Who are the prisoners of Camp 16? They aren’t what we’d call criminals. In North Korea, criminals go to smaller labor-rehabilitation camps, from which eventual release is possible for those who survive the harsh and dangerous conditions. North Korea’s worst prisons — the vast death camps like Camp 16 — are reserved for people who haven’t committed anything we would recognize as a crime.
Prisoners are sent to the kwan-li-so for “committing” a variety of political crimes, or for being a relative within three generations of someone who has. Political crimes include: expressing anti-socialist sentiment, having “unsound ideology,” criticizing the regime in any manner, reading a foreign newspaper, expressing exasperation with the difficulty of life in North Korea, possessing religious belief apart from juche, belonging to a criminal family, missing an official march, exhibiting a want of enthusiasm for the Great Leader, and lacking requisite zeal in their denunciation of state traitors. A forthcoming report by David Hawk and the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea has categorized the crimes that can lead to detention in the gulag system as: wrong-doing, wrong-thinking, wrong-knowledge, wrong-association, and wrong-background.
This quote comes from a petition recently filed with the U.N. Human Rights Commission, on behalf former prisoners of Camps 14 and 15. They are asking the U.N. Human Rights Council to demand that North Korea release their relatives. In the specific case of Camp 16, a report by the Korean Institute for National Reunification (KINU) and David Hawk’s The Hidden Gulag claim that the prisoners are family members of political criminals. But Hawk’s report also contains this claim:
Professor HEO Man Ho of Kyungpook National University, Daegu, also reports a Kwan-li-so No. 16 at Cochang-ri, Hwasong-kun (located in North Hamgyong Province,) containing about 10,000 “anti-revolutionary and anti-Party elements” held on charges of opposing the succession to Kim Jong Il, and adds that former Vice- Chairman of State KIM Dong Gyu is imprisoned there. [Page 41.]
Another report, a 2009 White Paper by the Korean Bar Association, estimates Camp 16’s population at just 10,000, much smaller than the estimated populations of Camps 14, 15, 18, and 22. The KBA report claims that Camp 16’s population consists of both family members and officials who were purged as Kim Jong Il consolidated his power base in the 1970s and 80s.
As with the other kwan-li-so camps, most of the prisoners are scattered into small, widely dispersed villages.
Here’s a typical camp village. Most of them have at least one large compound for meetings, and a lone house with a yard. Who lives there? Guards? Trustee prisoners?
It’s tempting to try to count houses in the camp to estimate the population, but according to David Hawk, this method couldn’t arrive at an reliable count without knowing how many people are crowded into each house, and occupancy rates vary significantly from cap to camp. The houses measure about 60 feet by 30 feet. You can see the separate entrances here.
In other camps, these multi-family units area called “harmonica houses.” One thing that immediately distinguishes camp housing from houses of similar size elsewhere — most Korean houses have walls around them, but prisoner housing never does.
At Camps 14 and 22, we know that other prisoners are also housed in single prisoners’ barracks. Several isolated facilities at Camp 16 have no houses on site, and are too far from other villages for prisoners to be trucked in daily. Places like these are probably barracks. That would make sense if their occupants are purged government officials imprisoned separately from their families.
See the people in green at the bottom center? They might be guards, but it’s more likely they’re prisoners. At about midday on June 10, 2008, a satellite captured this image of them.
Here is the camp’s largest settlement. I counted 174 houses, and my best guess is that it’s also the camp headquarters.
It’s there, in the image below, at that bottom center, where the big courtyard is.
Despite the limitations of our information, we can get some idea of the distribution and relative size of the villages where most of the prisoners live. In these images, I’ve numbered each village by the number of houses.
It wasn’t always easy to know which houses to count. I counted those that seemed to be about about 30 feet by 60 feet and whose spatial context suggested that they were used to house prisoners (that is, grouped together in neat rows). I did not count the houses with the yards. There are slightly more than 500 houses in the camp. If each house holds ten prisoners, that would be a population of 5,000, excluding prisoners housed in barracks or elsewhere. If so, the estimated population of 10,000 is on the high end of the plausible range.
