In central North Korea, along the Taedong River far upstream from Pyongyang, lie two of North Korea’s five largest concentration camps: Camp 14 and Camp 18, which hold an approximate total of 50,000 political prisoners, their spouses, and their children. The camps lie on opposite sides of the river in an area rich in coal, where mines are worked by the mine’s prisoners.
For context, here are the boundaries of both camps in relation to the other largest camps — Camp 15, Camp 16, and Camp 22. You can enlarge these images to full size by clicking on them. Coordinates and eye altitudes appear on the bottom of each image.
Closer in, we can determine the boundaries of both camps ….
… and identify their main industries and population centers.
The North Korean government denies that these camps even exist; however, survivor accounts continue to emerge to corroborate the horrors within these fence lines. This page is my effort to combine the most recent scholarly research, witness accounts, and satellite imagery to provide the web’s most complete accounting of what goes on in these camps.
Recently, a reader kindly provided me an English language translation of the Korean Bar Association’s 2008 White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea (hereinafter KBA). The White Paper is an invaluable work of research that accumulates the accounts of dozens of North Korean defectors, including concentration camp survivors. I also relied on David Hawk’s ground-breaking The Hidden Gulag (hereinafter Hawk), published by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea; the account of survivor Kim Yong; and the excellent report of the NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide (hereinafter CSW).
Neither Amnesty International nor Human Rights Watch — they are the media darlings of the Human Rights Industry — has made a significant contribution to documenting North Korea’s network of concentration camps, though both have circulated occasional petitions. I believe that merits mentioning, too.
Camp 18 was first established in the 1950’s to house prisoners from North Hwanghae Province, in the southwest portion of North Korea, whose family members had fled to the South during the Korean War. The original population also included former landlords, those suspected of collaboration with U.S. and South Korean forces, and suspected dissenters of various kinds. Today, most of the prisoners are relatives of people who escaped to South Korea. Half the population is female; the fathers of these families are either executed or sent to die in “total control zones.” KBA 542.
The prisoners of Camp 14 have been sentenced for more serious political offenses. With exceedingly rare exceptions, they will never leave the camp — not even when they die. The Korean Bar Association report describes its prisoners as “Anti-Kim Il Sung officials from the Party, government, and military, and their family aged from 50 to 60.” KBA 539.
Although Article 68 of North Korea’s constitution nominally guarantees freedom of religion, numerous defectors told the Korean Bar Association that it was common knowledge that religious believers were sent to concentration camps or executed. Most commonly, believers simply disappeared, and their surviving neighbors were left to assume the worst. The sheer number of accounts of severe punishment for those who dared to worship any god but Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il suggests that clandestine religious belief is widespread, and that the regime considers it to be a mortal threat to the official cult. KBA 318-22, 326-33.
Some of those imprisoned at Camps 14 and 18 were once regime officials themselves. In Camp 18, there is a special area set aside for them:
Kim Yong, one of just two men who claims to have witnessed Camp 14 and lived to describe it, was once an official in the same secret police agency that operates most of North Korea’s concentration camps. He related his remarkable story to David Hawk in The Hidden Gulag:
KIM Yong was born in 1950 in Hwanghae Province. When he was seven years old, unbeknownst to him at the time, his father and older brother were executed as spies for the United States. To spare him the collective guilt attributed by North Korean officials to the families of political wrongdoers, Kim’s mother placed him in an orphanage under a false name. Kim grew up to become the Korean equivalent of a lieutenant colonel in the bo-wi-bu (National Security Agency) police. Like other military and security units and departments, his unit set up income-generating businesses, and Kim became a vice president in the Sohae (West Sea) Asahi Trading Company, which operated three fishing vessels exporting flounder and sole to Japan.
