The Camps

At Cheongo-ri, one or two prisoners die of hunger or disease each day*

The Korea Institute for National Unification, or KINU, has produced a number of thorough and detailed reports on human rights in North Korea. Recently, KINU released a new report by research fellow Lee Sang-sin on torture in North Korean’s political prison camps. There’s no English translation of the report posted on KINU’s web site yet, but two news reports give us a preview of some of its findings. Not surprisingly, despite the fact that North Korea has a law against torture, the report finds that “the North’s police and judicial system have turned a blind eye to violence taking place in labor camps.” 

The torture methods include prisoners undergoing stick beatings, shock torture, sitting in squat positions for extended durations, intentional starvation, forced abortions, as well as being required to observe public executions, said Lee of the penalties being systematically implemented in one of the North’s prison camps. [NK News]

… also, sexual assault and water torture.

Reflecting on his sufferings at Hyesan labor camp in the northern part of North Korea in 2013, a North Korean defector said in the report that “their constant kicking and thrashing turned my skin black. But they didn’t hit my head so as to make their acts less noticeable.”

Another defector testified that a female inmate was sexually assaulted by her male counterparts after she complained about the conditions of the Jeongeori labor camp in northern part of North Korea to which she belonged, KINU reserach (sic) fellow Han Dong-ho said. [Yonhap]

Camp 12 or Cheongo-ri, images of which were first revealed to the world in this OFK post, was expanded sometime between 2008 and 2013, according to satellite imagery first spotted by OFK readers.


Another defector, housed in the Gaechon kyohwaso located in Yaksu-dong of Gaechon City in South Pyongan Province, described the confinement conditions of her husband, who had required immediate medical treatment.

“Apparently, even though his head was cut wide open, the wound was not covered with bandages,” she said. “When I asked why they didn’t perform an operation, I was told that there were no doctors. And then he passed away in the evening of the 8th.” [NK News]


In other cases, guards force prisoners “to stand still facing the wall all day without budging,” or hang them from the prison walls with their hands tied behind their backs. 

“The Jeongeori camp, which houses 3,000 to 4,000 inmates, is notorious for its inhumane treatment of inmates by having 35-60 share one room and offering them little food. At least one to two inmates die of malnutrition and diseases per day,” Han said.

If an epidemic breaks out, up to 50 inmates die of the disease in a day and their corpses are cremated with their families not being notified, he said. [NK News]

Judging by the reports, a combination of a starvation diet, overwork, and disease kills the most prisoners.

Among other accounts reporting inhumane treatment, several defectors told the researcher that they only received between 430 to 450 grams of food per day, the mass of which was often expanded through the addition of water.

“Mashed corn kernels, bean, tofu bean, a few of those are mixed and put into a can of some sort,” one defector, whose identity was kept anonymous, told the researcher.  “They filled it up to one third. It was smaller than a paper cup.” [NK News]

Previous reports have indicated that there is also a womens’ section in Cheongo-ri. 

Defectors who were confined in kyohwasos suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because they were forced to watch public executions of prisoners, even of those whom they loved,” Lee said. “This is part of a system that demonstrates its checks of brutality on its prisoners. When the system perceives itself as too soft, things like these happen.” [NK News]

Unsurprisingly, the report found that guards “force” inmates to torture fellow prisoners to evade personal responsibility, although the history of kapos during the Holocaust and urkas in the Soviet gulags suggest that some criminals are probably willing oppressors. Such is human nature. What is surprising is that North Korean guards are concerned about being held responsible for their crimes. Indeed, it’s not the first time reports have suggested that the threat of accountability can at least moderate the brutality in the camps.

A continual number of deaths within North Korea’s kyohwaso [reeducation camps, which function as prisons] from torture and beatings has prompted leader Kim Jong Un to order penalization of security officials who cause such deaths. The move is said to reflect the regime’s concerns about mounting pressure from the outside world on its human rights track record, but the mandate excludes those held for political crimes.

“An order was recently issued under the name of the supreme leader to the Ministry of People’s Security to hand down harsh punishments to officials involved in deaths within the camps,” a source from North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Monday. “There is also a shift in mood within the prison, and Ministry of People’s Security personnel [North Korea’s version of a police force] mostly agree they should try not to beat those in for financial crimes.” [Daily NK, Nov. 2015]

Of course, directing another person to commit a crime is no legal defense, but this suggests that the behavior of guards can be modified through the designation of human rights abusers, and threats to prosecute them.

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* Title since corrected.

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Update: Related thoughts from Roberta Cohen.