, whether it’s through unification with the South Koreans or not, we’re going to be more appalled at what we find.”
South Koreans in recent months have grown more vocal in protesting China’s practice of forcibly returning North Korean refugees. President Lee Myung-bak raised the issue with Chinese President Hu Jintao during a March meeting. In a speech last month, Mr. Lee told South Korean government officials and private groups that North Korean human-rights matters are just as important as the nuclear-weapons issue and economic cooperation. He repeated that view last week to a visiting U.S. congressional delegation. (wsj)