Immediately to the west of Camp 16 is the Mount Mantap nuclear test site. Grisly accusations have been published that prisoners from Camp 16 are used to dig the tunnels for the tests. In this case, the reporter making the accusation is Kang Chol Hwan, himself a survivor of Camp 15, and one of the former prisoners who filed the petition linked above. Kang now reports for the Chosun Ilbo, a widely circulated daily newspaper in South Korea.
The terrain around Mt. Mantap in Kilju, North Hamgyong Province, where the second nuclear test took place, rises to 2,000 m above sea level and is largely virgin forest, like at Mt. Baekdu. Building a large underground nuclear test facility in such a forest would require enormous amounts of manpower and investment.
But it has been virtually impossible to find any North Korean citizens who said they were involved in constructing the nuclear testing facilities. The 1994 testimony of Ahn Myeong-cheol, who served as a guard at a camp for political prisoners in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province, provides the only exception. Ahn said that from the early 1990s, young political prisoners from camps in Hoeryong, Jongsong, and Hwasong were taken to an underground construction site at Mt. Mantap and that he had always been curious about what the purpose was.
Mt. Mantap was a source of fear among the political prisoners. Once taken there, no one came back alive. Located just north of Mt. Mantap is the 16th political prisoners’ camp of Hwasong, notorious even in North Korea. Only the top class of political prisoners and their families are held here. According to rumor, Kim Chang-bok, a former chief of the People’s Armed Forces, and other top officials of the Workers’ Party met their end in Hwasong.
That the underground test site and the political prison camp are adjacent may be coincidental. But North Korean defectors are convinced that the underground nuclear test facilities were built using political prisoners. It is not a secret that North Korea has been employing political prisoners for dangerous construction work. [Chosun Ilbo, Kang Chol Hwan]
Ahn’s reference to Hwasong is probably a reference to Camp 16; whereas Hoeryong refers to Camp 22, more than 100 miles to the northeast. To determine whether the imagery supports any such connection, we first have to determine where the test took place. Let’s start with the place that most clearly matches open source imagery — the access tunnel entrance.
Note the barrier and the ditch north and east of the entrance. I considered the possibility that this was a fence line, but concluded that it’s actually a berm and a ditch to keep runoff and snow melt from running back into the tunnel.
Immediately south of the tunnel is a building that looks like an office building or a barracks. The image below could just about join with the image above, right where this text is.
I could be wrong, but these buildings don’t have the look of prisoner housing. The grounds are too well kept, and there’s no fence line. Nor is there any other building on this side of Camp 16’s fence line that looks like prisoner housing. If prisoners work here, the only secure place to keep them is probably underground, and I have no direct evidence that that’s the case.
The tunnel entrance is not the actual test site, of course. At least one of the tests happened deep beneath the mountain north of the entrance, where the tunnel ends. The U.S. Geological Survey placed North Korea’s October 9, 2006 test at 41.29°N, 129.09°E, with a horizontal uncertainty of 5 miles. It placed the May 25, 2009 test at 41.306°N, 129.029°E, with a horizontal uncertainty of 2.4 miles.
The 2009 location is probably off by at least 2 miles. The marked location is under a valley, too far from any apparent tunnels or excavations to be a convenient test location. According to this report, various international scientific organizations have placed the 2009 test at widely different locations. As you can see, there’s a bimodal quality to the geologists’ locations; some put the site right under Mt. Mantap, near the 2006 test (which seems more likely), while others are out in a patch of nearly trackless forest a few miles to the northwest.
In case you wondered, the IDC is the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization International Data Centre in Vienna, the CEME is the Russian Academy of Sciences Geophysical Survey, the BJI is the China Earthquake Administration Institute of Geophysics, and NORSAR is the Norwegian national data centre for the CTBTO. Needless to say, there’s a fair degree of uncertainty about the precise location of the test. There is a suspicious-looking excavation right about where the Chinese put the test, but I don’t ascribe much to that. First, that excavation is visible in imagery going all the way back to 2005, which doesn’t suggest that it’s linked to the 2009 test. Second, the Chinese implicitly acknowledge the imprecision of their location by rounding off the all of the digits beyond tenths of a degree.
There is only one road in and out of the access tunnel complex. It runs south to the small village of Punggye-ri, and then to the town of Kilju. Before that, it passes by some impressive-looking guest houses, probably for dignitaries from Pyongyang.
In the newer images, the smaller guest houses show signs of being either dismantled or camouflaged (the imagery isn’t good enough to make a clear distinction). Yet as recently as April 2012, news reports claimed that government satellite imagery showed signs of recent activity at the Mt. Mantap test site.
There are other suspicious sites in the hills nearby, but all of them existed in 2005. My best guess about this one is that it’s a quarry for material to cap the test shaft.
All of these locations are widely dispersed, but they all hug the western side of Camp 16. Could that be a coincidence? It could be, but I doubt it.
And of course, excavation is labor-intensive, and prisoners are easily available labor.
