North Korea’s Political Prison Camps Can’t Be Denied or Ignored Anymore

North Korea says they don’t exist. For years, South Korea didn’t want anyone to talk about them, and even now, it seldom does, at least directly. Our President, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has never said a word about them in public. A few years ago, a foreign service officer was reviewing a draft of State’s annual human rights report on North Korea and asked its author to “sacrifice a few adjectives for the cause” of appeasing the North into disarming. That foreign service officer, Glyn Davies, is now the U.S. representative at the six-party talks with North Korea.

Two things are clear: First, the North Korea’s isn’t the only government that would rather not talk about the camps. Second, North Korea has the world’s cruelest system of political prison camps, and the world’s largest on a per capita basis. Only China, a country with 43 times the population of North Korea, has more political prisoners. As information about the camps cascades from survivors, NGOs, and satellite imagery, reporters who aren’t Associated with North Korea’s propaganda apparatus are informing the world about the atrocities within:

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. [Wall Street Journal, Evan Ramstad]

The Jeungsan camp sounds like a killing field:

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.”

I’m proud of my small part in telling this story.

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.

“There is new momentum on the human-rights issue in North Korea, and part of it is born of attention being paid to North Korea because of succession,” says Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation, a Washington-based organization devoted to U.S.-Asian issues, and a director of the HRNK.

I’ve also been meaning to quote this CNN report from last week:

One defector, who wanted to be identified only as Kim as he has family members still inside North Korea, told CNN inmates face a slow and painful death. He was sent to a labor camp for a year and a half after being caught crossing into China.

“We received 120 grams of rotten corn for daily food. So many people with the same year and a half sentence as me didn’t survive their term and died of hunger.”

Kim describes seeing many of his fellow inmates die and having to bury them on a nearby hill. The only hill, he said, where flowers grew well due to the large numbers of decaying bodies beneath the ground. “When I went to bury my friend, I found the hole was too small,” he said. “When I asked why, the guy said there was no more room to make a bigger hole. When I dug up the ground with my shovel, I saw about four layers of bodies and human bones.” [CNN, Paula Hancocks]

There is no such thing as an honest discussion about or with North Korea — whether it’s a news report, a diplomatic agenda, a food aid program, or a congressional hearing — that doesn’t talk about this story and its game-changing implications for every other policy issue. The camps underpin a system of domestic state terror the regime uses to hide the truth about everything it tells us. As long as that system of domestic terror is in place, everything North Korea and its subjects tell us is presumptively told under duress.

Transparency is a prerequisite to disarmament. Our State Department, unfortunately, shows no signs that it understands that.


  1. Thanks for your persistence with this and the clarity of the approach.

    I’m not sure when or if at all Chinese activists are going to get interested in these camps (which is something you’ve written about before rather persuasively in connection to a NYT article on Chinese tourism in DPRK, as I recall). I am not aware of Chinese websites which draw upon your own or Curtis Melvin’s extensive work in documenting these camps, but it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility either now or in the near future.

    Anyway, a small fragment: Last night’s CCTV 13 newscast (6 p.m. Beijing ST) opened up with a 10-minute look at peninsular tensions, and actually spent about 35 seconds talking about general Western criticisms of North Korean human rights. But, all the accompanying images were of random military explosions, parades, etc. rather than defectors, Yalu River, prison camp images, satellite photos, in other words, the things we might associate with the issue. Maybe this is all to be expected? However, in the middle of all of that there was a mention by name of Robert King’s trip to Brussels. That was nice of them to mention, and his portrait opened up on screen, beaming out light like some Russian Orthodox icon in a dingy church (i.e., I’ll take what I can get). Unfortunately Xinhua, which has been opening up bureaus like mad in Africa, did not think to send a reporter to cover the defector testimony.


  2. There is something about an entire segment or large group of people being repressed that is a turn on.

    North Korea is a funny joke of a country. They try to threaten the world as if they could actually do something. They would be shooting at enemies with BB guns while other countries fly over and drop real bombs…I think it is comical when the world acts like they have nuclear weapons. Please, they are too damn stupid to know how to use them or detonate them with their 1950 technology.