As a hard-currency earner for the regime, Kim had access to dollars, foreign goods and culture, and a chauffeur-driven car. Unfortunately, Kim’s true parentage was discovered, quite by accident, after someone else turned up bearing his assumed name. He was arrested and interrogated for three months at the Maram bo-wi-bu detention/interrogation facility in the Yongsong district of Pyongyang and at another bo-wi-bu jail, called Moonsu, also in Pyongyang. The torture at Moonsu was particularly severe. Accused of deliberately infiltrating the security service, Kim was forced to kneel for long periods with a wooden bar placed behind and between his knees and calves. He was suspended by his handcuffed wrists from his prison-cell bars, and he was submerged up to his waist for long periods in tanks filled with cold water. [Hawk]
Kim also told his story to Christian Solidarity Worldwide:
During the interrogation they made me kneel with a square piece of wood behind my knees and then stamped on my thighs. The pain is just beyond description. Twenty days into the interrogation I could stand it no longer and I tried to commit suicide. I had to do it by buting my own writes as there was nothing else available to try to harm myself with, but I fainted before I could succeed. The whole place is full of crying and shrieking. Even whenyou are not being interrogatted you have to listen to others shouting and yelling. People were crawling because they had been so badly beaten. It is not a place for human beings, but for beasts. [….]
[T]he most painful form of torture they used against me was to insert very sharp bamboo needles under my fingernail and push them up the finger to the first knuckle. When the needle goes in, the pain makes your whole body shake.
I wanted to confess everything but I had nothing to confess! I was lucky. I was only interrogated for three months. For other prisoners the interrogation period can be much longer. [CSW]
Who Operates the Camps?
Agents of the Bowibu, the National Security Agency or secret police, run all of the camps except Camp 18, which is run by the inmin pohan seong, a/k/a anjeon bu, or Peoples’ Security Agency. KBA 559-60.
Except for Kwan-li-so No. 18 in South Pyong-an Province, administration of the prison-labor camps was taken over by Kuk-ga-bo-wi-bu (usually abbreviated as “bo-wi-bu”), variously translated as the National Security Agency, National Security Police, State Political Protection Agency, or State Safety and Protection Agency. This security force was created in 1973 and reports, according to former bo-wi-bu official Yoon Dae Il, directly to Kim Jong Il, not to the Ministry of Interior or Defense, and that took over running the kwan-li-so, except for No. 18. The outer perimeters of the kwan-li-so are patrolled by privileged members of North Korea’s army. The administrator and internal guards of the camps are bo-wi-bu officers. [Hawk]
By the most remarkable of ironies, Kim Yong rose to the rank of colonel in the Bowibu without knowing that his father had been executed for treason, and that his mother had left him at an orphanage while he was still an infant. Later, a background check exposed Kim, and he began a tortuous process of interrogation that ended with his imprisonment in a Bowibu camp.
Kim relates how he arrived at Camp 14 in 1993, after months for interrogation for a “crime” he did not commit and knew nothing about:
After three months of repeated questioning, threats, and torture, I was driven five hours from Pyongyang, going through five guard posts. When I was finally let out of the car, my eyes wandered so that I could try and figure out where I was …. [Kim Yong]
When the car dropped him inside Camp 14, Kim was cursed viciously and told to put his head to the ground. Then, jeep that had brought him to the camp left him behind, and he was ordered into another car that brought him to the place where he would be issued prison garb he’d wear while laboring in the camp’s coal mines. The beatings, the dehumanizing humiliation, and the fear of death that would last for years began.
Kim would have been driven along this road going east from the Main Gate to the camp’s headquarters. He probably wouldn’t have noticed what were once buildings, where only foundations remained by the time these images were taken on March 6, 2004.
Were they barracks?
He’d have passed a depot for loading coal from the slave-worked mines in the hills above.
Downstream, the river is dammed, and the rising water has forced the Bowibu to rebuild the road further up the hillside. The patterns in the surrounding fields may be shocks of grain or an orchard that has been cut down.
The rising waters claimed this guard post:
Then, Kim would have reached the camp’s headquarters.
Uphill, there is a separate walled and gated facility. None of North Korea’s other concentration camps has a facility this isolated and secure. What is its purpose? There’s simply no way of guessing, although Kim Yong alleges that the Bowibu conduct inhuman tests of chemical weapons on human subjects at Camp 14. Other defectors have made similar allegations about Camp 22. If Kim’s allegations are true, this is almost certainly the place where those experiments happen.