But there’s also a problem with this theory. If the North Koreans were using prison labor from Camp 16 for tunneling under Mt. Mantap, I’d expect to see a direct logistical link between the camp and the test site — a road, a railroad, or even a tunnel. Ahn Myong Chol’s testimony that prisoners were driven to this place from more distant camps, that seems like an unreasonable security risk. In the case of Camp 16, the most logical way to obtain labor would be to simply bulldoze a road through the camp’s western boundary, linking the camp to the road between Mt. Mantap and Punggye-ri, or around the side of the mountain from the areas where the fence line was recently moved.
The only other alternative is to move prisoners through Camp 16’s main gate at its southeastern corner. From there, you’d have to drive for miles to the south to find an east-west road link to Punggye-ri and Mt. Mantap, and that’s not just a long drive, it also traverses miles of farms and villages.
After an exhaustive examination of Mt. Mantap and the western regions of Camp 16, however, I don’t see any direct road link. Most of the boundary between the test site and the camp is empty forest.
I also considered the possibility that the North Koreans linked Camp 16 to Mt. Mantap via a tunnel. There is one suspicious location inside Camp 16, about 6 miles east of the 2006 test site.
The North Koreans are expert tunnel builders, and so a 6-mile tunnel is certainly well within their capability, although it’s also a long stretch, especially when it would be easier to cross most of that distance by road. The entrances would be easy enough to hide, but it would be harder to hide the roads and power lines needed to supply such a site, or to move away the tailings from any excavation. And if the North Koreans didn’t take the trouble to hide the tailings immediately south of Mount Mantap, or the fence lines of Camp 16 itself, it’s not clear why they would have gone to such an effort for an excavation a few miles to the east. In fact, I’ve long accused the North Koreans of engaging in satellite theater, deliberately engaging in suspicious behavior in a way that’s conspicuous to our satellites and useful for extorting us. On the other hand, if this is a mine, it’s the only one for miles.
Note that I said “most” of the boundary between Camp 16 and Mt. Mantap is empty forest. But as we’ve seen, in one area, there are roads that pass through Camp 16’s perimeter fence and onto the northern side of Mount Mantap. At this location, the road passes through the fence at what appears to be a small guard post.
These narrow logging roads dead-end about a third of the way from the perimeter fence to the summit.
These roads are a link to the mountain, but not to the nuclear test site. They don’t connect to the access tunnel is on the southern side of the mountain, or to any other visible excavation that appears to be a likely test site.
Although I found no direct link between the camp and the test site, I can’t rule one out, either. First, the imagery on the north slope of Mt. Mantap and the western side of Camp 16 is poor, which means that I could have missed something. There could be small roads that cross through that area under the forest canopy, although none would seem to have much carrying capacity. Second, the co-location of the sites is hard to accept as pure coincidence. Third, it’s possible, as Ahn Myong Chol alleged, that prisoners are transported from the camp to the test site by road. In the case of Camp 16, that would mean a long trip around the camp’s southern boundary.
Until a witness emerges to reveal the truth, we may not be able to know.
As of this writing, governments with access to better and newer imagery are studying this area very carefully. North Korea’s attempt to launch an Unha-3 rocket was a humiliating failure, the press is reporting signs of suspicious activity near Mt. Mantap, and analysts are speculating that North Korea will have to conduct a nuclear test to redeem itself.
Is that how this story ends, with tyrants perfecting the means to murder in greater numbers, and with those who would resist and live freely condemned to a miserable end? For now, that’s most of it, but that’s not how the story ends. North Korea isn’t the first regime to try to persist by terrorizing its subjects and its neighbors. One day, it will fall, and we’ll know the whole story, or at least enough of it for the future to be embarrassed by the present, and how little we’re doing about this now. And there is even a slender hope that we’ll know more much about Camp 16, much sooner. Just this month, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea released a Second Edition to The Hidden Gulag, its ground-breaking report on North Korea’s prison camps. More than 20,000 North Koreans have made it to the South since 2003, when the original edition was published. One of them may be able to tell us the rest of this story:
Former kwan-li-so prisoners interviewed for this report have mentioned that there is at least one former prisoner from Camp No. 16 currently in South Korea, although he declines to be interviewed by journalists or other researchers. No former prisoners or guards were accessible to provide first-person accounts or eyewitness confirmation during the preparation of this report, so these camps are not further discussed
Maybe the memories are too traumatic for him to relive, at least until now. Maybe he has family in North Korea and doesn’t want to draw the wrong kind of attention to them. Maybe someone outside the camp helped him escape, and he doesn’t want anyone to tell the North Koreans where to go searching for them. If he is a survivor of Camp 16, he must have escaped, and if he did escape, maybe he was one of those who escaped on December 20, 2006. One day, the truth will escape, too.
Update, 28 April 2012: As news reports suggests that North Korea will conduct its third declared nuclear test, various sources are publishing new imagery of the Mt. Mantap site. The first comes via 38 North, a blog published by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The imagery is from GeoEye, and the analysis and labels are the work of Allison Puccioni of IHS Jane’s. The first image was taken on March 8, 2012:
Note that in this image, the western boundary of Camp 16 on the eastern side of the image is clearly visible, even without any marking or enhancement. Expect the coordinates of the site to be approximately 41.266 degrees north by 129.077 degrees east. The other interesting fact is that after this test, the North Koreans will have used up all of their more obvious places to test nuclear weapons under Mt. Mantap. They may go looking for another place for their next test site.