Holocaust Now: Looking Down Into Hell at Camp 22

Those who have lived to tell us about Camp 22, located in the bleak northeastern tip of North Korea, can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and all of them are former guards or staff. Of all of North Korea’s numerous labor camps and detention facilities, large and small, Camp 22 is one of the largest, and almost certainly the most terrible, if only for the inhuman experiments witnesses say were done to the men, women, children, and even infants sent there.

[Click the thumbnails in this post to see them full-size]

[The scale of North Korea’s Concentration Camp System. 0:42]
[Source: BBC, “Access to Evil“]

North Korea’s system of spying, thought-control, isolation, and terror may have no equal in human history. That is how Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il kept the secrets of Camp 22 inside its ten-foot wire fences and distinctive blocky guard posts for decades. That changed when satellite photography went public. Since then, Google Earth has revealed the world’s most secret places to armies of amateur “squints.” Satellite photography was available to the human rights researcher David Hawk when he set to work on “The Hidden Gulag,” his ground-breaking study of North Korea’s forced labor camps. Hawk’s interviews with survivors and former guards alone would not have had the same impact had those witnesses not been able to point to those photographs and say,

“This is the detention center,” he said. “If someone goes inside this building, in three months he will be dead or disabled for life. In this corner they decided about the executions, who to execute and whether to make it public.

“This is the Kim Il Sung institute, a movie house for officers. Here is watchdog training. And guard training ground. Pointing to another spot, he said: “This is the garbage pond where the two kids were killed when guard kicked them in pond.

This also allows us to begin our tour from a base line of more-or-less known fact. Absolute certainty will have to wait for the day when Camp 22 is liberated. For Google Earth newbies, you can download the program here. Each screen grab also shows the scale, coordinates, altitude, and attitude, in case you want to have a look for yourself.

Google Earth’s high-resolution imagery covers less than half of Camp 22, the portion that you will view — and escape — from the warmth and comfort of your home today. As I write this, North Korea has declared four days of celebration for Kim Jong Il’s 65th birthday, and it is just possible that the inmates of Camp 22 will be permitted a few days of rest from the mines and farms there, where the prisoners usually labor 12 or more hours a day, seven days a week.

Camp 22 is said to hold 50,000 men, women, and children. We can only see one portion of the camp with Google Earth’s high-resolution photography.


The yellow scale line to the right of the fence line is just shy of 14 miles. According to “The Hidden Gulag,” the whole camp is 31 miles long by 25 miles wide. That works out to over 700 square miles, but if one makes allowances for the camp’s irregular shape, a rough estimate of 500 square miles seems more likely. That would make it as big as the city of Los Angeles. Where high-resolution photography is available, it’s not hard to see the fence line punctuated at intervals of about 1200 feet by guard posts (below, left), buttressed, in places, by smaller guard shacks like these (below, right).

camp-22-guard-post.jpg camp-22-guard-shack.jpg

I couldn’t explain these unusual ditches until I noted this MSNBC report, claiming that the camp is surrounded by “land mines and man-traps.”


It’s impossible to draw any firm conclusion, but these ditches could be “tiger traps” whose coverings have weathered away. It’s certainly hard to imagine what other reason there could be for digging trench lines like this along the fence line of a forced labor camp.

[Kwon Hyuk describes the camps’ electric fences and spiked moats. 0:52]
[Source: BBC, “Access to Evil”]

The camp is in a remote area, surrounded mostly by forest. In a few areas, however, just beyond the fence, the lives of North Korea’s peasant farmers, such as they are, go on.


They cannot read foreign newspapers, listen to foreign broadcasts, possess cell phones or radios that can pick up unauthorized broadcasts, express unauthorized opinions, or travel abroad without fear of entering this gate. The state owns everything, including the meager rations they grow, and on which they live. Still, for farmers in North Korea, survival is a little easier than it is for workers in the blighted factory towns where unemployed survivors of the Great Famine still live by stripping the ruins of copper wire. Just the same, one suspects that the farmers know what’s good for them. Most likely, they stay away from the fence, keep their eyes on the soil, and never mention it.

[Update, 4/2007: The camp’s presence is impossible to ignore completely when it intrudes into the lives of those who live near it, of course. While living in Seoul, a Korean-American teacher, Joseph Songhoon Lee, met and taught a defector who had lived just outside the camp’s gate, perhaps near the area imaged above. Lee described the defector’s experiences in a recent article for the Washington Post:

[B] graduated from School 34 a few weeks ago and is studying at Sungkyunkwan University, one of the nation’s top colleges. He grew up a few minutes away from one of North Korea’s most notorious political prisons, Prison 22 in Hyeryung, Ham-Kyung Province, at the northern tip of North Korea. Because food and alcohol are scarce in the countryside, the prison guards went to [B’s] house for libations. “They always drank heavily,” he told me. “And when they got drunk, they would mumble about how sorry they felt for what they did to prisoners.