The car stopped in front of a warehouse where prisoners’ belongings were stored. I was told to get out and completely strip, even my underwear. Instead I was given a rag to put on and stood waiting for what was to come next. This somehow displeased the authorities and another round of shouting and violence followed. [Kim Yong]
Kim also relates the history of the camps’ establishment:
The establishment of the political prison camps was conceived by KIM Byong-hwa, who was then the head of the State Security Department, and carried out in 1972 under orders from KIM Il-sung. Before 1972, there were special districts set aside for the internment of families of defectors to the South, the people who had worked in the South Korean police during the Korean War, and pro-Japanese collaborators and their families,in the cities near the 38th parallel in Hwanghae Province, such as: Kaesong, Kumchon, Yong’yon, Jang’yon, Ahnahk, Eunyool, Chiya, Jangpoong, Kaepoong, Panmun, etc. These bad elements were deported in cargo trains to twelve special districts to sever them completely from contact with innocent North Korean citizens. All forms of communication with the outside world, including mail, were denied these prisoners. At the time, the State Security Department had not come into being, and the special districts were operated under the Social Security Department. [Kim Yong]
Security Around the Camps
Escape is virtually impossible:
Camp No. 18 is guarded by two armed battalions and surrounded by a high voltage wire fence that stands 3m tall. Triangular booby-traps 3m deep and 1.5m wide are planted under the electrified wires. At the bottom of these traps are 60cm-long iron bars with sharp ends made to pierce the body that falls on them. There are 5m-high watchtowers every 200m along the circumference of the camp. These towers are equipped with light machine guns and occupied by guards rotating every two hours. In between the cordon of watchtowers are soldiers in hidden posts, as well as soldiers who make rounds on the outer edges of the camp. [Kim Yong]
The fence lines of Camp 18 are clearly visible for the camp’s entire circumference. In these images, the snow has melted on the southern slopes, highlighting the camp’s boundary along the ridge line.
Camp 14’s perimeter is clearly visible as it runs north, from the Taedong River into the hills above. The fence line and the distinctive square guard posts are visible at regular intervals.
Further north, the fence line vanishes into the forest cover and low resolution of the imagery.
Further east, the fence lines can be traced again. North Korea usually fences in its concentration camps along high ridge lines. It’s probable that the fence line follows the ridge lines between the marked sections of the fence line visible here, but I chose not to mark the camp’s boundary where I did not have confidence that the markings were accurate. That is an answer that will have to wait for better imagery, or for the camps’ liberation.
Work in the Camps
Defectors claim that North Korean authorities believe that forced labor can “change an inmate’s intrinsic nature” and “restore his or her true characteristics.” To them, it can be a means of rehabilitation and political correction, but only for those it deems worthy of rehabilitation at all. North Korean concentration camps are classified as either reeducation zones or life imprisonment “total control” zones. Of the existing kwan-li-so (the larger concentration camps, as opposed to the smaller and more numerous kyo-hwa-so) the KBA report claims that only Camp 15 contains a reeducation zone. The KBA report, however, frequently appears to subsume information about Camp 18, an apparent reeducation zone, into its description of Camp 14, a total control zone.* KBA 558, 535, 537.
For everyone between the ages of 16 and 65, the work day begins at 5 or 6 a.m. Prisoners wash their faces eat breakfast, work until lunch at noon, and work again from 1 p.m. until 5 to 7 p.m. when they break for their evening meal. Prisoners in reeducation camps may receive ideological indoctrination until ten. For others, work continues until 7 or 8 p.m. Each barracks hut’s light bulb is shut off at ten. Curfew lasts until 5 a.m. the next morning. KBA 243, 553-55.
Kim Yong recalls the brutality of working in the mines:
My job in the camp was to dig in a mine 720m below the surface. The parts of the hard earth I cut away were to be loaded onto a trolley, which I had to push as far as 200m where there was a machine to carry rocks above the ground. For a novice like me, it was difficult work.
One day, there were simply too many rocks to keep up the pace. Several trolleys were lined in front of me pressuring me to move faster. It was then the shout came:
“Who the fuck did this?”
