In October 2009, I was studying Google Earth imagery of the city of Chongjin in North Korea’s far Northeast, in awe of the acres upon acres of idled, rusted, collapsed factories, the ruins, and the sludge heaps. Around the same time, I was still reading the Korean Bar Association’s 2008 White Paper on Human Rights (KBA White Paper), for which I will always be grateful to the Voice of America’s Seoul correspondent, Kurt Achin. The report described a kwan-li-so, a political prison camp, of which images had never been published. That camp was also reported to be near the city of Chongjin. The reports called it Camp 25.
Scholarly accounts widely differ in their estimates of Camp 25’s population. Not one of the reports cites or quotes a survivor the camp, suggesting that all of the reports are third-hand. The 2008 KBA White Paper states that Camp 25 is located in Suseong-Dong District and holds 3,000 “felons, religious leaders, spies, and [members of] factions, or their family members . Another White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea, published in 2009 by the Korean Institute for National Unification (KINU) quotes former guard Ahn Myeong Cheol as saying that Camp 25 is “a top-level political concentration camp, where only political criminals were detained.”  It states that Camp 25 holds only political criminals and not family members . In October of 2008, the Daily NK reported that Lim Kook Jae, an abducted crewman from a South Korean ship, had also died at Camp 25. The 2008 KBA White Paper’s population estimate is dramatically lower than that published in KINU’s 2001 White Paper, which estimates the population of Kwan-Li-So Number 25 at Chongjin at 15,000 “condemned” prisoners . The KINU paper cites a 1999 from South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, during the presidency of the liberal Kim Dae Jung.
Either way, Camp 25’s population is significantly lower than that of the large gulag compounds you can view here. Presumably, a camp with a lower population would also occupy a smaller area. Somewhere, I read that Camp 25 was built in a “penitentiary” style, although I can’t find the source for that statement now. According to the 2008 KBA White Paper, Camp 25 is also a factory that produces high-quality consumer goods: ice boxes, sewing machines, radiators, and Kalmaegi (Seagull) brand bicycles, which are prized possessions for North Koreans .
Like most of the North Korean camps, Camp 25 is operated by the dreaded Bowibu secret police:
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. [David Hawk, The Hidden Gulag]
The individual known in the book as Jun-Sang, the male protagonist in the book’s love story, said that the Suseong camp was for political prisoners and those involved with serious economic crimes. Jun-Sang also heard a rumor that in the 1990’s, some members of a youth league dance troupe were imprisoned there. Kim Hyuck, young orphan who survived the famine by stealing, recalled an incident in which prisoners from the Suseong Camp, or possibly another nearby, were brought down to the banks of the Suseong stream near the market and executed in public. Kim Hyuck said that the Suseong Camp was located five or six kilometers from the center of Chongjin, upstream on the Suseong River. The site pictured above is approximately six kilometers from downtown Chongjin.
With all that being said, North Korea is the world’s most closed nation, so sometimes, an educated guess is the best anyone can offer. The evidence is so difficult to assemble that you can never stop pursuing and questioning it. I do not claim that this is confirmation that this location is in fact Camp 25, but it’s circumstantial corroboration that takes us a step in that direction. I will continue pursuing evidence to give stronger confirmation that this site is either Camp 25, some other prison, or neither.
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 4/2012: This location is now confirmed as Camp 25. After I wrote this post, I shared this imagery with David Hawk, author of The Hidden Gulag, which first published imagery of North Korea’s political prison camps in 2003. I knew that Hawk was then compiling a second edition of The Hidden Gulag for the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. I asked him to check his NGO contacts to determine whether North Korean witnesses could confirm what this location was. Hawk shared the imagery with the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, a South Korean NGO that compiles reports of human rights abuses related by North Korean refugees. (NKDB would make good use of your contribution, by the way.) NKDB was able to find witnesses from Chongjin who had visited Camp 25 and confirmed the location. Hawk elaborates in his brand-new Second Edition of The Hidden Gulag:
A South Korean human rights NGO showed satellite photos of this structure and its surrounding areas to several former residents of Chongjin, two of whom identified the structure in the photographs as Camp 25. One of the former Chongjin residents had gone out to the prison camp to visit a friend who was a guard there. The other former resident had driven a truck to the prison camp to pick up a shipment of the bicycles made there by the prison laborers. [Page 79]
Earlier this month, when I was present for the event when The Hidden Gulag II was released, I was astonished to see an NKDB presenter show this image:
A few of these labels add new information that we couldn’t have learned from the imagery alone. For example, “No. 4” is the bicycle factory, and “No. 5” is a barracks. And “No. 2?”
It’s a crematorium.
The Hidden Gulag II now contains imagery of Camp 25. My deepest thanks to Kurt Achin, David Hawk, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and NKDB for their help in telling a part of this story to you.
Update, 11 February 2013:
Curtis has spotted a major expansion of this camp. As of May 2012, the expansion appeared to be either very recent or ongoing. The expansion approximately doubles the camp’s land area. The first image you see here was taken on August 2, 2006:
This image, taken on May 18, 2012, shows that the camp has expanded over a large new area of farmland. New features are marked in orange:
Inside the old camp, there is a significant amount of new construction.
The security perimeter on all sides of the camp has been improved, with new guard posts now set back from the perimeter rather than right on it.
A small village was razed to make room for the new camp, and the road leading to the old village is now blocked by a wall.
It’s difficult to see how the new construction inside the old camp would add too significantly to the camp’s prisoner capacity, so far. Most of the new construction appears to be to buildings used for administration, security, or camp industry.
There is, however, this group of buildings within the new camp.
Usually, buildings like these in North Korea are barns. Sometimes, you can even see the muddy trails where the animals wander between the barn and a trough. If these buildings are being used for barracks, however, they could conceivably contain several thousand prisoners. There isn’t any evidence at this point to suggest that, but it’s difficult to imagine that the North Koreans would invest the materials and labor in expanding this camp unless they could also expand either its capacity to contain prisoners, or its capacity to generate income for the regime.
These buildings are the most curious — and potentially, the most chilling — new feature.
These buildings are constructed in a remote corner of the camp and surrounded by an earthen berm. Someone went to a lot of trouble to keep the sights and sounds of these two places contained, and shielded from the rest of Camp 25’s population. In a camp that’s already said to have a crematorium, we can only imagine the possibilities; however, my thoughts return to the former Sodaemun Prison in Seoul, which during the Japanese occupation had an execution chamber, also in the rear of the prison grounds, away from the cell blocks.
I can only speculate about the purpose of these buildings, of course, but Chongjin in one of the easier parts of North Korea to escape from. I suppose in due course, someone will escape North Korea and relate what the local rumors say about them.