I redacted information identifying the defector at Mr. Lee’s request. End Update.]

The guard posts are the most distinctive feature of the North Korean camps to a Google-Earther. Here, for example, are Camp 14 (left) and Camp 18 (right), near the town of Sunchon …

camp-14.jpg camp-18.jpg

I first posted pictures of Camp 16 (below, left) here. It’s near North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing ranges. Camp 15 (below, right) near the town of Yodok, became infamous after survivor Kang Chol Hwan described it in “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.”

camp-16.jpg camp-15.jpg

[Former child prisoner and author Kang Chol Hwan describes how prisoners were forced to stone each other to death at Camp 15. 1:01]
[Source: Discovery Channel, “Children of the Secret State“]

[Clandestine footage of Camp 15, Yodok. 0:50]
[Source: CNN, “Undercover in the Secret State“]

You can’t help but think that some of these places would be beautiful if their stories were less sad. Camp 16, according to “The Hidden Gulag,” is a place of exile for families of the condemned. In North Korea’s Confucian society, in which every word of the late Great Leader Kim Il Sung is worshipped as holy scripture, the regime strictly obeys his order to root out class enemies for three generations. That’s why North Korea doesn’t just arrest the person who sings a South Korean pop song or makes an unguarded remark about the food supply. It arrests that person’s husband or wife, parents, and children, too.

[Survivor describes North Korea’s system of heredetary punishment of entire families. 0:54]
[Source: BBC, “Access to Evil”]

For the children of Camp 22, life is short and hard.

One unforgettable image, there were two girls and they were trying to take out a piece of noodle from one polluted water pond where they put the garbage. And one guard kicked the kids into the small pond, and they drowned. The pond was very deep, and I felt really sad about that.

Ahn reports that of the 1,500 to 2,000 prisoners who died each year from malnutrition alone, most were kids. This figure does not include deaths from disease, torture, execution, or from the casual murders he recollects:

I saw numerous prisoners killed, especially by beating. I saw one person age between 40 and 50 — he’s old enough because the average age of prisoner is between 40-50 — he was working in brick factory. And as he was older he was moving slowly, he was not working well. And the team master tramped on his loin, and the bone was broken. He was hit by an iron rod that is used to start vehicle engines, and I heard the next day he died.

For others, death is a gradual process of human breakage and dismemberment:

At that time the tunnel was passing near the pig pen of the camp, and about 500 political prisoners were participating and there was one female named Han Jin Duk, 26 years old. I was in charge of giving food to the pigs. And my supervisor, when he saw the woman, she was beautiful. And he raped her, and he was found by the watchman officer. And he was investigated. My superior, his rank was reduced and the woman was sent to the detention center And then I didn’t see her for one year.

One day I was going to the place to load the coal, I met her. And I noticed she was exactly that woman, and I asked her, how you could survive. And she told me, that yes, I survived. But she showed me her body, and it was all burned by fire.

After six months I met her at the corn storage in Kusan district and found her putting on a used tire on her knees because her legs were cut off. Because of a coal mine wagon ran over her knees. And all she could do now was separate the corn grains from the cob.

[Camp survivor describes torture he experienced in the camps. 1:52]
[Source: BBC, “Access to Evil”]

And as we will see, Camp 22 may hide greater horrors than even this.

Two of Camp 22’s gates are visible from the air. Looking closely at this gate, the southernmost of the two (below, left), you can actually see a group of people standing in the courtyard, and another behind one of the buildings. Are these guards? Or is this a new crop of prisoners being brought in? Further north is the main gate (below, right), which lies on the road to the town of Hoeryong.

camp-22-southwest-gate-with-people.jpg camp-22-main-gate.jpg

Just a few meters from the gate is the place through which trains enter and leave Camp 22, carrying coal from the Chungbong Coal Mine inside the camp to the power plant at Chongjin and the steel mill at Kimchaek. Here you can see another guardpost, and a curious catwalk over the tracks. This, I speculate, is to allow guards to make sure that no prisoner can hide inside any of the coal cars.


Following the tracks west, I even found one of the coal trains.