In situations like this, I had been taught to face the wall, put my hands on the back of my head, keep my forehead glued to the ground, and remain motionless until the security agent had passed by. And I was doing just that when suddenly I was knocked unconscious. When I finally regained consciousness, blood was flowing from my head and down my neck. A security agent had hit me with the back of his pistol and was making me an example of an unproductive worker who deserved no better than death. To this day, I bear the scar of hatred on my head. I recall the anger and desire for revenge that exploded inside me. [Kim Yong]
Discipline, Torture, and Arbitrary Execution
I later found out that there was a regulation in Camp No. 14 about what the inmates must do when any camp authority was present or passing by. The inmate must sit on his or her knees with head glued to the ground and turned away from where the officer is. The prisoner must remain in that position until the officer is out of sight, and only then can he/she walk, keeping ones eyes fixed in the direction opposite of where the officer had gone. [Kim Yong]
The North Korean government regards a political prisoner as an enemy, and concentration camps in North Korea are considered enemy-controlled areas. KBA 528. The Bowibu have near-absolute authority over all prisoners, and are seldom held accountable if their arbitrary beatings and tortures cause disfigurement or death. KBA 559-60.
Prisoners in the camps live according to ten basic rules:
1. You must not escape.
2. Three or more inmates must not meet together.
3. You must not steal.
4. You must absolutely obey orders of the Protection Agency guidance officers.
5. You must immediately report if you saw any outsiders or suspicious people.
6. All inmates must carefully watch over each other and immediately report each other’s unusual behavior.
7. You must over-fulfill all tasks assigned to you.
8. Unless it is job-related, no contact between male and female is allowed.
9. You must be truly remorseful for your own mistakes.
10. You shall be immediately shot by firing squad if you ever violate these laws and regulations of the camp. [KBA 559-60]
This list is not exhaustive. Guards can and frequently do beat detainees severely for rising late, making mistakes at work, or failing to meet labor quotas. Detainees may also be punished collectively for the mistakes of one. Other punishable offenses include violations of those rules, complaining, disobeying orders, stealing, engaging in romantic or sexual relationships, or showing interest in life outside the camp. KBA 244, 560.
Camp commanders have absolute, arbitrary authority to order the execution of prisoners, for such offenses as prohibited sex, pregnancy, complaining, disclosing secrets, or attempting to escape. Prisoners who are sentenced to death may be executed in front of other prisoners who are forced to watch. Multiple witnesses from various camps describe a procedure similar to that secretly recorded in this video in 2005:
One such execution at Camp 14 the late 1980’s is said to have triggered an uprising at the camp in which eight guards were killed. Afterward, the authorities executed 1,500 prisoners and dumped their bodies in an abandoned mine shaft. Subsequently, authorities began to carry out some executions secretly. KBA 570.
And there the prisons within the prison — the camps’ “special jails,” where food rations are further reduced and where prisoners are often beaten to death. Once a prisoner is sent into the special jail, her odds of survival are greatly reduced. “[T]he prisoners have wounds that are sometimes filled with decomposed pus which causes a disgusting smell and causes them to move about on all fours.” The bodies of dead prisoners are wrapped in matting and buried in shallow graves without mounds, so that their graves cannot be found later. KBA 561-64.
Starvation, Disease, and Medical Neglect
A controllable prisoner’s labor is still a valuable resource for the state. In the camps, guards use food to exercise most day-to-day control over the prisoners by keeping them in a state of all-consuming hunger. Camp authorities generally punish small infractions and the failure to meet work quotas with the reduction or denial of food rations. Authorities also use threats and the promise of increased food rations to induce prisoners into informing on each other. Guards also steal rice from prisoners. Indeed, given recent reports of severe hunger in some military units, it’s reasonable to infer that the guards are hungry, too. KBA 550-52, 555, 546-47, 551.
[Food distribution center for Camp 18 management]
The constant hunger drives prisoners to eat almost anything they can catch, including frogs, snakes, rats, worms, squirrels, and grass. KBA 555-56. Yet a prisoner can be shot on the spot for eating anything other than what he is given in his meager rations. Kim Yong recalls the summary execution of a prisoner for picking up chestnuts:
Fifty-three-year-old Chul-min KIMs job was to drive trolleys for transferring coal. One day, he saw some chestnut burrs roll down the mountain slope and stop in front of his trolley. Chul-min, without realizing what he was doing, stopped on the tracks to pick up the chestnuts. Unfortunately, a security agent, who we called Opbashi 3) for his cruelty, had spotted what Chul-min was doing and yelled:
“What are you doing, you son of a bitch?”