This method of housing not only reduces the risk of an uprising, it ensures that any uprising would be easy to isolate and contain. This isn’t a half-bad microcosm for medium-security North Korea, the North Korea that exists outside the gates of the camps. Even there, very few citizens have access to telephones, the internet, or the freedom to travel freely from town to town, at least without a substantial bribe. People often wonder why the North Korean people don’t rise against the regime in spite of the way it starves and oppresses them. But if you’re half-starved, exhausted from overwork and sleep-depriving criticism sessions, distrustful of your neighbors, and isolated from anyone who may share your views, rebellion won’t be high on your list of priorities. All of those factors must be amplified for the prisoners in the camps.
The camp’s main industry is logging, and nearly the entire camp is covered with forest. In this image, we can see a patch of forest in 2006.
By 2008, the same area had been clear cut. Notice the timber stacks on the upper edge of the cleared area, immediately below the loop in the road.
Some of the clear-cut areas are quite large, but show no evidence of having been re-planted.
A small sliver of land on the camp’s eastern edge is suitable for agriculture. There are barns for raising livestock …
and fish ponds for aquaculture.
There is a large orchard in the camp, possibly a pear orchard (the area is known for them).
Despite the cold climate, there are also rice paddies in the camp.
Here’s a pan-out for context.
These delicacies are not wasted on prisoners, who live on ground corn, while the food they grow is probably eaten by the elite, or exported for hard currency. Kim Yong, who was imprisoned at Camp 14 and Camp 18 before he escaped, claims that he saw one prisoner shot on the spot for eating chestnuts that had fallen from the trees in an orchard, and another desperately hungry prisoner brutally murdered for eating the leather from a guard’s whip. Former Camp 22 guard Ahn Myong-Chol claims to have seen another guard catching two children trying to scavenge a piece of noodle from a garbage pond. The guard kicked the children into the pond. Both children drowned. Kang Chol-Hwan, on the other hand, reports that guards at Camp 15 did not punish prisoners who caught and ate the rats that lived in their barracks.
The Boundaries of Camp 16
Even in 2007, before Google Earth published any high-resolution of Camp 16’s more remote regions, it was still possible to trace the boundaries of Camp 16 to its full circumference. The camp is massive, covering approximately 175 square miles in one of North Korea’s most isolated mountain ranges, 45 roadless miles from the Chinese border, near the small town of Hwasong, along the boundary between North Hamgyong and South Hamgyong provinces. None of this probably means much to you, but this might: just beyond the camp’s western border lies Mount Mantap, where North Korea has conducted at least two nuclear tests since 2006.
After I read the 2007 report, I remembered seeing something unusual in the area it referenced, so I went back for another look on Google Earth. By that time, I had read David Hawk’s 2003 report, The Hidden Gulag. I took the map on Page 89 of the report, which shows the general locations of North Korea’s prison camps, and used it to made an overlay on Google Earth. You’d be surprised at how much area a small red dot covers when you drop down to 10,000 feet, but it didn’t take me long to find what I’d noticed before. Clearly, this was no road. No road you’ve ever driven bends like that.
The existence of guard posts like these at regular intervals is the clearest indication of a camp boundary. You will find guard posts like these along the boundaries of every kwan-li-so camps except Camp 25, and nowhere else (Camp 25 is surrounded by concrete walls and guard towers). Not even the fence lines and guard posts around some of Kim Jong Il’s palaces have the same appearance.
The Korean Bar Association claims that there are other large camps in North Korea that haven’t yet been located on Google Earth. I’ve spent the last five years scouring North Korea for any other “undiscovered” camps and found none, except for smaller wall-and-tower prisons like Camp 25. Of course, new high-resolution imagery is available every year, so there are large areas I still haven’t examined closely. Even then, a place that draws no attention in summer imagery, where the tree cover is thick, may reveal something unseen after the leaves fall.
Where guard posts are visible, I’m confident that the yellow line is the camp’s boundary. The lines in purple are power lines, which can be mapped where they cross forested areas.
You can also see dozens of guard posts like these around Camps 14, 15, 18, and 22, along contiguous fence lines that draw a jagged circumference around each camp. Inside those circumferences, at places that can only be accessed through gates, are villages, factories, mines, and mass burial sites that have been identified and described by Hawk’s witnesses. Unless all of those witnesses are lying or mistaken in exactly the same way, there isn’t much question about what we’re looking at, at least along three sides of the camp. The fence lines are harder to follow along the camp’s western boundaries, but it is still possible to infer which outlying areas are within the camp’s boundaries by tracing the road network and electrical grid.
