A new report by Amnesty International is providing our first eyewitness account of conditions at Camp 16, images of which were first published at this very blog back in February of 2007, using clues provided in David Hawk’s The Hidden Gulag. In April 2012, I followed up with an extensive analysis of Camp 16 imagery, in an attempt to collect and publish all of the open-source information about this largest and least-understood of all of North Korea’s prison camps.
Even then, there were still no known eyewitness accounts of conditions there, despite reports that 120 prisoners had escaped in 2006. We still can’t confirm whether that story is true, but Amnesty found a former guard, who told us this:
In an interview conducted in November 2013, Mr. Lee (full name withheld), who was a security official in kwanliso 16 in the 1980s until the mid-1990s, told Amnesty International of other forms of executions he had witnessed where inmates were forced to dig their own graves and then killed by hammer blows to their necks by prison authorities. In another instance, he had seen prison authorities strangling and then beating inmates to their death with wooden sticks. He also recounted that several women inmates disappeared after they had been raped by officials and he concluded that they had been executed secretly.
We eagerly await the AP’s investigative report.
Amnesty also points to evidence of recent construction at Camp 16, which Curtis had previously analyzed in greater detail in July. Amnesty concludes that Camp 16’s capacity has expanded, but not enough to hold the 30,000 people who were previously housed at Camp 22. As far as we know, those people were simply vaporized. Orwell used this verb as a metaphor; in the case of Camp 22, this may be true, literally.
Overall, nothing suggests that the state has made a policy decision to cease its reliance on its prison camp system as a tool of control. The suspected mass releases at Camp 18 and the suspected liquidation of Camp 22 are two aberrations on opposite ends of one spectrum of brutality. The most significant change is the improved fencing around the prison known as “the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea.”
Although Amnesty has published other satellite imagery of the camps, this is the first time it has contributed new and original research to the subject. I look forward to seeing more of that. (It seems unlikely that Amnesty independently found the camp and traced its perimeter without consulting this blog or Curtis’s, but never mind that.) Amnesty’s name recognition and media savvy means that its reporting will attract significant media attention (and has). That’s a vast improvement over past years, when only a few of us were publishing these images, and when the only people who saw them were our relatively small audiences. It’s gratifying to see this issue begin to get the attention it deserves.
Hat tips: Glans and Curtis.