The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea estimates that North Korea holds as many as 120,000 people in its system of concentration and detention camps, and that 400,000 people have died in these camps from torture, starvation, disease, and execution. These reports, in the context of estimates that North Korea has allowed between 600,000 and 2,500,000 of its people to starve to death while its government squandered the nation’s resources on weapons and luxuries for its ruling elite, suggest that North Korea’s oppression and politically targeted starvation of its people collectively constitute the world’s greatest ongoing atrocity, and almost certainly the most catastrophic anywhere on earth since the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.
[Click any of these images to enlarge them.]
The National Security Agency (bowibu) runs most of the camp system. Others are operated by the inmin pohan seong, a/k/a anjeon bu, or Peoples’ Security Agency. Excluding local Anjeonbu and Bowibu offices, most of North Korea’s concentration and labor camps fit into one of the following classifications:
1. The vast kwan-li-so political prison camps.
2. Labor reeducation camps, or kyo-hwa-so.
3. Regional collection and labor-training camps.
This list is certainly not exclusive. Witnesses have described a number of other kyo-hwa-so and regional prisons and camps that I have not yet located. I update this page periodically as I locate additional sites and witnesses confirm that they are what I believe them to be.
1. Political Prison Camps, or Kwan Li So
This page constitutes the first published delineation of the boundaries of North Korea’s largest political prison camps, known as kwan-li-seo in Korean. Outsiders know of six such camps:
* Camp 14, at Kaechon, in central North Korea
* Camp 15, at Yodok, in east-central North Korea
* Camp 16, at Hwasong, in northeastern North Korea
* Camp 18, at Kaechon, across the river from Camp 14
* Camp 22, Hoeryong, in extreme northeastern North Korea
* Camp 25, Chongjin, also in the far northeast.
With the exception of Camp 25, which is built in a “penitentiary” style, each of these vast camps consists of hundreds of square miles. Most of the prisoners are incarcerated for political offenses. Pursuant to Kim Jong Il’s guidance to “root out class enemies for three generations,” family members of persons accused of political crimes are also sent to concentration camps or labor camps.
All of the kwan-li-so camps are located in remote areas, protected by electrified fences and guard posts. The penalty for attempting to escape is death. Until March 2008, only portions of these camps were visible to Google Earth viewers. Recent additions to Google Earth’s high and medium resolution coverage of North Korea now make it possible to delineate these camps more-or-less completely.
Despite reports of the use of an experimental gas chamber and experimentation on human subjects at Camp 22, there is no evidence that the camps engage in industrial-scale extermination operations such as those at Auschwitz. What we know of the camps’ brutal conditions suggest that they are comparable to those in the Nazi camps at Mauthausen and Buchenwald, which largely killed through a combination of exhaustion, disease, starvation, and arbitrary brutality.
The camps do not exist merely to punish and isolate potential dissidents; they are also the foundation of the North Korean regime’s system of domestic terror. The system enforces obedience and suppresses thoughtcrime by threatening not just the life of the dissenter, but also the lives of his loved ones, according to Oh Gyeung Seob, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute:
“The National Security Agency conducts surveillance to generate fear during the process of uncovering, investigating, punishing and purging political prisoners. Prison camps create more fear by treating existing political prisoners inhumanly,” he explained, connecting the security forces and prison camp roles in totalitarian North Korea.
Particularly, he explained, “The North Korean system is structured around the fear spread by the existence of political prison camps, meaning that public political opposition from citizens is impossible. Every person and the people around them are harmed by the system of guilt by association; therefore they suppress their political opposition of their own accord.
The camps may also play a role in the regime’s nuclear weapons development. Because of the proximity of one camp, Camp 16, to North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing sites at Cape Musudan, forced labor from that camp may also be connected to North Korea’s WMD development (see this page for Google Earth images of North Korean nuclear sites).
One can begin to grasp the immensity of the camps’ size and cruelty, and to corroborate least some of what the witnesses have told us, by comparing their accounts with the strikingly clear imagery of Camp 22, where the excellent resolution makes it possible to identify individual people in the satellite imagery. The imagery of Camp 16 is also relatively clear; however, no survivors have emerged to describe the camp’s conditions and population, despite reports of a mass escape from that camp in December 2006. Images of the camp had never been published until I published these images at this site in February 2007.
