Category Archives: The Camps

N. Korean biowar researcher defects, will testify about human experimentation

A long-time reader emailed me this afternoon (thank you) to point me to this story in the U.S. edition of the Korea Times, which in turn cites a potentially explosive, game-changing report hiding in Yonhap’s business section. According to the report, a North Korean scientist has defected to Finland with some of his government’s most carefully guarded secrets: a storage device, probably a flash drive, filled with 15 gigabytes of “human experiment results.”

The 47-year-old researcher, identified only by his surname Lee, at a microbiology research center in Ganggye, Chagang Province, bordered by China to the north, fled to the European country on June 6 via the Philippines, said the source from a North Korean human rights group.

“His ostensible reason for defection is that he felt skeptical about his research,” the source told Yonhap News Agency.

Lee held a data storage device with 15 gigabytes of information on human experiments in order to bring North Korea’s inhumane tests to light, according to the source.

The North Korean defector will give testimony before the European parliament later this month. [Yonhap]

Depending on what the researcher’s information is and how credible it is, it could be of incalculable value to our understanding of Pyongyang’s asymmetric warfare capabilities—and also, of other, infinitely more important things about this regime.

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Forgive Shin Dong Hyok the man, but not Shin Dong Hyok the activist

What had always puzzled me the most about Shin Dong Hyok’s account of growing up in and escaping from Camp 14 was how someone raised in such isolation from the rules of North Korean society could have had the resources and survival skills to infiltrate all the way from the Taedong River to the Chinese border, and then successfully cross it. How did he replace his prisoner clothing? How did he find money to bribe railroad police and border guards? What did he eat?

In my post on Camp 14, I linked to a video where Shin was asked those questions (see 49 minutes in). I wrote that Shin’s answers didn’t quite satisfy me, but I offered no opinion as to the veracity of his account. Although those questions were never answered to my satisfaction, including in Shin’s book, I had no basis to call him a liar, either. I decided to let the readers judge for themselves.

In one way, Shin’s admission that he lied about growing up in Camp 14 might answer those questions. Shin now says that he was transferred across the river to Camp 18 when he was six. Until its fences were taken down, Camp 18, as horrible a place as it was, was the least brutal of North Korea’s largest camps.

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NK Econ Watch on Camp 15

For several weeks, we’ve read reports that North Korea had razed Camp 15 to “prove” to foreign visitors that survivors’  accounts of the camp were false. Curtis has since examined imagery from October 20th, and declared himself “unsure of the recent status of the camp.”

Clearly, reports that said no trace of the camp still existed were incorrect. That story never made sense to me, for two reasons. First, North Korea understands that the whole world is watching it on Google Earth. Razing the entire camp couldn’t convince us of anything except that a sham was underway. Subtler changes, including gutting and renovating existing structures, would be a more effective strategy if maskirovka were its intention.

Like a lot of reports about North Korea, this one remains a mystery for the time being, and the full truth may have to wait for a new government of North Korea to let it be told.

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Kang Chol-Hwan does a Reddit AMA

“One of the biggest misconceptions I think people have of North Korea is that they are simple and naive,” he said. “But I feel that North Koreans as a group of people have gone through a lot of hardship, and their ability to survive in difficult situations are a lot higher that what people think. People think that unification will be a basketcase for North Koreans, but they will definitely be able to manage. People also think North Koreans will have a hard time adjusting to the market economy, but the black market is also growing under the regime’s nose, and people are used to working in this environment.” [The Atlantic]

Kang is a survivor of Camp 15, which some unconfirmed reports say has been dismantled as part of a hoax to fool the United Nations–reports I’ll believe when I see satellite imagery that proves it. You can buy Kang’s memoir, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, here; his AMA is here.

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KINU survey: Conditions in N. Korean labor camps worsen

So apparently, that was still possible, then:

The heinous conditions faced by malnourished and overworked North Korean inmates in reeducation camps has led to a growing number of deaths, according to a report released on Thursday. Data from the paper reveals that prisoners within these facilities may be living in an environment prone to egregious human rights violations– just as in political prison camps.

Findings from the report were announced by Lee Keum Soon, Director of the Center for North Korean Human Rights Studies at the Korean Institute for National Unification [KINU], during a session on the state of human rights in re-education camps at the 4th Chaillot Human Rights Forum in Seoul.

