Prisons in North Korea

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Conditions inside North Korean prison camps are unsanitary and life-threatening.[1][2][3][4] Prisoners 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 very high, because many prisoners die of starvation,[8] illnesses,[9] work accidents, or torture.[10]

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 failed to provide any information on prisoners or prison camps or to allow access to any human rights organization.[13] But 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 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."[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 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.[16]

The North Korean prison camp facilities can be distinguished into 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]

Political prison camps in North Korea
See also: Kwalliso

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.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20]

Moreover, many prisoners are crippled from work accidents, frostbite or torture. There is a rigid punishment in the camp. Prisoners who work too slowly or do not obey an order are beaten or tortured.[21] 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[22]). Today there are six political prison camps in North Korea, with the size determined from satellite images[23] and the number of prisoners estimated by former prisoners.[24] Most of the camps are documented in testimonies of former prisoners and, for all of them, coordinates and satellite images are available.


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.[25] 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.[26]

Reeducation camps[edit]

Reeducation camps in North Korea
(10 out of around 15 - 20)

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[27]) 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.[28] Due to the dire prison conditions with hunger and torture,[29] 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.[15]

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.[30]

There are around 15 – 20 reeducation camps in North Korea.[31]


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

Kwan-li-so # 12 Onsong was closed in 1987, following a defeated riot with around 5,000 dead prisoners. Kyo-hwa-so Sunghori was closed in 1991.


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.[32]

"Resort" Prisons[edit]

In December 2016, the South China Morning Post reported on the existence of a secret prison in Hyanghari, known euphemistically as 'resorts', where members of the country's political elite are imprisoned.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "North Korea: Political Prison Camps" (PDF). Amnesty International, May 3, 2011. Retrieved June 6, 2013. 
  2. ^ "World Report 2013 North Korea". Human Rights Watch. Retrieved June 6, 2013. 
  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. Retrieved June 6, 2013. 
  4. ^ "2009 Human Rights Report: Democratic People's Republic of Korea". U.S. Department of State. Retrieved May 4, 2010. 
  5. ^ "North Korea: Torture, death penalty and abductions". Amnesty International. Retrieved May 4, 2010. 
  6. ^ "White paper on human rights in North Korea 2009 (page 74–75)" (PDF). Korea Institute for National Unification. Retrieved May 4, 2010. 
  7. ^ "The Hidden Gulag – Part Four: Racially Motivated Forced Abortion and Infanticide (page 122)" (PDF). The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Retrieved June 28, 2014. 
  8. ^ "Running Out of the Darkness". TIME Magazine. April 24, 2006. Retrieved October 31, 2006. 
  9. ^ "N. Korean Defectors Describe Brutal Abuse". The Associated Press. October 29, 2008. Retrieved December 16, 2008. 
  10. ^
  11. ^ "Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Democratic People's Republic of Korea (page 7)" (PDF). United Nations Human Rights Council. Retrieved May 11, 2010. 
  12. ^ "Submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (page 8)" (PDF). Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR) and Korean Bar Association (KBA). Retrieved May 11, 2010. 
  13. ^ "Report by the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Theo van Boven: Democratic People's Republic of Korea". United Nations/Derechos Human Rights. Retrieved May 11, 2010. 
  14. ^ Yi Baek-ryong (Alias). "Yodok, Prison Camp of Death [죽음의 요덕 수용소]". Retrieved May 1, 2016. 
  15. ^ a b "Testimony of Ms. Soon Ok Lee, North Korean prison camp survivor". United States Senate Hearings. Retrieved November 11, 2010. 
  16. ^ National Geographic: Inside North Korea, aired on the History Channel in 2006, accessed on Netflix July 22, 2011
  17. ^ "The Hidden Gulag – Part Three: Kwan-li-so political panel-labor colonies (page 24 - 41), Kyo-hwa-so prison-labor facilities (page 41 - 55)" (PDF). The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Retrieved June 28, 2014. 
  18. ^ ""Escapee Tells of Horrors in North Korean Prison Camp", Washington Post, December 11, 2008". The Washington Post. December 11, 2008. Retrieved August 23, 2010. 
  19. ^ McDonald, Mark (May 4, 2011). "North Korean Prison Camps Massive and Growing". The New York Times. Retrieved May 5, 2011. 
  20. ^ "Report: Torture, starvation rife in North Korea political prisons". CNN. May 4, 2011. 
  21. ^ "The Hidden Gulag – Part Three: Torture summary (page 70–72)" (PDF). The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Retrieved June 28, 2014. 
  22. ^ "5000 Prisoners Massacred at Onsong Concentration Camp in 1987", Chosun Ilbo, December 11, 2002
  23. ^ ""North Koreas Hard Labor Camps" with interactive map, Washington Post, July 20, 2009". The Washington Post. July 20, 2009. Retrieved August 23, 2010. 
  24. ^ "The Hidden Gulag – Part Three: Kwan-li-so political panel-labor colonies (page 24–41)" (PDF). The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Retrieved June 28, 2014. 
  25. ^ Glionna, John M. (April 7, 2010). ""North Korea gulag spurs a mission", Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2010". Retrieved August 23, 2010. 
  26. ^ ""North Korean Camps" by Journeyman Pictures TV". Retrieved August 23, 2010. 
  27. ^ "United States Senate Hearings: Testimony of Ms. Soon Ok Lee, June 21, 2002". Retrieved August 23, 2010. 
  28. ^ "North Korea – The Judiciary". Retrieved August 23, 2010. 
  29. ^ "Brutality beyond belief: Crimes against humanity in North Korea". Daily NK. Retrieved August 23, 2010. 
  30. ^ "6.2.2 Trial, Charge and Sentence (p. 363 – 367)". Prisoners in North Korea Today (PDF). Database Center for North Korean Human Rights. July 15, 2011. Retrieved May 23, 2012. 
  31. ^ "The Hidden Gulag – Satellite imagery: Selected North Korean Prison Camp Locations (page 89)" (PDF). The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Retrieved June 28, 2014. 
  32. ^ "US Senate Hearings: Testimony of Ms. Soon Ok Lee, June 21, 2002". Retrieved August 23, 2010. 
  33. ^ 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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