A new report by Amnesty International (pdf) concludes that North Korea is continuing and even increasing its use of political prison camps:
In order to circumvent the unwillingness of the North Korean authorities to allow human
rights investigators access, Amnesty International and others have used remote sensing tools,
such as satellite imagery, to provide more information about the human rights situation in
North Korea. Previous satellite image analysis released by Amnesty International suggests the
use and expansion of North Korea’s notorious political prison camps, and the blurring of the
boundary between kwanliso 14 and surrounding villages.
This new document provides comprehensive assessments of kwanliso 15 and 16 at Yodok
and Hwaseong respectively. Kwanliso 16 is the largest political prison camp in North Korea.
The analysis is complemented by testimony from a former prison guard of kwanliso 16 and
survivors from kwanliso 15, describing the system of repression from first-hand experience....
The findings of the new analysis are of grave concern: Far from dismantling the political
prison camps – places of systematic, widespread and grave human rights violations, such as
forced hard labour, denial of detainee’s food quota as punishment, torture and other cruel,
inhuman, or degrading treatment – they appear active and authorities appear to be investing
in maintenance of the prisons’ infrastructure.
It's worth bearing in mind that many of those held in political prison camps haven't committed any crime, but are relatives of those deemed hostile to the North Korean administration, and are detained as a form of collective punishment.
In an interview conducted in November 2013, Mr.Lee (full name withheld), who was a
security official in kwanliso 16 in the 1980s until the mid-1990s, told Amnesty International
of other forms of executions he had witnessed where inmates were forced to dig their own
graves and then killed by hammer blows to their necks by prison authorities. In another
instance, he had seen prison authorities strangling and then beating inmates to their death
with wooden sticks. He also recounted that several women inmates disappeared after they
had been raped by officials and he concluded that they had been executed secretly.
More from Joshua Stanton - who pioneered the analysis of satellite imagery of Camp 16 - at One Free Korea.
In their release, Amnesty claims that up to 200,000 prisoners, including children, are being held "in horrific conditions in six sprawling political prison camps."
Pyongyang denies their existence, despite satellite images and testimony from witnesses. Amnesty claims many prisoners are allegedly being held for nothing more than watching foreign soap operas or holding a particular religious belief, while others are incarcerated simply for having a family member deemed politically undesirable.
Camp 16, which is located near Hwaseong in North Hamgyong province, housed an estimated 20,000 people, according to previous analysis by Amnesty in 2011. But the group claims the latest images, taken in May this year, indicate a slight increase in population with the new housing blocks clearly visible. They also appear to show significant economic activity -- including mining, logging and agriculture.
Amnesty said its analysis of the images pointed to tight security at both sites with perimeter fences and security points clearly marked. "Movement appears to be restricted and controlled through secured entrance gates, guard towers and internal check-points," its report read.