Prisons in North Korea

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Prisons in North Korea (often referred to by Western media and critics as "North Korean gulags") have conditions that are unsanitary, life-threatening and are comparable to historical concentration camps. A significant number of inmates have died each year,[1][2][3][4] since they are subject to torture and inhumane treatment.[5] Public and secret executions of inmates, 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.[11][citation not found]

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.[11][citation not found]

The DPRK government denies all allegations of human rights violations in prison camps, claiming that this is prohibited by criminal procedure law,[12] but former prisoners testify that there are completely different rules in the prison camps.[13] The DPRK government has released no information on inmates or prison camps and has not allowed access to any human rights organizations.[14] 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.[15]

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."[16] Many other former inmates, 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.[17]

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).[18]

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 who are accused of political offences and people who are accused of being politically unreliable are run by the State Security Department. Reports by refugees also indicate that all religious activities are considered illegal; offenders are frequently arrested and sent to political prison camps. Refugees reported that people were subjected to arrests and disappearances for owning Bibles.[19][citation not found] Political prisoners were historically subjected to the family responsibility principle, in which the immediate family members of convicted political criminals were also regarded as political criminals and interned. However, since 1994, there has been a near-abandonment of the use of the family responsibility principle.[20][21]

It has been estimated that a quarter of a million people are still political prisoners, one-third of them are children, and they are routinely forced to perform slave labor, tortured, and raped. According to satellite imagery and the testimonies of defectors, including testimonies by former prison guards, these human rights violations continue unabated.[22][citation not found]

According to former guards who have defected from North Korea, in the event of the Kim Family Regime's collapse or in the event of another crisis in North Korea, they were ordered to kill all political prisoners. The immediate murder of approximately 120,000 North Korean political prisoners would constitute a genocide.[23][citation not found]

The internment camps are located in central and northeastern North Korea. They consist of many prison labour colonies in secluded mountain valleys, completely isolated from the outside world. The total number of prisoners who are incarcerated in the camps is estimated to range from 80,000[24] to 200,000.[25] Yodok camp and Pukchang camp are separated into two sections: One section for political prisoners who are in lifelong detention, another section which is similar to re-education camps with prisoners who are sentenced to long-term imprisonment which ranges from 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 the prisoners are constantly on the brink of starvation. Along with the hard work, the small food rations cause a huge number of the prisoners to die. It is estimated that 40% of the prisoners die from malnutrition.[26]

Moreover, many prisoners are crippled from work accidents, frostbite or torture. Additionally, a rigid punishment regimen exists in the camps. Prisoners who work too slowly and prisoners who do not obey orders are beaten or tortured.[27] In cases when one prisoner is accused of stealing food or attempting to escape, the other prisoners are publicly executed.

Initially, there were around twelve political prison camps, but some of them were merged or closed (e.g. Onsong prison camp, Kwan-li-so No. 12, following a suppressed riot with around 5,000 dead people in 1987[28]). Today there are six political prison camps in North Korea, with the size determined from satellite images[29] and the number of prisoners estimated by former prisoners and NGOs.[30][31] 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 North Korean government's response, repatriated the North Korean refugees back to their country. The North Korean border police often tortured North Koreans who were forcibly repatriated, but at the time, the government stated that the repatriated citizens would be treated fairly. If it was determined that 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).[19][citation not found]

Camps[edit]

Political Prison Camp Official Name Location Prisoners Comments Current Status
Kyongsong Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 11 Kyŏngsŏng County, North Hamgyong 20,000 Closed in order to convert the area into a villa for Kim Il Sung. Closed since 1990
Onsong Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 12 Onsong, North Hamgyong 15,000[32] Site of a prisoner riot where 5,000 prisoners rioted and either all or only a third were killed. Closed since 1989
Chongsong Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 13 Chongsŏng, North Hamgyong 20,000 Approximately 20,000 prisoners were relocated after fears that the camp was located too close to the Chinese border. Closed since 1990
Kaechon Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 14 Kaechon, South Pyongan 15,000 Shin Dong-hyuk testimony Currently open and possibly being expanded[33]
Yodok Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 15 Yodok County, South Hamgyong 50,000 Kang Chol-hwan testimony Closed since 2014
Hwasong Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 16 Hwasong County, North Hamgyong 20,000 Close proximity to the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site. Currently open
Toksong Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 17 Toksong County, South Hamgyong 30,000-40,000 Approximately 30,000-40,000 prisoners were relocated to help develop a mine in Kwan-li-so No. 18. Closed since 1984
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.
Tanchon Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 19 Tanchon, South Pyongan 10,000 Closed to decrease the amount of prison camps. Closed since 1990
Tanchon Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 21 Tanchon, South Pyongan 10,000 According to a report by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) of South Korea in 2009, the camp was labeled as Camp 21 but its closure and location coincide with Camp 19, meaning they are the same camp. Closed since 1990
Hoeryong Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 22 Hoeryong, North Hamgyong 50,000 Ahn Myong-chol testimony Closed since 2012
Toksong Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 23 Toksong County, South Hamgyong 10,000 All prisoners were released in 1987, with the camp eventually becoming a prison under police control. Closed since 1987
Tongsin Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 24 Tongsin, Chagang Province 17,000 Closed since 1990
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
Sunghori Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 26 Sŭngho, Pyongyang Closed since 1991
Chonma Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 27 Ch'ŏnma, North Hamgyong 15,000 Closed since 1991

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.[34] 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.[35]

Reeducation camps[edit]

Reeducation camps in North Korea
(18 out of around 30 - 35)

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[36]) 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.[37] Due to the dire prison conditions with hunger and torture,[38] 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.[39][citation not found]

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.[16]

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.[40]

There are around 15 to 25 reeducation camps in North Korea.[41][42]

Camps[edit]

Reeducation Camp Official Name Location Prisoners Comments Current Status
Kaechon Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 1 Kaechon, South Pyongan 6,000[43] 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.[43] 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
Kangwon Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 5 Kangwon, North Korea Unknown Mentioned in the 2014 KINU list of prison camps. No other information is available on Kyo-hwa-so No. 5. Currently unknown
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 Wonsan, Kangwŏn 3,000 Currently open
Hamhung Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 9 Hamhung, South Hamgyong 500 Former colonial prison Currently open
Yongdam Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 10 Wonsan, Kangwŏn Unknown The 2014 KINU listing mentions that Kyo-hwa-so No. 10 was absorbed into Kyo-hwa-so No. 8, but there is other information on this camp under this numerical designation. Closed
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 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 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

Kyo-hwa-so Sunghori was closed in 1991 but was later 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.[44]

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.[39][citation not found]

"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.[45]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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  2. ^ World Report 2013 North Korea. 10 January 2013. Archived from the original on September 30, 2013. Retrieved June 6, 2013. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  3. ^ "Pillay urges more attention to human rights abuses in North Korea, calls for international inquiry". United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, January 14, 2013. Archived from the original on February 9, 2013. Retrieved June 6, 2013.
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  23. ^ Collins, 2017
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  39. ^ a b Powell et al., 2006
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  45. ^ Ryall, Julian (December 18, 2016). "Revealed: prison where North Korean dictators send troublesome relatives". South China Morning Post. Archived from the original on December 18, 2016.

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