Prisons in North Korea

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North Korean prisons have conditions that are unsanitary, life-threatening and are comparable to historical concentration camps. A significant number of prisoners have died each year,[1][2][3][4] since they are subject to torture and inhumane treatment.[5] Public and secret executions of prisoners, even children, especially in cases of attempted escape, are commonplace.[6] Infanticides (and infant killings upon birth)[7] also often occur. The mortality rate is exceptionally high, because many prisoners die of starvation,[8] illnesses,[9] work accidents, or torture.[10]

During the height of the North Korean famine, the government’s response was to set up many low-level labor camps for those who were caught crossing the North Korean-Chinese border or were repatriated from China. These labor training facilities were also used in response to the black market activity that resulted in people searching for food throughout the countryside (Haggard & Noland, 2012).

In 2004, these “labor training” facilities were made a regular form of punishment under the new reforms of the criminal code which included a list of economic and social crimes. This list was increased in 2007 with the corresponding punishments growing (Haggard & Noland, 2012).

The DPRK government denies all allegations of human rights violations in prison camps, claiming that this is prohibited by criminal procedure law,[11] but former prisoners testify that there are completely different rules in the prison camps.[12] The DPRK government has released no information on prisoners or prison camps and has not allowed access to any human rights organizations.[13] According to a North Korean defector, North Korea considered inviting a delegation of the UN Commission on Human Rights to visit the Yodok prison camp in 1996.[14]

Lee Soon-ok gave detailed testimony on her treatment in the North Korean prison system to the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary 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."[15] 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 subhumans. He gave an account of children in one camp who were fighting over corn retrieved from cow dung.[16]

North Korean prison camps are of two types: large internment camps for political prisoners (Kwan-li-so in Korean) and reeducation prison camps (Kyo-hwa-so in Korean).[17]

Internment camps for political prisoners[edit]

Map of the location of political prison camps (kwanliso) and ordinary prison camps (kyohwaso) in North Korea. Map issued in 2014 by the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK, under the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The internment camps for people accused of political offences or denounced as politically unreliable are run by the State Security Department. Reports from refugees also indicate any religious activity is considered illegal; offenders are often arrested and sent to political prison camps. Refugees reported arrests and disappearances for owning bibles (US Commission on International Religious Freedom, 2008). Political prisoners were historically subject to the family responsibility principle, where immediate family members of a convicted political criminal were also regarded as political criminals and interned. However, since 1994 there has been a near-abandonment of this family responsibility principle.[18][19]

It has been estimated that a quarter of a million people remain as political prisoners, one-third of that being children, where they are routinely forced into slave labor, tortured, and raped. According to satellite imagery as well as defector testimony, to include prison guards, these human rights violations continue unabated (Park, 2013).

According to former guards who have defected from North Korea, in the event of the Kim Family Regime collapse or other North Korea crisis, they were ordered to kill all political prisoners. The immediate kill of approximately 120,000 North Korean political prisoners would be genocide (Collins, 2017).

Based on the North Korean regime, “guilt by association”, three generations of family members related to the accused member are also sent to the same political prison camp (Collins, 2017).

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.[20] Yodok camp and Pukchang 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 of 5 to 20 years.

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.[21]

Moreover, many prisoners are crippled from work accidents, frostbite or torture. There is a rigid punishment regime in the camps. Prisoners who work too slowly or do not obey an order are beaten or tortured.[22] In cases 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[23]). Today there are six political prison camps in North Korea, with the size determined from satellite images[24] and the number of prisoners estimated by former prisoners and NGOs.[25][26] Most of the camps are documented in testimonies of former prisoners and, for all of them, coordinates and satellite images are available.

Repatriation[edit]

During the height of the famine in the mid to late 1990s, thousands of North Koreans crossed the border into China in search of food or jobs to support their families back home. The Chinese government, fearful of the consequences from the North Korean government, repatriated the North Korean refugees back to their country. The North Korean border police often tortured North Koreans that were forcibly repatriated, although the government at the time stated the repatriated citizens would be treated fairly. If it was determined those who fled to China had any contact with South Koreans or Protestant Christian organizations, they were sent to labor colonies or gyohwaso (felony-level penitentiaries) (US Commission on International Religious Freedom, 2008).

