Recently, Chosun Ilbo reporter and North Korean gulag survivor Kang Chol Hwan published this story about a remote labor camp in North Korea, its recent expansion to support a crackdown on defectors, and the horrific conditions there:
The Chongori reeducation center in North Hamgyong Province that went through the greatest change. The center has been reorganized as a concentration camp exclusively for arrested defectors. It has reportedly turned into a living hell, where labor is much heavier than at ordinary reeducation centers and where torture and beatings are routine. [....]
[N]ow, anybody who has crossed the border has unconditionally been sentenced to up to three years of forced labor at Chongori, under instructions that they are to be punished as traitors. [....]
One defector who had a hair’s breadth escape from Chongori, has said, “Chongori is a living hell. Yodok (the notorious prison camp) is a much better place.”
At Chongori, inmates are doomed to die of malnutrition. Forced to work for 14 hours a day, they are given only two whole potatoes and a handful of cornmeal a day. Few inmates stick it out for more than three months, no matter how healthy they are, because beatings are a daily routine there, he said. [Chosun Ilbo]
In September 2009, David Hawk, the author of The Hidden Gulag, e-mailed me about this story and asked if I could help him find Chongo-ri on Google Earth. Hawk was working with the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea to publish The Hidden Gulag II. I promised to try, though Kang’s story gave few clues about where to look. What I didn’t yet realize was that I’d already searched for the same camp and failed to find it. Re-thinking the question, I decided to ask Curtis Melvin if he had a Korean language map of North Korea. He did even better and sent me this overlay from MSN Encarta, which showed a location called “Chon’go-ri”:
Switching off the overlay, we find ourselves here:
Let’s get in closer:
Was this the right place? I asked my wife to do an internet search in Korean, which would eliminate the problem of different English romanizations of the camp’s Korean name. She turned up an essential clue when she pulled up the Korean version of this Daily NK article by Lee Jun Ha, a survivor of Camp 12 at “Jeongeo-ri.” I’d seen Lee’s article before. It gave such a detailed set of directions to Camp 12 that I couldn’t resist trying to find it on Google Earth. Based on Lee’s description, I’d searched an area between 10 and 20 kilometers south of Hoeryong. I found one location in that area that matched some parts of his description, but not others. Still, something just didn’t seem right. One key detail seemed especially off: the huts there had walls around them. It didn’t help that Google Earth first published high-resolution imagery of this area in January 2010. In 2009, when David Hawk first asked me to search this area for Chongo-ri, it was only possible to get hi-res imagery of it by ordering it commercially. Google Earth’s best imagery at the time was only medium resolution. Below 5,000 feet, things got blurry fast.
After failing to find any location that looked like Camp 12, I shelved my search and forgot about it. But after my wife turned up Lee’s article, I realized that “Chongo-ri” was the “Jeongeo-ri” that Lee Jun Ha had described to the Daily NK story, and the “Chon’go-ri” on Curtis’s map. It was then that I realized that I’d been searching too far north. I reread Lee Jun Ha’s directions:
The No. 12 Reeducation Camp can be found about four kilometers east along the mountain slopes from a small rural town called “Jeongeo-ri,” which is itself about 12 kilometers from Hoiryeong in the direction of the big east coast port of Chongjin. Travelling to Chongjin by bus, you can see Jeongeo-ri on the left side and Poongsan-ri on the right. Heading off for Jeongeo-ri from the main street, you pass under a railway bridge. There lies the entrance to Jeongeo-ri.
If you keep going along this road for about 1.5 kilometers, you will find a checkpoint. This checkpoint is manned by the security forces of the No. 12 Reeducation Camp. Pass through the checkpoint, walk for about 30 minutes, and the Camp itself will drift gently over the horizon. [Daily NK, Account of Lee Jun Ha]
I should clarify that Lee was no political prisoner — he admits that he was in Camp 12 for killing his alcoholic uncle by bashing his head into a wall during a fight. Lee claims that he didn’t intend to kill him. The most recent date he mentions in his diary is 2003, meaning that the reorganization of Camp 12 for repatriated defectors is probably more recent than Lee’s time there.
Let’s unpack Lee Jun Ha’s narration step by step. First, we’ve already found that “Chon’go-ri” on the Encarta overlay puts us here.
The distance from Hoeryong is actually closer to 26 kilometers — more than twice as far south as Lee said, but distances are easy to misjudge if you’re not driving, and driving is a very rare privilege in rural North Korea. Lee places the camp four kilometers east of Chongo-ri, but the actual distance is closer to 2.5 kilometers:
After that, however, things begin to fit very well. First, Lee tells us that Chongo-ri is across the road from another village, and that after you turn east, you go under a railroad bridge:
Down the road, we find the checkpoint Lee described:
Again, Lee appears to misjudge the distance. It’s actually a little less than a kilometer. Continuing down the road, we come to an orderly grid of huts without gardens or exterior walls, typical of those in North Korean camps:
Finally, the clincher — Lee says that there is a large copper mine 1.5 kilometers southeast of the main building:
Lee’s overestimation of distances is nothing if not consistent. The actual distance is about half a kilometer.