“The Hidden Gulag” published some images of all of the kwan-li-so except Camp 16, but did not map their perimeters. It also published this map showing the locations of the larger camps. I made this overlay of that image on Google Earth:
Kwan-li-so 14 & 18
Camps 14 and 18 lie on opposite sides of the Taedong River. Camp 18, on the south bank, appears to have a much larger prison capacity. On the north bank, conditions in Camp 14, the so-called “life imprisonment zone,” are said to be far worse.
All of Camp 18’s boundary fences are visible on Google Earth. The camp’s main industry appears to be coal mining. It was not possible to delineate the northern boundary of Camp 14 with certainty, but because the visible boundaries generally follow high ridge lines, and because roads do not cross the camps’ boundaries without passing though easily identifiable guard posts, it is possible to make an educated guess of where the more remote boundaries lie.
Camp 15, also known as Yodok, is described in detail in survivor Kang Chol-Hwan’s memoir, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.” Kang was sent to Yodok with his parents and grandparents at age nine.
Less is known about Camp 16 than the other camps, possibly because it lies adjacent another North Korea’s most closely guarded secrets: the Mt. Mantap nuclear test site and the Musudan-ri missile test site.
Recently, Kang Chol Hwan, now a journalist for the South Korean newspaper, The Chosun Ilbo, published a story alleging that Camp 16’s prisoners are used as forced labor in the tunnels at the test site. Because it is impossible to confirm the actual conditions at either Camp 16 or the Mount Mantap test site, however, the report relies largely on rumors.
Images of Camp 16 were first published on this site in January 2007, following unconfirmed reports of an escape by 120 prisoners. After reading the report, I remembered that I had previously found a large compound in the same area, surrounded by the same distinctive guard posts and fence lines that I had seen around other camps. It was then that I created the overlay of North Korea using David Hawk’s map, which confirmed the location exactly:
Camp 16’s boundaries are relatively easy to delineate, although they appear to have shifted in some places. Some overgrown fence lines are visible along the camp’s periphery. What appear to be additional fence lines cut through the camp’s interior. The most carefully guarded side of the camp is adjacent to populated areas. There are fewer guard posts adjacent to North Korea’s nuclear test site to the west and a remote forest area to the north.
Camp 22 is particularly infamous for the experiments said to be conducted on human subjects there. It is clearly one of the largest camps by population, although estimates of 50,000 prisoners would appear somewhat overstated based on the number of visible barracks huts, and in light of former guards’ estimates that approximately 30 prisoners live in each hut.
You can see more images and witness testimonies of Camp 22 here.
If my educated guess is correct, these are the first published photographs of Camp 25, at Chongjin:
According to the Korean Bar Association’s 2008 White Paper on Human Rights, Camp 25 is also built in a penitentiary style. The prison is also the factory where prized Kalmaegi (seagull) bicycles are made. Although no witness has yet provided positive confirmation that this site is Camp 25, several former residents of Chongjin who were the subjects of Barbara Demick’s book “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” stated there was a prison called the “Suseong Camp” in this vicinity. One former resident reported that on one occasion, a group of prisoners from the Suseong Camp was executed in downtown Chongjin. Another confirmed that at least according to local rumor, the prison was also a bicycle factory. My thanks to Ms. Demick for re-interviewing her subjects at my request.
2. Labor-Rehabilitation Camps, or Kyo Hwa So
Labor-rehabilitation camps, or kyo-hwa-so, are usually built in a penitentiary style with perimeter walls and guard towers, and hold populations of up to 10,000 political prisoners, economic criminals, and ordinary criminals. Increasingly, as in the case of Camp 12 in Chongo-ri, they are the final destinations for North Koreans who are caught trying to flee the country, often after being repatriated to North Korea by Chinese authorities. In the past, kyo hwa so were used to “rehabilitate” prisoners though labor. Increasingly, however, the conditions in kyo hwa so are so harsh, and the food rations so insufficient, that many prisoners cannot survive for a year there.
