Last month we saw the report from the Committe for Human Rights in North Korea, The Hidden Gulag. We've seen the publication of Blaine Harden's Escape from Camp 14, the remarkable story of defector Shin Dong-hyuk. Never has life in the extensive prison camps of North Korea been so well documented. Yet indications are that, under the new leadership of Kim Jung-un, they are, if anything, getting worse:
North Korea's system of prison camps has turned more brutal in recent years but also more difficult to hide, according to new research based on defector testimonies and satellite imagery.
Two recent reports, by researchers in the U.S. and South Korea, portray an acute desperation and horror inside North Korea's notorious prison camps—a closed and secretive system inside one of the world's most closed and secretive states. More than 200,000 people are sentenced to live and work in grueling conditions there, many until they die, according to the accounts as well as private and governmental estimates.
There are indications that the population of this gulag-like system could grow. In December, shortly after the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, his son and heir to power, Kim Jong Eun, ordered that imprisonment for someone caught illegally leaving the country would also be extended to the person's older and younger relatives.
The latest reports are built around testimonies from a growing population of North Korean defectors, including former prisoners. Individual testimonies are largely impossible to corroborate and many defectors aren't named, in some cases out of concerns over possible retribution against family members.
Still, a consistent portrait emerges of North Korea's six giant kwan-li-so, or "total control camps," where people are sent, often without trial, for offenses including defacing a picture of one of North Korea's leaders, attending a church service or leaving the country without permission. Nearly all are in remote, mountainous regions. Some cover more ground than major cities in the U.S. and Europe.
Hunger and fear are constant. Failure to obey rules and guards' orders can lead to torture and even death. Most prisoners perform difficult labor, sometimes in mines and factories, during the day and spend nights in barracks or smaller quarters without heating and plumbing. Sexual abuse of women is common.
A former female prisoner in one such facility, Camp 18, recalled coming upon a fellow prisoner who, apparently crazed from hunger, had beaten her daughter to death and was cooking the body in a pot. The prisoner, who is identified only by a pseudonym, says she last saw the woman being seized by camp guards. Following this 2008 incident, the prisoner said she escaped to South Korea.
Her account is in a report published this month by South Korea's National Human Rights Commission. The full report is built on testimony from 800 defectors, including dozens who arrived in the South in the past year. The report also includes accounts from smaller prisons and "re-education centers" that are as horrific as those from the larger camps.
A woman who served time in the Jeungsan Re-education Facility, a smaller prison near the capital of Pyongyang, told the South Korean commission that thousands of prisoners are buried in a mountainside cemetery. The woman said she served on burial detail several times and that, because graves are so shallow, the ground "feels squishy when taking a step."...
North Korea's government has for years officially denied the existence of the prison camps. Official state media don't mention them. Earlier this week, its state news agency lashed out at State Department criticism about its human-rights record. North Korea said Washington relies on "rumors concocted by a handful of traitors and criminals to earn living expenses after running away from their country and families."
But technology has made the giant prisons impossible to hide. The new reports' authors buttressed witness testimonies with satellite images now accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Human-rights activists and amateur sleuths around the world have banded together with defectors to help document the camps and the buildings, agricultural fields and mines inside.
The reports are part of a wave of new attention on the harshest controls of the North's authoritarian regime, partly in the wake of Kim Jong Eun's recent crackdown on defectors' relatives. Word of the new dictator's order, disseminated through local political-party meetings, quickly spread to North Korean defectors in the South who often remain in touch with relatives back home through cellphones and other methods the North considers illegal.
Some satellite images and camp details here. The size is astonishing. Camp 22, we learn, with an estimated prison population of 50,000, is 31 miles long by 25 miles wide.