With the possible exceptions of Mosul and Raqqa, there may be no worse place on earth to be a woman today than inside North Korea’s prison camps. There, according to a U.N. Commission of Inquiry, “the conditions of subjugation of inmates, coupled with the general climate of impunity, creates an environment, in which rape perpetrated by guards and prisoners in privileged positions is common.” The Commission found that “[w]ithout exception, pregnant victims are subject to abortion or their child is killed at birth.” High percentages of female prisoners die of starvation, disease, torture, and arbitrary execution.
One former prisoner, a woman named Kim Hye-sook, told the Commission of Inquiry that “the women who worked in the mines of Political Prison Camp No. 18 feared assignment to the nightshift, because guards and prisoners preyed on them on their way to and from work and rape them.” Another witness “reported that the guards of Camp No. 18 were especially targeting teenage girls.” A former guard told of “how the camp authorities made female inmates available for sexual abuse to a very senior official who regularly visited the camp,” and that “[a]fter the official raped the women, the victims were killed.” One former guard recalled that after the commander of his unit raped a woman, who subsequently gave birth, “[t]he mother and her child were taken to the detention and punishment block, where the baby was thrown in the feeding bowl for the dogs.” (U.N. Commission of Inquiry, Full Report, para. 766) Another former guard at Camp 16 told Amnesty International that “several women inmates disappeared after they had been raped by officials,” and concluded “that they had been executed secretly.”
Especially beautiful women suffered the most. It has been known that Kim Byeong-Ha, who was the Bowibu director and set up political prison camps in 1972, selected pretty women and slept with them in an inspection visit to the camps. Then those women were transferred to the director of the 3rd Bureau (Pretrial Examination Bureau) of the Bowibu and used as an experiment subject and killed. [….]
There is a “Cadre Guest House” at No. 14 Political Prison Camp. It is a special building where ministers or deputy ministers from Pyeongyang stay. When senior officials come from Pyeongyang, pretty maidens aged 21 to 25 are selected among female inmates, bathed and then sent to them. After the officials make a sexual plaything of those females, they charge the women with fleeing and kill them to keep secrets. [Korean Bar Association, 2008 White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea, page 165]
To this evidence, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea adds a new report on the expansion of Camp 12, Chongo-ri (opens in pdf), to include a special women’s section.
According to HRNK:
Sometime after 2008, however, a women’s section was added to Kyo-hwa-so No. 12, reflecting the huge increase of refouled (forcibly repatriated) North Korean women from China. Five additional former prisoners from Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 Jongo-ri interviewed in Seoul in March 2015 update this enlargement of the Jongo-ri prison. This reflects North Korea’s ongoing policy to wrongfully imprisoned persons for reasons not permitted under contemporary international law. Many of the North Koreans who are deprived of their liberty and subjected to forced labor and inhumane conditions suffer this punishment for having taken actions that are explicitly provided for and protected in international law, including conventions that North Korea has acceded to.
It would be fair to call Chongo-ri a “death camp.”
The first edition of Hidden Gulag (2003) cited the testimony of a former prisoner on the deplorable conditions and high rates of death in detention at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12. Between December 1998 and July 1999, “Out of twenty-three prisoners who entered on the same day… only two survived. The rest died within eight months of arrival, from hard labor and sub-subsistence food rations–small mixtures of corn and beans, with rice added only on holidays.” A former prisoner interviewed for that report believes that eight hundred prisoners died while he was there; so many, according to what another prisoner told him, that the guards had to burn the corpses.
This former prisoner reported that he weighed 50 kilograms (kg) (110 pounds (lb)) prior to his arrest and only 30 kg (66 lb) upon his release from Kyo-hwa-so No. 12. This was fifteen years ago during North Korea’s “great famine.” Reportedly, not all that much has changed in this regard at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12. Tudor and Pearson, publishing in 2015, wrote that “it is common for men serving time there to lose 30 kilograms [66 lb] in body weight. Many end up starving to death.”[*] One of the former women prisoners at Jongo-ri interviewed for this present report in March 2015, Ms. Kim Min-ji, reported that during her time in Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 from 2009 to 2011, nearly all people lost weight and many died of malnutrition and related diseases.