Some images of confirmed and suspected kyo-hwa-so follow. Click on the images to enlarge them.
[Camp 1, Kaechon]
[Previously Unidentified Prison, south of Sinuiju, Not Confirmed by Witnesses]
3. Collection Camps and Labor Training Centers
These facilities are usually under the control of local security forces commanders. In the 1990’s, when famine first swept North Korea, millions of North Koreans fled their homes in search of food. Many starved by the roadsides or around train stations. Others were arrested by the authorities for being away from home without travel permits and were put in local collection camps, sometimes called “9/27” camps for the date Kim Jong Il issued an order to detain these hordes of starving vagabonds. Officially, these camps are known as collection centers (jip kyul so) or labor training centers (ro dong dan ryeon dae). Since North Koreans have learned to survive by creating a black market in food, the famine has subsided into a state of constant hunger, though some no doubt still starve or die of opportunistic disease.
Today, these regional camps are increasingly used to punish North Koreans for economic crimes, such as unauthorized trading in food. According to a recent Washington Post report, these local detention centers have become “a system of extortion” to enforce the state’s monopoly on the supply and distribution of food and enrich the state’s security forces through their arbitrary power of life and death.
North Korea’s infamous penal system, which for decades has silenced political dissent with slave labor camps, has evolved into a mechanism for extorting money from citizens trading in private markets, according to surveys of more than 1,600 North Korean refugees.
Reacting to an explosive rise in market activity, North Korea has criminalized everyday market behavior and created a new kind of gulag for those it deems economic criminals, according to a report on the refugee surveys. It will be released this week by the East-West Center, a research organization established by Congress to promote understanding of Asia. [….]
The fundamental finding of the new report is that North Korea has reinvented its Stalinist-style gulag, which had focused on repression of political opponents. A network of smaller labor camps, Haggard and Noland say, is now aimed at controlling and collecting money from the broader population.
“The classic political gulag still exists, but increasingly labor camps are used to extract bribes,” Noland said. “My impression is that bribery and extortion have become very important to the livelihoods of local government officials.” [Washington Post, Blaine Harden]
That report is available here. It describes a system in which members of the security services use widespread fear of the camps to shake down citizens who depend on illegal markets to provide for their families now that the state has ceased to provide for them. Although the regime continues to try to stamp out private markets, those markets now provide most of the calories that sustain the lives of the people and prevent the return of famine. The state uses the camp system to terrorize its subjects and hold the command economy together:
The system snares economic criminals for brief terms in makeshift labor camps where inmates often witness executions and deaths from torture and starvation, according to the report.
“People witness truly horrible things and are soon released back into the population,” Noland said in an interview here.
Revolving-door incarceration has spread fear of what goes on inside the camps, he said, creating “tremendous incentives for people to pay bribes to avoid them.” [….]
The changing penal system appears to be successful in keeping the lid on any significant domestic opposition to Kim Jong Il and his government, the report found, even though market activity has sharply increased the access that ordinary North Koreans have to foreign media.
Inside North Korea, a majority of people do not dare complain or joke about the government, the survey found. It also found that fear was especially acute when it came to discussing their “Dear Leader,” as Kim is known. Only 8 percent of the refugees said that people spoke freely about him.
The East-West Center report concludes that the fear of the camps works. The North Koreans surveyed no longer believed the regime’s arguments that external security threats made it necessary for them to starve and suffer, yet the regime has managed to maintain “a highly atomized society in which barriers to collective action are profound.” The survey also found that North Korea’s detailed system of political loyalty classifications is linked to the the camp system. Broadly, the regime classifies North Koreans as “core,” “wavering,” or “hostile” citizens. The targets of the arbitrary extortion described in these new reports tend to be members of the latter classifications, most likely because the state discriminates against them in its allocation of food rations and gives them no alternative but to depend on markets.
