Last week, State issued two new reports on North Korea. The first of these reports, mandated by section 303 of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016, terms itself a report on North Korea’s prisons. In fact, it only describes the worst tier of them — the dreaded kwan-li-so, or political prison camps, several of which are places where the condemned never leave.
CAMP 16 HWASONG
There is little information available on the total control zone Camp No. 16 (Hwasong political prison camp). Located in Hwasong County, North Hamgyong Province, 385 kilometers northeast of the capital of Pyongyang, there are no known former prisoners or camp officials available to testify about conditions in the camp. The limited information about the facility has been drawn from testimony by local residents. Camp 16 is reported to be a total control zone divided into three sections for prisoners whose crimes differ in severity. Unconfirmed reports suggest prisoners may be used in the construction of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. This camp site also has hydropower capabilities and light agricultural and mining industrial activities along the waterway.
The National Human Rights Commission of [South] Korea has estimated there are approximately 20,000 prisoners in Camp 16. Some NGOs report that prisoners from Camp 22 may have been transferred to Camp 16 in 2012. Satellite imagery analysis does show some modest construction at Camp 16 around that time, but more information would be necessary to conclude whether the expansion was the result of a growing prisoner population. [U.S. State Dep’t]
Of course, North Korea also has other levels of prisons, including local jails and detention facilities, and larger re-education camps that hold a mixture of actual violent criminals, lower-grade political criminals, and economic criminals who may fall into a gray area between the two. Imagery of Camp 16 was first published at this humble blog, describing a reported mass escape that I’ve never been able to confirm, and on which I’ve never seen any subsequent reporting. Years later, I published a much longer, prisoner’s-eye analysis of imagery of the camp, and of the nuclear test site immediately adjacent to its western boundary, as a public service to anyone who thinks the nuclear and human rights issues can be separated.
The report doesn’t cite its sources, but it appears to rely heavily on the excellent reports and imagery analysis of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, specifically its long-form “Hidden Gulag” reports, and the shorter updates it publishes on observations in the satellite imagery.
This is not to say that State’s report isn’t helpful. I know of at least one prominent NGO that’s already poring over it, and will likely cite it in an upcoming authoritative report that could have global and historical implications. Furthermore, the very publication of this report forces State to confront this issue, and will frustrate those (on the far left, the far right, and aspiring Nobel Peace Prize winners in the State Department) who would rather not upset His Porcine Majesty by speaking of such unpleasantries.
Which is exactly what happened with State’s annual report on religious freedom.
North Korea “categorically rejected the report, branding it as the thing that does not deserve even a passing note,” its state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) quoted a spokesman for the country’s Religious Believers Council as saying.
The spokesman said the U.S. action “is nothing but a last-ditch effort for tarnishing at any cost the international image and strategic position (of North Korea) … and further fanning up the climate of sanctions and pressure against the DPRK.” The DPRK is the abbreviation of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“The Religious Believers Council of Korea will as ever take a strong counteraction against the U.S. arbitrary practices and hostile policy toward the DPRK in a solidarity with the international religious organizations,” the spokesman said. [Yonhap]
Pyongyang claims that its people are perfectly free to practice any religion they choose and maintains several sham churches for the convenience of gullible journalists and other visitors who accept that illusion at face value. North Korean Christians will tell you otherwise:
The government continued to deal harshly with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests. An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious reasons, were believed to be held in the political prison camp system in remote areas under horrific conditions. CSW said a policy of guilt by association was often applied in cases of detentions of Christians, meaning that the relatives of Christians were also detained regardless of their beliefs.
Religious and human rights groups outside the country provided numerous reports that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, or killed because of their religious beliefs. According to the NKDB, there was a report during the year of disappearances of people who were found to be practicing religion within detention facilities. International NGOs reported any religious activities conducted outside of those that are state-sanctioned, including praying, singing hymns, and reading the Bible, could lead to severe punishment including imprisonment in political prison camps. [U.S. Dep’t of State]
To read the rest on your own, go here and mouse over “countries.” For reasons that become clear to the student of political psychology, Pyongyang is absolutely terrified of Christianity. Click here for more posts on North Korea’s persecution of Christians — which is one of two compelling cases for a charge of genocide (the murder of ethnically mixed, half-Chinese babies of refugee women being the other).