Images of Chongo-ri were first published at this site in 2009.
In January 2014, two OFK readers first brought the expansion of the camp to my attention, and I published this image of the expanded camp.
The new women’s section was added sometime between 2009 and 2013. HRNK’s report contains the first accounts of the women who were held there:
Another former female prisoner at Jongo-ri interviewed for this report in March 2015, Ms. Choi Min-gyang, went from 57 kg (125 lb) to 27 kg (60 lb) during her time at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 Jongo-ri (mid-2008 to September 2010). She was put in the ho-yak-ban (severely sick) unit and lost consciousness. Her condition was so severe that prison officials called her family to come get her rather than deal with her death. It took her a year to regain her health, after which she fled to China and on to South Korea.
Another woman prisoner interviewed for the present report stated that she weighed 79 kg (174 lb) while in China, but her weight during pre-trial detention in North Korea dropped to 34 kg (74 lb). She arrived at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12. Jongo-ri in 2010 already so weak that the prison authorities initially did not want to accept her. Nonetheless, even though she was clearly weak and sick, she was assigned to the logging work unit and fed only rotten corn. She never regained her weight until she was released in 2012.
Two male former prisoners at Jongo-ri interviewed for this report in March 2015 indicate that, for men, Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 has operated almost the same for several decades.
The vast majority of the women who live and die at Chongo-ri have been “convicted” in five-minute sham trials of nothing that any other country recognizes as a crime — fleeing across the border to escape starvation and earn a living. The women prisoners of Chongo-ri aren’t even defectors; if they were, they’d end up in far worse places. Many of the women at Chongo-ri were forced to make wigs, presumably for export, to earn hard currency for the regime. Let us not forget the men of Chongo-ri, who worked in an unsafe mine, or a furniture factory, where deadly accidents were common.
What is most maddening about all of this is that it isn’t the cause celebre of Hollywood stars, famous activists, or the big names of the Human Rights Industry, because in terms of numbers and depravity, it deserves to be. That’s why it adds just a drop of hope to a sea of despair when all 20 female U.S. Senators, Republicans and Democrats, take a moment to remember North Korea’s female political prisoners in this resolution.
(16) serving as a composite for prisoners of concern worldwide, an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, including men, women, and children, who are detained in the brutal political prison camps of North Korea where starvation, forced labor, executions, rape, sexual violence, forced abortions, and torture are commonplace and whose offenses, according to defectors, include—
(A) burning old currency or criticizing the currency revaluation of the Government;
(B) sitting on newspapers bearing the picture of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il;
(C) mentioning the limited formal education of Kim Il Sung; and (D) defacing photographs of the Kims;
It merits mention that the resolution was in support of the Samantha Power-led #Freethe20 campaign. No, words and hashtags will not free any prisoners. The hard truth is that few of the women in Chongo-ri or the other camps today will ever get out alive. But words can build a consensus toward policies that can free the next generation of prisoners.
And what of the world’s most famous women’s rights activist, Gloria Steinem? A woman who is rightly remembered both for her activism for the rights of women, and for human rights globally? Today, she has cast her lot with the notorious North Korean sympathizer Christine Ahn and Code Pink, opposing the very pressure that can force Pyongyang to end its atrocities against North Korean women. Instead, a woman who was once arrested for blocking the street in front of the South African Embassy, and who supported the sanctions and isolation that forced the end of apartheid, when asked about sanctions to force change in North Korea, answers: “The example of the isolation of the Soviet Union or other examples of isolation haven’t worked very well in my experience.”
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The book cited is “North Korea Confidential,” by James Pearson and Daniel Tudor. It’s one of several books I’m reading, as scarce time permits. So far, I’ve found it well researched and interesting.