The shout made me raise my head toward the direction it came from, and I could see Opbashi already quite close behind Chul-min, who was oblivious to all but the mouth-watering chestnuts. Opbashi, on reaching Chul-min’s bent-over back started kicking and became increasingly violent as his anger mounted. In no time, the hard soles of his boots were laying heavy blows to poor Chul-min’s head until finally a pistol was taken out. Opbashi then held down Chul-min’s head with one of his feet and blew a hole in the forehead of the horrified victim. Blood spurted from Chul-min, who was no longer alive.
Ordered to drag away the corpse of such a poisonous element, the supervisor rushed to the body and picked it up in his arms. His action provoked Opbashi, who shouted:
“What? Feeling pity for the rascal? Drag the damn thing, I’m telling ya!”
The supervisor quickly dropped Chul-min’s body on the trolley tracks and pulled it along by the leg. It looked like the carcass of a beast. I noticed the two chestnuts Chul-min so firmly held in his hand. The witnesses on the scene stood motionless in fear and rage. [Kim Yong]
Separately, Kim Yong speaks of a prisoner, a former basketball player, whose hunger drove him to steal a guard’s whip, soak it in water, and eat it. When the prisoner was caught, the guard shoved what remained of the whip down his throat. The prisoner later died.
More recently, another survivor of “the Kaechon Camp,” presumably either Camp 14 or Camp 18, has emerged to recount this ghastly story:
Women at the event wore dark glasses to conceal their identities but were unable to hide their tears. One recalled how she languished at the Kaechon political prison camp for 28 years after being taken into custody at 13 for guilt by association with a crime committed by one of her relatives. She said, “I saw a starving woman eat the flesh of her son who had died of a disease.”
Hunger and disease cull weakened prisoners every year. KBA 555-56. Lee Na-Neun, a former bodyguard for Kim Jong Il, describes the process of how the prisoners die:
People constantly die from starvation in the political prison camps. Their teeth shake and fall our due to lack of calcium and protein during the early stages of starvation. A bruise is left on the spot where the teeth fell out and it deteriorates and turns black. The bone structure of a head decreases, weight and height decreases (sic), and the body swells as it becomes filled with water and finally when the water bursts, people die from starvation. [KBA 556]
Witnesses speak of average annual starvation-related death rates in the camps of 15 to 25 percent. The health of prisoners breaks down under the weight of the constant hunger, exhaustion, exposure, and torture. Many prisoners contract pellagra, tuberculosis, hepatitis, gastric disorders, or frostbite. Others succumb to madness. The doctors are themselves prisoners, and they have only cold, fever, and digestion remedies with which to treat their patients. There are no immunizations against contagious diseases; consequently, epidemics are common.
Even suicide is no escape. If a prisoner commits suicide, his or her family is punished. Even the insane must work, digging pits or pulling weeds. On other occasions, badly injured prisoners or those near death from disease would be summarily released to depress the camp’s death rate statistics. KBA 556-58, 242 n.36-37, 243.
There is one nominal exception to the guards’ absolute authority: they are prohibited from having romantic or sexual relations with prisoners. In practice, however, guards routinely rape or coerce female prisoners sexually. If a female prisoner becomes pregnant, the child will be killed through an involuntary abortion, or by infanticide after birth. For detainees who arrive at the camps already pregnant, however, treatments vary; some may even be returned home. KBA 566-68, 245.
Former Camp 14 inmate Kim Yeong-Il claims that at the camp, there was a guest house where party officials from Pyongyang made free sexual use of female prisoners. I found no such guest house in Camp 14, but David Hawk’s report notes this location at Camp 18, across the river. The confusion may be another case of the KBA report conflating the two camps:
After the women were raped, they were killed to prevent them from bearing witness:
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. [KBA 165]
According to Shin Dong Hyuk, Camp 14 was originally established south of the Taedong River, were Camp 18 lies today. Shin claims that in 1983, Camp 14 was moved north of the river, and Camp 18 was established at its former location on the southern bank. KBA 543.
Camp 14 is a total control zone, and no prisoner is supposed to leave a total control zone, dead or alive. Because the state considers ideological education to be a privilege for those deemed fit to live in its society, there are no pictures or statues of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. The only ideological education in total control zones is for the guards. The forced labor has no rehabilitative purpose; it is merely designed to utilize the prisoners’ labor as an economic resource. KBA 537, 558.