This is the Chungbong Coal Mine, inside the camp. If you compare the image on the left to the previously published one on the right, there isn’t much doubt that it’s the same one the witnesses identified to David Hawk, who published this photograph of the mine with his report.

camp-22-chungbong-coal-mine-overview.jpg camp-22-haengyong_mape_chungbong.jpg

Closer in, we can see the mine in more detail: a row of hand-cars just outside the tunnel entrance, and piles of mine timbers. The resolution is even good enough for us to see oxcarts passing each other on the road south of the mine. In other places, you can even see individual people walking on the road. The oxcarts give some idea of the size of the huts in which the prisoners live.

camp22-pithead-and-coal-cars.jpg camp-22-oxcart.jpg

My image of a concentration camp’s housing is of neat rows of barracks like this. When I first saw the satellite photos of Camp 22, they were not what I expected. From the air, it could almost be any ordinary village or neighborhood, but for the fence that surrounds it, and for the reports of the witnesses. Prisoners, some of them with their families, mostly live in small huts.


As with most of North Korea’s labor camps, housing is clustered in fairly small groups. Many other prisoners are housed in much smaller villages, like these:


There’s really no telling why North Korea houses its prisoners this way, but it makes sense from the perspective of cold logic. As even the Nazis learned, camps are more secure if they’re less concentrated. Two dozen prisoners in a small village present much less of a threat of rebellion than, say, the large group of prisoners who rose up in the Onsong Camp in 1997. The uprising ended with 5,000 dead, and Kim Jong Il reportedly ordered every trace of the place scraped off the face of the earth. It’s easier to guess why prisoners are housed in huts; the camps’ main method of control is to keep inmates on the verge of starvation and extend them small rewards for informing on each other. That, and the hut-style housing, limit the opportunities to think unauthorized thoughts.

[Kwon Hyuk describes torturing and killing entire families at Camp 22 as punishment for the infractions of one family member or neighbor. 1:18]
[Source: BBC, “Access to Evil”]

Where, you may wonder, are the bodies buried? Ahn Myong Chol answers:

Not only here but all other places, even in the small hills they bury bodies. And when we cut the trees down, sometimes we find a buried body. Not only here, but all around here are buried bodies.

In the hills here, if there is some flat area, it is covered with graves. And if people start to farm there, they find bodies or bones.

Ahn doesn’t describe a specific location, but if you look at the thinly wooded hills around the housing areas, that’s where they’re probably buried. All I can make is an educated guess, but I’ll guess that this hill is a likely site.


I called my guess “educated:” traditionally, Koreans bury their dead in round graves on high places. Relatives care for the graves of their loved ones. Proper Korean graves are covered with carefully trimmed grass. Clearly, proper burials are not always possible at Camp 22, but if you look closely at this hill, which sits just next to the larger housing area pictured above, you can actually make out a few light, round patches of disturbed earth.

[Ahn Myong Chol tells about North Korea’s killing fields, and how mutilated bodies were left to decompose in the woods. 1:58]
[Sources: Discovery Channel, “Children of the Secret State”; National Geographic Channel, “Inside North Korea“]

I served in South Korea with the U.S. Army for four years, from 1998 to 2002. As I was serving in Korea, more survivors of the camps began to describe the conditions there. We already heard about the completely preventable famine that killed about 2 million North Koreans while Kim Jong Il built a nuclear arsenal and bought artillery, submarines, missiles, and MiG’s. For the soldiers, in a way, none of this really mattered much. Most soldiers tend to be fairly apolitical. For those who kept up with the reports, it only reinforced what we knew, but could not really change, about the brutality of life inside North Korea. What struck me more was why South Koreans didn’t care. This comment on my blog typifies the mixture of denial and justification so many South Koreans, especially the young, applied to the horrors in the North. It’s a wierd witch’s brew of nationalism and socialism that, in its various forms, periodically incinerates lives by the millions.

Just after I left Korea, while I was still on active duty, I read two reports that haunt me to this day. One was this BBC report, citing the accounts of multiple survivors, that North Korea kills the babies of refugee women China forcibly repatriates:

One woman told of being forced to assist injection-induced labours and then watching as a baby was suffocated with a wet towel in front of its mother. Many former prisoners told of babies buried alive or left face down on the ground to die. They were told by guards this was to prevent the survival of half-Chinese babies. If fleeing North Koreans are discovered by Chinese police, they are almost always returned home.

None of this was enough to interfere with China scoring the 2008 Olympics, or with its favorable trade relations.

At the time I read this, my son, who is half Korean, was two months old. It was one of two times in my adult life I can recall having broken down and wept. The other was when I read this:

‘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.’

Hyuk has drawn detailed diagrams of the gas chamber he saw. He said: ‘The glass chamber is sealed airtight. It is 3.5 metres wide, 3m long and 2.2m high_ [There] is the injection tube going through the unit. Normally, a family sticks together and individual prisoners stand separately around the corners. Scientists observe the entire process from above, through the glass.’

‘It would be a total lie for me to say I feel sympathetic about the children dying such a painful death. Under the society and the regime I was in at the time, I only felt that they were the enemies. So I felt no sympathy or pity for them at all.’ [The Guardian]

According to the “scientist” who claims to have participed it, this also happened at Camp 22.