Recently, Google Earth has published higher resolution imagery of both Camp 16 and the nearby nuclear test site at Mt. Mantap. Usually, more information gives us a clearer idea of what we see, but some of the new information actually makes our conclusions murkier. For example, if there’s one thing I’m reasonably sure about, it’s that roads and trails don’t just cross prison camp fences except at checkpoints. If you see that, you’re either looking at a former boundary, or more likely, a power line. Heavy snowfall along Korea’s east coast means that trees have to be cleared near power lines to prevent power disruptions in winter. Unlike prison camp fence lines, power lines connect (rather than avoid) populated areas, are more likely to follow streams and roadways than ridge lines, and frequently cross roads and railroads without checkpoints. If the imagery is good enough, you can even identify the towers holding up the lines.
Still, Camp 16’s power grid has other interesting things to tell us about the camp. For one thing, it strongly suggests that the camp’s boundary fences are electrified. In these images, the camp boundaries are in yellow, and the power lines are in magenta. Satellite images alone can’t prove whether these lines are hooked up to the camp’s fences, of course, but the lines certainly seem laid out to supply them.
In a few areas, there are secondary barriers outside the fence lines, as an extra precaution against escapes. This is a logical place for extra precautions, as this is the side of the camp nearest the town of Hwasong. Here, on the side of the camp nearest to the town of Hwasong, you can see signs of a secondary outer barrier beyond the camp’s fence line.
This area, on the other hand, isn’t near any other populated areas. When I first saw this facility, I thought it might be a mine. On closer examination, the linear object I thought might be a conveyor is actually a flume feeding a small stream.
Panning out, I saw a dam and the source of the flume, just above an oxbow bend in the stream.
Why put a power plant here, in the middle of nowhere? This power plant only connects to the camp’s electrical grid and the fence line. It doesn’t appear to supply power to anything else. The design is simple genius, purposed for the imprisonment of millions of minds.
A few miles outside the gate, northeast of the camp, you can see a larger hydroelectric dam under construction. The dam is linked into the camp’s power grid. Pyongyang and other North Korean cities experience regular blackouts, but when this project is completed, the regime won’t have to worry about running out of electricity for these fences.
Along most of Camp 16’s perimeter, roads and trails approach the boundary, but don’t cross it. For example, in this image, you can see where loggers cleared the trees right up to the fence line on the camp’s southern boundary.
Along the camp’s western boundary, however, there are several areas where logging roads cross what appears to be — or to have been, until recently — the boundary fence.
If the boundary has been moved, it’s not clear where it moved to, although this sequence of images suggests an answer. The first of these images was taken in 2005. For clarity’s sake, I tilted the image a few degrees. It shows a line in the forest that, at that time, appeared to be the camp’s western boundary: it was straight and jagged, and it was also contiguous with the parts of the camp boundary that showed all the signs of being a camp boundary — such as regular guard posts and electrification — and still do. In this image, you can see a guard station and a patrol road to the southeast of the fence line.
Now take a look at the same view in 2009. The site has been logged, and logging roads cross the fence. An area next to the guard station is stacked with timber.
So what happened to the fence? A little further west, I found this line in the forest.
Panning out, it’s traceable for several miles, where the camp appears to have expanded (I considered the possibility that the camp boundaries actually contracted, but the new roads lead back into the camp, and there’s no new line further east).
This new line is similar in dimension to a camp boundary, and it’s also contiguous to other sections of the boundary. On the other hand, it lacks the characteristic jaggedness or any evidence of guard posts, which are usually absent in remote camp boundaries. If this is in fact the new boundary of Camp 16, it suggests that prisoners were used for this logging. So do the road connections, which lead back into the camp.
If this isn’t the new fence line, I can’t find one, and I’ve searched the area very carefully. It’s also possible that there isn’t one — that the regime relies on the sheer remoteness of this part of Camp 16, knowing that a half-starved prisoner could never make it through the miles of mountainous terrain while evading patrols.