As a precaution against exposure to the outside world, the North Korean government gives the camps names, usually as numbered military garrisons. Kwan-li-so number 14 is an exception; it is officially known as kwan-li-so number 14. KBA 534, 539.
As noted previously, Shin and Kim are the only two prisoners who claim to be eyewitnesses to conditions in Camp 14. You can see video of Shin describing his experiences on YouTube. At 49:00 into the video, Shin is asked about how he escaped from North Korea, and gives some answers that don’t quite satisfy me. I draw no conclusion either way about the credibility of Shin’s overall account of his imprisonment.
In 1996, after a year in Camp 14, Kim Yong’s exceptionally bad luck ended with a miracle — a former Bowibu comrade arranged for his transfer across the river to Camp 18. Had Kim not crossed this bridge, he would almost certainly not be alive today:
At Camp 18, Kim found something completely unexpected: his mother. Kim Yong recently published this memoir of his imprisonment. GI Korea has read and reviewed the account, entitled, Long Road Home, which contains this horrific account of how the Great Famine affected prisoners in the camps:
His tales about life in Camp 14 are absolutely incredible because of the depravity he experienced. The tales of cannibalism due to the extreme hunger the prisoners experienced was probably the most horrifying. Kim Yong’s tales of cannibalism weren’t just limited to Camp 14. He also recalls incidents he was privy to before he was sentenced to Camp 14 about North Koreans digging up graves and eating the dead bodies as well as even murdering others in order to eat them due to the Great Famine …. [ROK Drop]
And yet one does not see the masses of graves in the camps that one sees around such large cities as Hamhung and Wonsan. Indeed, outside the camp’s boundaries, one sees hillsides covered with graves:
But prisoners are denied the privilege of a grave. The few graves that can be seen — and they are across the river, at Camp 18 — appear to belong to camp staff.
Within Camp 14 itself, I found only a few round, light patches that at most were improvised burial sites, a small number of older graves, and a few spots that could just as well have been haystacks. Ironically, the sight of cemeteries and mass burial sites suggests that the place you’re looking at, tragic as it may be, at least isn’t a concentration camp. To an ordinary North Korean citizen, freedom may mean little more than the privilege of being remembered. It brings to mind the meaning of the word “vaporize,” as Orwell used it.
It is not possible to estimate Camp 14’s population or capacity from satellite imagery without knowing which buildings are barracks, and how many people live in each building. The KBA report claims that there are 50,000 prisoners in Camp 14 alone. This count is difficult to confirm based on the number of visible huts and houses within the camp’s boundaries, which themselves are hard to determine in places. The KBA report, citing Shin Dong Hyuk, says that the main settlement of Oedong-ri in Camp 14 has 40 huts, with four families in each hut, for a total of 160 families.
If each family consists of four members, the total population of this settlement would be 16 persons per hut, or 640 persons. Other inmates report that housing huts generally hold between five and ten families in barracks known as “harmonica housing” because of their appearance. KBA 540, 552. But then, what is the purpose of these buildings? If they’re barracks, they could hold hundreds of prisoners:
How many prisoners live in each of these smaller huts? And what of the demolished buildings nearer the camp’s western gate? Were those barracks, too?
This view from 13 miles up — higher than commercial aircraft fly — gives some idea of how many villages lay scattered along the eastern side of the vast camp:
In light of the number of huts and dormitories visible in these images, Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s estimate of 15,000, which Kim Yong also proffers, seems more plausible.
Just beyond these villages, we find the camp’s eastern perimeter fence …
… and more of those distinctive guard posts we see surrounding concentration camps, and nowhere else.
Prisoners in Camp 14 are not allowed to marry, however, some of the child prisoners who enter the camp are permitted some degree of education.
Education is just enough to make them productive as laborers — literacy and basic math, and for those in reeducation camps, some political indoctrination. The instructors are armed guards, not trained teachers. They discipline the children by beating them and kicking them in the stomach with jackboots. When they are not in school, children must work: digging, weeding, planting, gathering fire wood, or making humus soil (fertilizer made from excrement). KBA 540, 564-65.