These local detention centers are often difficult to identify in satellite imagery. From above, they may not have distinctive characteristics. This is one of them, the Sinuiju Detention Center:
How I Identified the Camps in Satellite Imagery
I located some of these sites on Google Earth using the coordinates supplied in David Hawk’s “The Hidden Gulag,” published by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. I located other camps simply by scouring Google Earth for distinctive characteristics and confirming the locations with information provided by from friends, contacts, and the internet. More recently, I have begun working with human rights organizations that have researchers in Seoul who can interview North Korean witnesses and confirm the site locations. That process is still ongoing.
The boundaries of North Korean concentration camps are identifiable through distinctive characteristics they share. In most cases, it is possible to identify the general area where they are sited from the accounts of witnesses, particularly from those who authenticated the sites in David Hawk’s previously published images. A careful observer of the clear imagery of Camp 22, for example, can easily learn those general characteristics. My examinations of Camp 22 familiarized me with the layout of a typical camp and its fence lines, which are their most distinctive feature from above.
Common sense and experience give other clues: anyone who has ever worked on a ranch know that barbed wire fences have to run in straight line segments, do not run in curves, and must be braced at their corners. That makes a fence line easily distinguishable from a road.
The most distinctive sign of a camp’s fence line is the placement of guard posts and guard towers at regular intervals. Guard posts and towers are usually found along camp boundaries adjacent to where prisoners live and work. They may not be present along the camps’ more remote boundaries. These images, of the western side of Camp 22, were taken on a clear day and provide exceptionally good resolution. Even the wire is visible.
Where roads enter the camps, there are large guard posts to control traffic. This example image shows the main gate of Camp 14, on the north bank of the Taedong River, upstream from the capital of Pyongyang:
At this image, at Camp 22, a group of people can be seen standing in the courtyard of the camp’s southwestern gate. While we will never know who these people are, one can reasonably infer that they are prisoners being brought in (our best information is that prisoners are seldom released from Camp 22).
Otherwise, roads and trails do not cross camp boundaries, and any suspected camp boundary that intersects a road, trail, or path, has most likely been abandoned and moved. The clearance of much wider lines generally indicates a power line rather than a camp boundary. Any line that runs between populated areas is more likely a power line.
The camp’s fence lines usually follow ridge lines. Except in very remote areas, vegetation is usually cleared from using trees to climb over fence lines. This makes well-maintained fence lines easy to spot in forested areas, particularly in winter time images. In populated areas, trees may have been cleared from the land outside the fence, but the area inside the fence will still be thickly forested. I speculate that the camp authorities prefer to leave the trees there, along the fence line, to screen the camp from outside observation. Here, for example, is the western side of Camp 22.
In more remote areas of the camps, fence lines are less well maintained and much more difficult to identify. That is complicated by the fact that fence lines at some of the camps appear to have shifted over the years, meaning that one must identify the current fence line among a number of alternatives. In addition, some camps, especially Camp 16, appear to have internal fence lines dividing different parts of the camp from each other.
Regrettably, there has been relatively little media interest in North Korea’s concentration camps as press coverage has concentrated on the WMD proliferation and diplomatic aspects of the North Korea story. Arguably, however, the story of the camps provides some essential perspective on the pathology of the North Korean regime without which those other stories cannot be fully understood.
David Hawk, in cooperation with the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, is in the process of producing an update to “The Hidden Gulag,” which I expect will make extensive use of Google Earth imagery. I first showed Mr. Hawk these images in 2007, and in 2008, I provided him and the Committee dozens (if not hundreds) of images of the camps and other locations of interest. I expect that some of those images will have a prominent place in Mr. Hawk’s research and his final presentation.
“My” images of Camp 22 — I hesitate to say they’re “mine;” really, all I did was find the locations and take screen shots — were also featured in two Senate floor speeches by Senator Sam Brownback, in which he criticized the State Department’s efforts to sideline human rights in its negotiations with North Korea (see here and here).
More recently, the film producer N.C. Heikin has released a documentary, entitled “Kimjongilia,” which played at the Sundance Film Festival.
You can see more Google Earth imagery of places in North Korea of military and political interest at this page. To keep current on events relating to North Korea, you can always subscribe to the One Free Korea blog.
Update 3/2012: If this shocked you, wait till you see how the Associated Press is portraying daily life in North Korea these days.