How do you tell a story that must be told, but still can’t be told? Of all of North Korea’s largest political prison camps, the least is known about Camp 16, in this remote, mountainous corner of northeastern North Korea. Prisoners are never released from Camp 16, dead or alive. No witness has ever emerged to describe it first-hand. But if previous reports are accurate — really, they’re hardly more than accumulated rumors from nearby residents — one December night six years ago, Camp 16 was the scene of one of the most desperately courageous acts of defiance since the uprisings at Sobibor and Treblinka.
Five years ago, a start-up newspaper in Seoul staffed largely by North Korean refugees began to receive calls from its sources, who risked death to report the news from inside the world’s most closed society over smuggled Chinese cell phones. It wasn’t the kind of Potemkin reporting done by professional journalists from Pyongyang — flanked by state minders and guided to choreographed illusions of smiling schoolchildren and devotion to North Korea’s god-kings — but raw, primitive journalism that springs from the desperation to tell a story. The story was that cities across northeastern North Korea were locked down with checkpoints and flooded with security forces, and that they were hunting for men who had staged a mass breakout from Camp 16. The sources, at least one of whom cited a contact inside the security forces, told the reporter that on December 20, 2006, a group of prisoners possessed themselves of a smuggled saw, a club, the courage to use them, and the desperation to accept almost certain death for a most unlikely chance at freedom. For a lucky few, a car may have been waiting. The story was that about 120 of them had gotten outside the wire.
Most of those who escaped were probably caught. After that, it’s a sure bet that they were tortured brutally to get them to give up the names of all who helped them. When they had no more secrets to tell and no one left to betray, their teeth would have been broken out and their mouths tied shut and stuffed with stones, so that they couldn’t shout any last words of defiance. It would have ended like this:
Population & Conditions at the Camp
A prisoner being taken to Camp 16 would be driven up this road, from the small farming town of Hwasong, not far from the coast.
The yellow lines on the horizon are Camp 16′s fence lines. We’ll look at those more closely later. In most cases, fence lines follow ridge lines. That means that people on the outside can’t see what’s happening inside, and people inside can’t see the outside, either.
At the next junction, we turn north, into the mountains …
… and Camp 16′s main gate comes into view. I’ve turned off the boundary markings so you can see them more clearly for yourself.
Here’s a vertical of the gate. This is where prisoners will have their last glimpse at what passes for freedom in North Korea. On the summer day when this image was taken, parts of the scene must have looked bucolic, with a mountain stream passing freely though the fence lines out of the camp.
The prisoners pass under a gate inscribed with a slogan, perhaps the same one as appears in this clandestine video of Camp 15.
This isn’t Camp 16′s only gate. In the northeastern corner, there is a smaller one.
In this 2004 image, you can see a long guard house next to a road that passes though the fence line.
In this 2010 image, the guard house has been replaced by a smaller one, and the fence over the stream has been improved to resemble the one at the main gate we saw above.
Beyond the gate, the road is overgrown and disused, much more so in the 2010 imagery. When I began reexamining newer imagery of Camp 16 to prepare this post, I looked for places that showed signs of visible security upgrades. I assumed that if there was a mass breakout from this camp, the security forces would have upgraded the security at the place where it happened. I can’t offer more than a guess, but if I had to guess where it happened, I’d guess that it happened here.
[Update, December 2013: A witness has emerged to describe conditions inside Camp 16.]