Camps[edit]

Political Prison Camp Official Name Location Prisoners Comments Current Status
Onsong Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 12 Onsong, North Hamgyong 15,000[27] Site of a prisoner riot where 5,000 prisoners rioted and either all or only a third were killed Currently closed since 1989
Kaechon Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 14 Kaechon, South Pyongan 15,000 Shin Dong-hyuk testimony Currently open and possibly being expanded[28]
Yodok Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 15 Yodok County, South Hamgyong 50,000 Kang Chol-hwan testimony Currently closed since 2014
Hwasong Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 16 Hwasong County, North Hamgyong 20,000 Currently open
Pukchang Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 18 Pukchang County, South Pyongan 30,000 Kim Yong testimony Either reopened with a new security perimeter or now merged with camp 14.
Hoeryong Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 22 Hoeryong, North Hamgyong 50,000 Ahn Myong-chol testimony Currently closed since 2012
Chongjin Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 25 Chongjin, North Hamgyong 5,000 Jin Gyeong-suk was abducted from China and was reportedly taken to camp 25. Currently open

Accounts[edit]

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.[29] 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.[30]

Reeducation camps[edit]

The reeducation camps for criminals are run by the Ministry of Social Security. There is a fluent passage between common crimes and political crimes, as people who get on the bad side of influential party members 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[31]) 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 they are rigorously punished.[32] Due to the dire prison conditions with hunger and torture,[33] a large percentage of prisoners do not survive their sentence terms.

One account of a North Korean refugee recalls being kicked repeatedly in the stomach by her North Korean guard in an attempt to abort her 5-month-old unborn baby. After losing consciousness during the beatings, she awoke inside the camp’s clinic where her baby was forcibly removed (Powell et al., 2006).[full citation needed]

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 labour in prison factories and in case they do not meet the work quotas, they are tortured and (at least in Kaechon camp) confined for many days in special prison cells, which are too small for them to stand up or lie full-length in.[15]

To be distinguished from the internment camps for political prisoners, the reeducation camp prisoners are forced to undergo ideological instruction after work and they are also forced to memorize the speeches of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and they even have to undergo self-criticism rites. Many prisoners are guilty of common crimes which are also penalized in other countries e. g. illegal border crossing, stealing food or illegal trading.[34]

There are around 15 to 25 reeducation camps in North Korea.[35][36]

Camps[edit]

Reeducation Camp Official Name Location Prisoners Comments Current Status
Kaechon Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 1 Kaechon, South Pyongan 6,000[37] Lee Soon-ok testimony Currently open
Tongrim Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 2 Tongrim County, North Pyongan Unknown Was listed by the 2011 NKDB Report, and 2014 & 2016 NKDB KINU listings, but its current status of operation is currently unknown.[38] Currently unknown
Sinuiju Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 3 Sinuiju, North Pyongan 2,500 Near Chinese border Currently open
Kangdong Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 4 Kangdong, Pyongyang 7,000 30 km (19 mi) from Pyongyang Currently open
Sariwon Reeducation camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 6 Sariwon, North Hwanghae 4,000 Translators Ali Lameda and Jacques Sedillot were imprisoned in this camp until Amnesty International intervened on their behalf for their eventual release from the camp.[citation needed] Currently open
Kanggye Reeducation camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 7 Kanggye, Chagang Unknown Currently unknown
Ryongdam Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 8 Chonnae County, Kangwon 3,000 Currently open
Hamhung Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 9 Hamhung, South Hamgyong 500 Former colonial prison Currently open
Chungsan Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 11 Chungsan County, South Pyongan 3,300 Many repatriated defectors Currently open
Chongori Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 Hoeryong, North Hamgyong 2,000 Many repatriated defectors Currently open
Oro Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 22 Yonggwang County, South Hamgyong 6,000 Said to have been closed around 2008 Most likely closed
Cheonma Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 55 Ch'ŏnma, North Pyongan Unknown Said to have been very overcrowded and most prisoners were sent to Camp No. 77. Its current state of operation is unknown. Currently unknown
Tanchon Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 77 Tanchon, South Hamgyong 6,000 Said to have been closed around 1997 Most likely closed
Wonsan Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 88 Wonsan, Kangwŏn Unknown Currently open
Hoeryong Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so Hoeryong, North Hamgyong 1,500 This camp may have been subsequently termed by its more precise location and name, Kyo-hwa-so No. 12, or it may have been closed. Currently unknown
Sunghori Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 8 Pyongyang, North Hwanghae 2,000 The original Sunghori concentration camp closed and was relocated to its new, current location Currently open

Kwan-li-so # 12 Onsong was closed in 1987, following a riot which was suppressed at the cost of around 6,000 dead prisoners. Kyo-hwa-so Sunghori was closed in 1991 but was reopened at a new location on an unknown date.

Accounts[edit]

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.[39]

TIME magazine article, Running out of Darkness, reports on the efforts of Kim Myong-suk to escape a North Korean prison with the help of a South Korean based charity, Helping Hands Korea (Powell et al., 2006).

"Resort" prison[edit]

In December 2016, the South China Morning Post reported on the existence of a secret prison in Hyanghari, which is euphemistically known as a 'resort,' where members of the country's political elite are imprisoned.[40]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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