The satellite imagery of Camp 18 suggests that it holds a much larger prisoner population than Camp 14. Christian Solidarity Worldwide estimates its population at 30,000, a lower figure than David Hawk’s estimate of 50,000, although it cautions that estimates are impossible to verify independently, and that camp populations may vary considerably with time. It notes that they rose “dramatically as Kim Jong Il consolidated his power,” beginning in the 1980’s, and after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. It suggests that the reduction of rations accompanying the Great Famine may well have reduced the population due to the culling effect of starvation.
Although much of the camp isn’t visible in high-resolution, clearly, Camp 18 is large enough to hold tens of thousands of prisoners:
Defectors allege that Camp 18 was established around 1958. KBA 542.
Unlike the rest of the kwan-li-so, Camp 18 is operated by the Public Security Agency. Camp 18 is said to be one of the less brutal of the camps.Located on the other side of the Taedong River from Kwan-li-so No. 14, Kwan-li-so No. 18 is something of an anomaly among the kwan-li-so in that it is run by the In-min-bo-an-seong (People’s Safety Agency) police rather than the bo-wi-bu (National Security Agency) police34 and is a much less strict and severe prison-labor colony. But it holds some 50,000 prisoners: the families of the presumed wrongdoers imprisoned in Kwan-li- so No. 14. Roughly 30,000 are organized into work teams. The other 20,000 are children and elderly relatives. [….]
Prisoners at Kwan-li-so No. 18 did, however, die of malnutrition, disease, and work accidents. And there were public executions — dozens of them, according to Kim. Rulebreakers were shot. Attempted escapees were hanged. [Hawk]
This is not to suggest that life in Camp 18 was soft:
The conditions at the camp kill many prisoners each year. Former prisoner Lee Geum-Sun claims that during his term there, in the late 70’s and early 80’s, camp authorities distributed enough food to feed his family for five days every 15 days. Even with such supplements as private gardens and occasional rations of soy sauce or soybean paste, prisoners experienced more days without meals than with them. Kim Yong’s account generally confirms this. Clothing rations were also rare. For example, Lee reports that miners were issued new winter clothing once every three years. Lee’s father was executed in November of 1977. Thereafter, his family was sentenced to one year of labor through rehabilitation in Camp 18; however, Lee’s family wasn’t released until December 1983.
Food supplies worsened when mass famine struck North Korea in 1994; indeed, NGO’s have reported mass deaths from famine in some localities as recently as 2008. During the hard times, concentration and labor camp prisoners were the lowest priority in food ration distributions, and rations dropped below starvation levels. KBA 541, 243, 551.
Yet prisoners at Camp 18 are eligible for privileges that would be unheard of in the other camps:
Unusually, during Kim’s imprisonment at this kwan-li-so, the prison laborers were paid a token amount of 30 won a month — barely the cost of a pack of cigarettes. Families were allowed to live together, and privileged prisoners were allowed to marry and have children. There were also radio broadcasts, and copies of Rodong Shinmun, the Workers’ Daily, were posted at the entrances to worksites. Privileged prisoners were allowed outside the gates to collect herbs. [….]
Kwan-li-so No. 18 also had a very small “revolutionizing zone,” for prisoners that were eligible for release back into society, and even a “liberation zone,” where a small number of prisoners were allowed to send and receive mail, go to the local market, and even receive a gift of liquor from the state on the occasion of Kim Il Sung’s birthday, apparently in recognition of their ongoing citizenship. [Hawk]
Christian Solidarity Worldwide describes all of Camp 18 as a “revolutionizing zone,” meaning that prisoners may be released after sufficient rehabilitation through forced labor. Some prisoners could even hope for a visit by a family member, although according to some prisoners, a bribe is helpful in arranging it. There is also a school at Camp 18. The afternoon of March 6, 2004, when a satellite snapped this image of Camp 18’s school, looked cold. It caught images of a few figures walking along the road in front of the school.
Who were these people? Were they children walking home from school, toward the family barracks?
The greatest “benefit” of life in Camp 18, however, is the possibility of eventual release, an option that simply does not exist for prisoners in most of the Bowibu camps. Yet even this benefit is contingent on a prisoner being cured of any diseases he may have contracted in the camp, a condition that results in an effective life sentence for some. KBA 547, 543, 558.
Prisoners at Camp 18 make bricks, cement, glass, tools, furniture, and distilled spirits, but satellite imagery and defector accounts suggest that Camp 18’s main industry is mining the coal that powers the Pukchang Thermal Power Plant. KBA 543.
