Prisons in North Korea
Conditions inside prisons in North Korea are harsh and life-threatening. Prisoners are subject to torture and inhumane treatment. Public and secret executions of prisoners, even children, especially in cases of attempted escape are commonplace. Infanticides (and baby killings upon birth) also often occur. The mortality rate is very high, because many prisoners die of starvation, illnesses, work accidents, or torture.
The DPRK government denies all allegations of human rights violations in prison camps, claiming that this is prohibited by criminal procedure law, but former prisoners testify that there are completely different rules in the prison camps. The DPRK government failed to provide any information on prisoners or prison camps or to allow access to any human rights organization.
Lee Soon-ok gave detailed testimony on her treatment in the North Korean prison system to the United States House of Representatives in 2002. In her statement she said, "I testify that most of the 6,000 prisoners who were there when I arrived in 1987 had quietly perished under the harsh prison conditions by the time I was released in 1992." Many other former prisoners, including Kang Chol-hwan and Shin Dong-hyuk, gave detailed and consistent testimonies on the human rights crimes in North Korean prison camps.
According to the testimony of former camp guard Ahn Myong Chol of Camp 22, the guards are trained to treat the detainees as sub-human, and he gave an account of children in one of the camps who were fighting over who got to eat a kernel of corn retrieved from cow dung.
Internment camps for political prisoners
The internment camps for people accused of political offences or denounced as politically unreliable are run by the State Security Department. Political prisoners are subject to guilt by association punishment. They are deported with parents, children and siblings, and sometimes even grandparents or grandchildren, without any lawsuit or conviction, and are detained for the rest of their lives.
The internment camps are located in central and northeastern North Korea. They comprise many prison labour colonies in secluded mountain valleys, completely isolated from the outside world. The total number of prisoners is estimated to be 150,000 to 200,000. Yodok camp and Bukchang camp are separated into two sections: One section for political prisoners in lifelong detention, another part similar to re-education camps with prisoners sentenced to long-term imprisonment with the vague hope of eventual release.
The prisoners are forced to perform hard and dangerous slave work with primitive means in mining and agriculture. The food rations are very small, so that the prisoners are constantly on the brink of starvation. In combination with the hard work this leads to huge numbers of prisoners dying. An estimated 40% of prisoners die from malnutrition. Moreover many prisoners are crippled from work accidents, frostbite or torture. There is a rigid punishment in the camp. Prisoners that work too slowly or do not obey an order are beaten or tortured. In case of stealing food or attempting to escape, the prisoners are publicly executed.
Initially there were around twelve political prison camps, but some were merged or closed (e. g. Onsong prison camp, Kwan-li-so No. 12, following a suppressed riot with around 5000 dead people in 1987). Today there are six political prison camps in North Korea, with the size determined from satellite images and the number of prisoners estimated by former prisoners. Most of the camps are documented in testimonies of former prisoners and, for all of them, coordinates and satellite images are available.
|Political Prison Camp||Official Name||Location||Size||Prisoners||Comments|
|Kaechon Political Prison Camp||Kwan-li-so No. 14||Kaechon, South Pyongan||155 km² (60 mi²)||15,000||Shin Dong-hyuk testimony; mining area|
|Yodok Political Prison Camp||Kwan-li-so No. 15||Yodok County, South Hamgyong||378 km² (146 mi²)||46,500||Best-known camp; total control zone and revolutionizing zone|
|Hwasong Political Prison Camp||Kwan-li-so No. 16||Myonggan County, North Hamgyong||549 km² (212 mi²)||10,000||Near nuclear test site (Mantapsan)|
|Pukchang Political Prison Camp||Kwan-li-so No. 18||Pukchang County, South Pyongan||73 km² (28 mi²)||50,000||Mining area; total control zone and revolutionizing zone|
|Hoeryong Political Prison Camp||Kwan-li-so No. 22||Hoeryong, North Hamgyong||225 km² (87 mi²)||50,000||Near Chinese border; mining area; often called Camp 22|
|Chongjin Political Prison Camp||Kwan-li-so No. 25||Chongjin, North Hamgyong||0.25 km² (0.1 mi²)||3,000+||Penitentiary style|
The South Korean journalist Kang Chol-hwan is a former prisoner of Yodok Political Prison Camp and has written a book, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, about his time in the camp. The South Korean human rights activist Shin Dong-hyuk is the only person known to have escaped from Kaechon Political Prison Camp. He gave an account of his time in the camp.
The reeducation camps for criminals are run by the Ministry of People's Security. There is a fluent passage between common crimes and political crimes, as people who get on the bad side of influential partisans are often denounced on false accusations. They are then forced into false confessions with brutal torture in detention centers (Lee Soon-ok for example had to kneel down whilst being showered with water at icy temperatures with other prisoners, of whom six did not survive) and are then condemned in a brief show trial to a long-term prison sentence. In North Korea political crimes are greatly varied, from border crossing to any disturbance of the political order, and are rigorously punished. Due to the dire prison conditions with hunger and torture, a large percentage of prisoners do not survive their sentence term.
The reeducation camps are large prison building complexes surrounded by high walls. The situation of prisoners is quite similar to that in the political prison camps. They have to perform slave work in prison factories and in case they do not meet the work quota, they are tortured and (at least in Kaechon camp) confined for many days to special prison cells, too small to stand up or lie full-length in. In distinction from the internment camps for political prisoners, the reeducation camp prisoners are instructed ideologically after work and are forced to memorize speeches of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and have to undergo self-criticism rites. Many prison inmates are guilty of common crimes penalized also in other countries, but often they were committed out of economic necessity, e. g. illegal border crossing, stealing food or illegal trading.
There are around 15 – 20 reeducation camps in North Korea.
The South Korean human rights activist Lee Soon-ok has written a book (Eyes of the Tailless Animals: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman) about her time in the camp and testified before the US Senate.
|Reeducation Camp||Official Name||Location||Prisoners||Comments|
|Kaechon Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so No. 1||Kaechon, South Pyongan||6,000||Lee Soon-ok testimony|
|Sinuiju Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so No. 3||Sinuiju, North Pyongan||2,500||Near Chinese border|
|Kangdong Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so No. 4||Kangdong, Pyongyang||7,000||30 km (19 mi) from Pyongyang|
|Ryongdam Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so No. 8||Chonnae County, Kangwon||3,000|
|Chungsan Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so No. 11||Chungsan County, South Pyongan||3,300||Many repatriated defectors|
|Chongori Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so No. 12||Hoeryong, North Hamgyong||2,000||Many repatriated defectors|
|Hamhung Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so No. 15||Hamhung, South Hamgyong||500||Former colonial prison|
|Oro Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so No. 22||Yonggwang County, South Hamgyong||6,000|
|Tanchon Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so No. 77||Tanchon, South Hamgyong||6,000|
|Hoeryong Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so||Hoeryong, North Hamgyong||1,500|
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- Committee for Human Rights in North Korea: The Hidden Gulag – Exposing Crimes against Humanity in North Korea’s Vast Prison System - Overview of North Korean prison camps with testimonies and satellite photographs
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- Washington Post: North Koreas Hard Labor Camps - Explore North Korean prison camps with interactive map
- One Free Korea: North Koreas’ Largest Concentration Camps on Google Earth - Satellite imagery and witness accounts of North Korean political prison and reeducation camps