Camp 22 was the largest, and possibly the most brutal, of North Korea's system of labour camps. Situated in the far north-east, close to the Chinese and Russian borders, it was estimated to be 31 miles long by 25 miles wide, and to contain up to 50,000 prisoners. Back in 2004 the BBC's This World reported on the gas chambers used to test chemical weapons on prisoners there:
Over the past year harrowing first-hand testimonies from North Korean defectors have detailed execution and torture, and now chilling evidence has emerged that the walls of Camp 22 hide an even more evil secret: gas chambers where horrific chemical experiments are conducted on human beings.
Witnesses have described watching entire families being put in glass chambers and gassed. They are left to an agonising death while scientists take notes. The allegations offer the most shocking glimpse so far of Kim Jong-il's North Korean regime.
Kwon Hyuk, who has changed his name, was the former military attaché at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing. He was also the chief of management at Camp 22. In the BBC's This World documentary, to be broadcast tonight, Hyuk claims he now wants the world to know what is happening.
'I witnessed a whole family being tested on suffocating gas and dying in the gas chamber,' he said. 'The parents, son and and a daughter. The parents were vomiting and dying, but till the very last moment they tried to save kids by doing mouth-to-mouth breathing.'...
His testimony is backed up by Soon Ok-lee, who was imprisoned for seven years. 'An officer ordered me to select 50 healthy female prisoners,' she said. 'One of the guards handed me a basket full of soaked cabbage, told me not to eat it but to give it to the 50 women. I gave them out and heard a scream from those who had eaten them. They were all screaming and vomiting blood. All who ate the cabbage leaves started violently vomiting blood and screaming with pain. It was hell. In less than 20 minutes they were quite dead.'
Defectors have smuggled out documents that appear to reveal how methodical the chemical experiments were. One stamped 'top secret' and 'transfer letter' is dated February 2002. The name of the victim was Lin Hun-hwa. He was 39. The text reads: 'The above person is transferred from ... camp number 22 for the purpose of human experimentation of liquid gas for chemical weapons.'
I said that it was the largest of North Korea's camps. A few days ago, the Daily NK reported that the camp had closed earlier this year:
Daily NK has belatedly confirmed that one of North Korea’s infamous network of political prison camps has been closed down, while also obtaining information suggesting that the decision to close it was triggered by a high-level defection.
A source from North Hamkyung Province informed Daily NK on the 27th, “Camp 22 in Hoiryeong was totally shut down in June. It was decided that it should be closed down after the warden who ran it and another officer ran away to China.”
The source said that all the camp inmates were transferred to other camps, and that as far as he is aware none were released....
Rumors about the closure of Camp 22 began to circulate in North Korea back in March, which is indeed when the closure appears to have begun. Initially the rumors came from people living in nearby Onsung County and Hoiryeong itself; Daily NK also heard at the time that “the camp is closing” and “the prisoners are being sent elsewhere in secret,” but could not confirm the information.
Radio Free Asia did report the news at that time, however, while people entering South Korea since then have increasingly acknowledged that they already knew the camp had been abandoned.
Given that it was triggered by a case of high-level defection, the closure appears to represent an attempt on the part of the state to cover its tracks lest the defections lead to more widespread knowledge of the nature of the North Korean political prison camp network.
Joshua Stanton at OneFreeKorea has been following the story, and wondering why the authorities would risk transferring all those tens of thousands of prisoners to other camps across the country. Then he heard a chilling report from Radio Free Asia. There were, apparently, only a few thousand prisoners left:
In January 2010, the regime slashed rations for the prisoners, confiscating most of the food they grew inside Camp 22 to feed the military, while imposing unreasonable food production quotas on the prisoner work units. Some prisoners lived on as little as 200 grams of corn a day, but many more died.
By the spring of this year, of an estimated 2010 population of 30,000 prisoners (a lower but plausible estimate compared to other NGO estimates), just 3,000 were left alive, which represents a death rate of 90%. The report claims that at one point, the guards were burning hundreds of bodies a day in a crematorium...
The people I’ve reached out to in the last few days sound convinced of the basic facts, and I am coming to the grim realization that the story is at least partially true... If so, it would be one of the greatest crimes against humanity in the history of North Korea.