[How families die in the gas chamber at Camp 22. 4:12]
[Source: BBC, “Access to Evil”]

There are no high-resolution images of the camp’s administration areas, where this is most likely to have happened, but “The Hidden Gulag” published this photo.


You can see photos of the camp’s North and South sections, where are beyond the Google Earth coverage, here and here. The gas chamber reports were the basis of the BBC Television Documentary “Access to Evil.” They are not the only reports about Camp 22 that evoke the legacy of Josef Mengele. In March 2004, Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center wrote an op-ed for the Singapore Straits Times that cited the reports of a former engineer at the camp, Kang Byong Sop. Kang claimed that “political prisoners were trucked in twice a week for experiments,” and said that he saw “human hands scratching a round glass window inside a chamber that was locked with a heavy metal door.” Cooper called on North Korea to allow international inspections of Camp 22. Failing that, he did the next best thing; he flew to Seoul to interview the witnesses.

Since then, another report, attributed to British intelligence sources and published in the arch-conservative World Net Daily, made an equally horrific accusation.

“Hundreds of prisoners die there each week, the victims of biological or chemical experiments to test out [chemical and biological] weapons for North Korea’s CBW arsenal,” claims an MI6 report.

In one intelligence file is the allegation that newborn babies are taken from their mothers and injected with biological agents or given injections of chemicals that blister the skin, leaving huge keloids, the sores seen on the bodies of Hiroshima victims.

The U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea believes that 400,000 people have died in North Korea’s labor camps during the last three decades. Just for comparison, Cleveland, Oakland, Omaha, and Toulouse each have just over 400,000 people. There are still an estimated 200,000 people in the camps today.

There is no way to know for certain how many of these reports are true. Kim Jong Il’s regime won’t let anyone visit the camps, except for those who go there to die. The regime denies that the camps even exist. Neither the Red Cross, nor aid workers with the World Food Program, nor the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in North Korea has been let anywhere near the place. Human rights organizations go through the motions of publishing occasional reports criticizing the regime’s human rights record, but their few calls to inspect or close the camps attract little media attention.

Not a single government or international institution has been willing or able to confront the horrors of Camp 22. In 2004, Congress unanimously passed this law, which includes a “sense of Congress” resolution that the United States should make an issue of human rights in its dealings with North Korea. No evidence suggests that the Administration’s diplomats ever even brought the issue up. They also ignored a law requiring U.S. embassies and consulates in places like China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam to take in North Koreans who often go that far to escape their homeland.

On February 14th of this year, the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and Russia signed a deal with North Korea that aspires to remove it from the “terrorism” list, return to normal trade relations, and even full diplomatic relations. Some would say this is the only way to change North Korea, but it’s been tried. South Korea poured $7 billion in aid into the North over the last ten years. Kim Jong Il spent the money on weapons, millions of ordinary North Koreans starved, and Kim Jong Il never been more ruthless or better armed. Nothing in the agreement or the statements of the parties offers so much as a word of hope to the people in Camp 22, who will probably never hear of it. They will probably end up as forgotten and buried inconveniences.

U.N. General Secretary Kofi Annan recently apologized for doing nothing while 800,000 Rwandans were murdered. Meanwhile, the killing went on at Camp 22. Neither Annan, nor his High Commissioner for Human Rights, nor his High Commissioner for Refugees said or did much of anything. The world has forgotten the North Korean people … at least the ones without nuclear weapons. Annan’s successor, Ban Ki Moon, built his career as South Korea’s Foreign Minister by ignoring North Korean atrocities.

The media have also failed to tell this story. The few reporters who go to North Korea seldom venture far from the capital, Pyongyang. When they do go, Internal Security Bureau minders drive them all along pretty much the same circuit of palaces, tombs, and monuments. None ever gets within miles of Camp 22, and few ask. Still, they bring us back footage of tombs and monuments and strident quotes from their minders and tell us how much more we now know about North Korea than we did before. Until the international media decides to cover the story of Camp 22, it will remain out of sight and out of mind. Now you know the story, but you’ll continue to be one of the few.

Thank you for taking a few minutes to give a thought to the people who live and die in Camp 22. Your thoughts and mine will not save them, of course, but it’s almost too much to imagine that thousands of human beings would die there without anyone mourning them, for in Camp 22, even mourning the dead is forbidden.

Update, 4/2007: Here’s a corrected Digg link (thanks). If you want to join or contribute to groups that help the North Korean people or advocate for their human rights, see this post.

Update, 4/2012: If this shocked you, wait till you see how the Associated Press is portraying daily life in North Korea these days, and the role of a member of Human Rights Watch’s Board of Directors in glorifying Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.