The Power Plant lies east of the camps (thanks to my friend Curtis Melvin for confirming the location). You can clearly see the shadows of the smokestacks in this image:
At Camp 18, Kim Yong lived in this hut for three years …
He worked in the shop indicated by the second yellow arrow, repairing coal cars. Unfortunately, the shop is just beyond the area covered by the high-resolution imagery:
Here is where the events begin that changed Kim Yong’s life forever.
In 1996, at the height of the Great Famine, Kim Yong’s mother was in the forest gathering edible weeds when she passed out from hunger. Caught in the woods after curfew, she was accused of trying to escape and beaten so brutally that she was rendered an invalid. By 1998, knowing that death was near, she spoke to her son about the most forbidden of things — hope and freedom:
“Mother, how would you live without me?”
From my question she seemed to have read my determination and answered:
“If you think of the trivial things, you will never become a big man. Just think of how wonderful it would be if you could only go to South Korea. Your uncle went south during the war and some of your father’s friends must still be there, too.” With these words and a long sigh she tried to encourage me. [Kim Yong]
Kim, who repaired the rail cars that shipped the coal away from Camp 18, discovered a hatch at the bottom of the cars that he could prop open with a piece of coal. In this manner, he could hide himself under tons of coal, in an air pocket large enough to sustain one man’s life. And one September day in 1998, Kim Yong risked everything he knew and loved to escape from the “paradise” of Camp 18.
There are just three ways out of the camp. The way Kim would have come in, across the footbridge over the river, was out of the question. The second way would have been this bridge, which crosses the Taedong, and back into Camp 14 again before passing through the camp’s western gate.
There, Kim Yong would have to escape the notice of guards who would check the coal cars, and who would look down into the coal cars from this observation tower.
This was not the end of Kim Yong’s danger. Ahead would be a long journey with no travel permit or resources through the world’s hungriest, most heavily policed state.
He’d have to cross North Korea, and then its border into China, and finally, he would have to evade police patrols there. He would have risked betrayal by informers, and even by South Korean consular personnel. Against all odds, Kim Yong made it out alive to tell his story.
Postscript: Americans Held at Camp 14?
I will close with what may be Kim’s most shocking claim for some readers — that British and American prisoners were still held at Camp 14 in the 1990’s (when I was serving with the U.S. Army in South Korea). It’s the sort of claim we tend to associate with conspiracy theories and B-movie plots, but the claim is plausible in the context of North Korea’s other known behavior.
First, it is well established that North Korea held thousands of South Korean prisoners of war after the 1953 Armistice. The South Korean government estimates that North Korea is still holding 560 of its soldiers. Seventy-six of them have escaped from North Korea and returned home since the war ended. Elderly South Korean POW’s continue to escape and return even now (here is my favorite story of a POW’s return). Many of these South Koreans started new families in the North, and their North Korean families often follow later. A few years ago, I met two of these escaped POW’s at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, and one of them also alleged that he saw Caucasian men — men he believed to be allied soldiers — in North Korean custody several months after the Armistice. South Korea wants its soldiers back, but has never managed to make their return a policy priority.
Second, it is generally accepted that North Korea abducted thousands of South Koreans from their own soil or from fishing boats, and North Korea is also suspected of abducting dozens of Japanese and an unknown number of third-country nationals from such diverse locations as Lebanon, Thailand, Malaysia, China, The Netherlands, France, and Italy. Is the idea that North Korea holds these people really that much more shocking than the idea that it held a few American and British soldiers in violation of an Armistice that it never really adhered to anyway?
Only two people even claim to have escaped from Camp 14. North Korea didn’t keep Kim Yong’s secret, but it has effectively prevented its corroboration. And if Kim Yong’s escape seems unlikely enough, imagine how unlikely it would be for a foreigner to infiltrate through two hostile police states without being caught. Kim’s claim isn’t conclusive evidence, but it shouldn’t be discounted out of hand.
Update 3/2012: If this shocked you, wait till you see how the Associated Press is portraying daily life in North Korea these days.
Update 9/2013, Camp 18 Closed: More recent satellite imagery suggests that Camp 18 has been closed. It’s not clear what happened to the prisoners. They may have been released, paroled in place, moved to Camp 14, or some combination of those things.