While we can’t identify the mineral product from satellite photography, the gray color of the ore is a clue. For one thing, we know this isn’t a coal mine. For another, copper is usually mined from sulfide ores, which I remember from my mine geologist days for their distinctive gray color. It’s true, of course, that other minerals may also occur in the sulfide “porphyry” deposits where copper is commonly found. So we can say that the color of the ore in this image is consistent with a copper deposit, though not distinctive to a copper deposit. What appears to be green-tinted water at the bottom of the pit is also characteristic of a copper mine.
According to Lee, the camp’s population was relatively small — just 2,000 prisoners and an almost equally miserable guard force of 300:
Among the 300, 60 are enlisted sentries- people directly pulled out of the army to join the Jeongeo-ri Prison. Another 10 are 30 to 35 year-old sentries who live with their families; another 10 of them are unmarried sentries of “sergeant major” rank. The remaining 220 are security officials with stars on their shoulders, from second lieutenant up to captain.
The enlisted sentries are selected from among the freshest young junior middle school kids who have joined the army not via military recruitment but through the People’s Safety Agency. It’s not a good job, so only people with no financial or political backing are picked to be prison sentries. For in reeducation camps, sentries go through almost as much grief as prisoners.
This is because they are duty-bound to monitor the prisoners, which means that they always have to follow the prisoners around come rain or snow. When the prisoners climb mountains to gather firewood, they have to be at the top too. Where the prisoners go, the sentries are never far behind.
Even with newly available high-resolution imagery, most of the camp’s boundaries — fence lines or guard posts — are not apparent. This is the one detail of this site that’s the difficult to explain, given the distinctive boundaries seen at most of the kwan-li-so camps. But other visible details are strikingly similar to Lee’s description:
The concrete walls of the main camp make a 120 meter-long square. Beyond the walls are places for each section; prison cells, a warehouse, carpentry section, drafting section, public affairs section, the kitchen, tree felling section, hospital, pharmacy, a cargo labor section, an auto repairs section and so forth.
The square area in the center of this image appears to be a compound surrounded by high walls and three guard towers. It measures 135 meters by almost exactly 120 meters.
Here is a high resolution image from an eye altitude of 500 feet. Note the shadows of the guard towers:
More hi-res images recently made available on Google Earth. They give an even clearer view:
By keeping my ears open I learned that Jeongeo-ri Prison was founded in 1970 as “No. 22 Juvenile Reformatory,” and that back then the concrete walls of the prison were just 6 meters high.
Then in the mid-1980s the name was changed to “No.12 Reeducation Camp” and the concrete walls rose to eight meters. Even now, you can clearly distinguish the added wall, piled up more than 20 years ago.
Lee Jun Ha has written a 23-part (so far) prison diary about his life in Camp 12. His story may predate the expansion of the camp. Still, I’ve linked all of the installments here:
I will leave you with this excerpt from Lee’s diary:
I followed clumsily behind taking glances here and there. To the right written in large black letters were two frightening warnings “Those caught trying to escape will be shot!”, and “Escape is suicide!” Shaking with fear, I continued to follow. Off to the left I saw a group of inmates with sanitation tags on their arms haphazardly loading logs onto a big truck labeled “˜Independence #82′.
Or I thought they were logs, anyway. As I looked closer I realized they were corpses. My heart rose into my throat and I went stiff. Only one thought came to me, “I’m a dead man; that rumor about 80% of all prisoners either starving or being worked to death is not just a rumor after all. [Daily NK, Account of Lee Jung Ha]
A later installment of Lee’s prison diary recounts the execution of a prisoner who tried to escape.
Until October of 2009, I could only offer an educated guess that this site was in fact Camp 12 at Chongo-ri. But then, David Hawk and a young researcher named Sarah Kim were able to find a witness — not Lee Jung Ha — who was able to view the satellite images and confirm that this is indeed the Chongo-ri camp.
This still doesn’t answer all of my questions about this site, however. Lee and one of the subjects in Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy” both related that inmates at Camp 12 were forced to do logging and other hard labor in the hills around the compound. Thus, I’m surprised that I’ve yet to find fences or guard posts around the camp. Maybe the fences are just hard to see. Maybe they aren’t there. Or maybe I’ve just been looking in the wrong place. With a place as secret as this, in a country as opaque as this, one never stops searching for evidence and questioning of one’s own conclusions.
Update 3/2012: If this shocked you, wait till you see how the Associated Press is portraying daily life in North Korea these days.