Those of us who watch North Korea spend a lot of time speculating, either because the truth is unknowable or because it’s not of interest to many of those who report the news for a living, or even to most of the top executives of the human rights industry. But when I read the reports of Camp 22’s closure, I decided not to settle for speculation this time. These reports were simply too horrible, and too consequential, to be left at that.
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. “At the start of March they started transferring the sick and malnourished, and then in April they moved all the healthiest ones,” he explained, adding that the camp officers and then their families moved in May, and that the camp was completely empty by the start of June.
“Although it is true that nobody knows where they went,” he went on, “given that people saw the families of officers in the local market selling quite a lot of corn before they left, the guess is that they left the province. The land Camp 22 was on and all the buildings have been transferred to the ownership of Hoiryeong City.” [....]
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. [Daily NK]
Other reports indicate that at least one other officer, and possibly their families, also fled. This Korean language report from Radio Free Asia claims that 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. According to the report, 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 claimed that at one point, the guards were burning hundreds of bodies a day in a crematorium like the one you can see in the imagery of Camp 25. The surviving prisoners were sent to Camp 16, along North Korea’s northeast coast, near its nuclear and missile testing sites. The Radio Free Asia report claimed that as the regime completed its liquidation of Camp 22’s prisoners, it tried to destroy evidence that the camp had ever existed. If that had been true, I would have expected to see evidence of it in newer satellite imagery.
I examined the imagery over the weekend, and it looks like the same old dreary business-as-usual at Camp 22. As bad as that is, it’s a lot better than the alternative. I can tell you what the imagery shows, but unfortunately, there isn’t much I can show you because of an very restrictive end-user license agreement that allows me to post just one small 500 meter by 500 meter extract. I’m going to hold even that back for now until those I’ve corresponded with, including the Daily NK, have a chance to investigate further and add enough detail to either refute or corroborate.
In analyzing this new imagery, I often referred to older, open-source imagery to help give me views of the same places during different seasons, and to help interpolate and extrapolate trends in economic activity in Camp 22. The next most recent open-source imagery is from March of 2010, via Google Earth. Google Earth also has older imagery, from 2002 (most of the imagery you see here is 2002 imagery). There is also imagery available on Bing Maps. It doesn’t indicate when it was taken, but by carefully observing the progression of the mine waste dumps at the Chungbong Coal Mine, you can say that it’s post-2002 and pre-2010.
Taken together, all of this imagery — including the imagery from last Saturday — shows no evidence of significant change to Camp 22’s operations. There are no signs of major salvage, demolition, or reconstruction efforts since 2010. Buildings that you’d expect to contain incriminating features looked the same last Saturday as they did two years ago. A few buildings in the largest housing area were knocked down, but the open-source imagery proves that this took place well before 2010, and even before the Bing Maps imagery was taken, when the area, by all accounts, was still a political prison camp.
In the areas of the camp’s fence line shown in the new imagery, there is no evidence that fence lines have been breached. Caveat: with my limited budget, I chose to purchase imagery of the camp’s main facilities and didn’t purchase much of the periphery. Still, if the latest reports were accurate, I’d suspect that the regime would not keep wasting electricity on a fence line. Hoeryong is one of the poorest, most chaotic places in North Korea, where many residents survive by scrapping metal, and especially copper. If the regime had turned the power off, what would stop them from scrapping the copper and steel wire? Or from invading the camp to harvest timber, or grow crops on the cleared areas? Some reports hold that the boundaries are also protected by man-traps, and even mines, which might explain why the fences haven’t been breached in these areas. Or, maybe the regime continues to control access to the camp grounds to keep its secrets inside. This may merit a follow-up visit next spring. If others are interested in purchasing additional imagery of the fence line, I’d consider that, but expect a high risk-to-return ratio.
Economic activity at the camp appears to be steady. The mines and farms of Camp 22 are not mechanized. If the camp had experienced mass death and the evacuation of its population, you would think that industries as labor-intensive as agriculture and mining would show signs of at least a temporary slowdown, and that the regime would not have been able to replace all of that labor so quickly. Judging by the pace at which waste rock is piling up at the mine dumps, however, mining activity continues at approximately the same pace as operations in 2010, or perhaps slightly faster. Of course, the imagery doesn’t tell how recently the activity occurred. If all of this work had been done before, say, January 2011, I wouldn’t know the difference. Similarly, patterns of agricultural activity are mostly unchanged. The fields are being harvested as you read this. You can’t quite see the individual people with their scythes, but you can see the irregular nibbling of each worker as she moves forward and the shocks she leaves in her wake. Most of the ripe crops still haven’t been harvested. It’s surprisingly green in northeastern North Korea in early October. As of last Saturday, only a few trees had begun to turn.
There is, however, one subtle-but-potentially significant difference. I’m going to withhold just what that is from publication for now, to give those who are tracking down this report an opportunity to do so without being accused of merely seeking out evidence to validate my observations. At the very least, it suggests a change in the way the camp operates.
In the end, the imagery is inconclusive at best, but the balance of evidence says that Camp 22 is doing the same terrible work that it has been doing for years:
(1) Economic activity at Camp 22 has not changed significantly. Its mines and farms continue to be worked actively using labor-intensive, unmechanized methods.
(2) There were only minor constructions and demolitions at Camp 22 between March 2010 and October 2012. That is roughly the same time period when the aforementioned reports claim that most of the camp’s population starved and the camp itself was shut down.
(3) Camp 22 still appears to be a controlled-access area surrounded by a fence line that is unbroken, except for its designated gates. There is no evidence that local inhabitants have breached the fence line to salvage it or anything inside it.
So what about these reports? They could simply be false — the product of rumors, disinformation, or a combination of both. The RFA report is particularly difficult to reconcile with the imagery. Either or both reports may be based on a misunderstanding, such as the closure of another camp in the area that shut down, although this seems unlikely. The RFA report of a camp with 30,000 inmates would suggest that we’re talking about a very big camp, and no other camps in this area are nearly as big as Camp 22. It’s significant here that local inhabitants know exactly what Camp 22 is, and what happens there. The regime may have simply moved in new people to replace the ones who lived there before. It’s possible that these new workers aren’t prisoners, but merely citizens relocated from other places, but then how did the crops get planted and tended as Camp 22, having been cleansed of its work force, shut down for good during the planting season? The extrinsic evidence fails to corroborate the latest reports; however inconclusively, it also refutes them in part. I’ve reached out a few people who may be in a position to probe for more information. If and when I get it, I may have more to say about this. For now, the evidence counsels skepticism.
One of those I’ve reached out to is Chris Green of the Daily NK, a publication I admire unreservedly for trying to speak the truth about the parts of North Korea that much of the world press has forgotten. There is great risk in trying to break an information blockade this ruthless, and the Daily NK’s correspondents are taking far greater risks than that here and there, a report won’t pan out quite as originally reported. Indeed, if a major wire service eventually steps up to fill the void I’m intermittently and imperfectly filling now, the Daily NK might eventually have access to its own satellite imagery, and to better training and equipment for its brave correspondents inside North Korea. That would be a vast improvement over any more faustian bargains with Kim Jong Un to sell us propaganda for his regime.