The report is based on in-depth interviews with 97 defectors who had been incarcerated at Chongori Re-education Camp in Hoeryong, North Hamgyung Province, or Kaechon Re-education Camp in South Pyongan Province up until 2013. [Daily NK]

Someone tell Don Gregg. You can see imagery of Cheongo-ri here, and some of the other labor camps here and here.

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Camp 15: The Theresienstadt ploy?

The Daily NK reports that Camp 15, described by refugee-journalist Kang Chol Hwan in The Aquariums of Pyongyang and by more recent witnesses to The Washington Post‘s Chico Harlan, is no more, and that the prisoners have been sent to other camps:

Detainees held until recently at North Korea’s notorious political prison camp in Yodeok County have been moved to two alternate camps, an inside source from North Hamkyung Province has alleged to Daily NK.

“That political prison camp that used to be in Yodeok County in South Hamkyung has already been broken up. There’s not a trace of it left,” the source, who is with the military in the northerly province, claimed in conversation with Daily NK on the 7th. However, the disbanding of Camp 15 does not seem to have brought liberty for many of its inmates. According to the same source, “The political prisoners who were there have been divided up and moved to camps 14 and 16.” [….]

“It seems that closing Camp 15 was the next step after they closed Camp 22 at Hoeryong in June 2012,” the source went on to propose. “The majority of the buildings and facilities they used have been razed.”

The Daily NK reports that Camp 15 is in such a remote area that relatively few local residents are in a position to corroborate or witness anything, but the report is consistent with a previous report published in The Chosun Ilbo.

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Charm offensive: N. Korea threatens to nuke U.S., hands out Halloween candy

As near as I can figure, Kim Jong Un’s stages of grief over his potential indictment for crimes against humanity have included denial, homophobia, mendacity, engagementracism, and (again) terrorism, not necessarily in that order. The North Korean model differs from the Kübler-Ross model in its inclusion of several additional stages, and also, for its lack of an “acceptance” stage.

In any case, North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated and opaque countries, seems to be taking the threat of at least some action seriously. Its envoys have struck back in recent weeks with a mix of unusual diplomatic concessions, hard-line rhetoric and propaganda videos, handed out to reporters like Halloween candy in the corridors of the United Nations. Earlier this month, North Korea even circulated a draft measure of its own, calling on the United Nations to conduct an “unbiased reassessment” of its human rights record; it regards Mr. Kirby’s commission of inquiry as a Western plot. [N.Y. Times]

Some commentators have described this series of reactions as a “charm offensive,” which is a charmingly stupid way of describing it:

DPRK Will Mercilessly Shatter U.S. and Its Followers’ “Human Rights” Campaign

[….] First, Now that the U.S.

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North Korea denies having prison camps, admits “reform through labor camps”

Choe Myong Nam, a North Korean foreign ministry official in charge of U.N. affairs and human rights issues, said at a briefing with reporters that his country has no prison camps and, in practice, “no prison, things like that.”

But he briefly discussed the labor camps. “Both in law and practice, we do have reform through labor detention camps — no, detention centers — where people are improved through their mentality and look on their wrongdoings,” he said. [AP]

The admission itself could be a reference to the labor-rehabilitation camps called kyo-hwa-so, local detention facilities called jip-kyul-so (collection facilities) or no-dong-dan-ryeon-dae (labor training centers), as described in The Hidden Gulag, Second Edition and recounted by survivors:

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And here’s how the North Korean guards would “improve” the people sent there:

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The North Korean official, Choe, does not appear to have admitted to the existence of the largest and most notorious camps, the kwan-li-so, the camps that are most clearly visible in the satellite imagery. Choe’s statement could even be read as an assertion that instead of the prisons that all other countries have, North Korea has a more humane substitute. Unfortunately, the reporters present forfeited the chance to ask questions that would have clarified the statement, so we’re unable to extract its full meaning.

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Roberta Cohen in the WaPo, on preventing a massacre in N. Korea’s gulag

Writing in The Washington Post, Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, writes about how to prevent the execution of “standing orders at North Korea’s political prison camps (the kwanliso) to kill all prisoners in the event of armed conflict or revolution.”

It was Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder, who gave the kill-all order. His son Kim Jong-il reaffirmed it. Ahn Myong-chol, a former guard, testified before the U.N. commission that, in the event of upheaval, the guards are “to wipe out” all inmates so as “to eliminate any evidence.” He said that drills have even been held “on how to kill large numbers of prisoners in a short period of time.” Guards in other camps, as well as former prison officials, have confirmed this account.

Cohen then makes several recommendations to address this danger, starting with imposing accountability on those responsible now. First, she calls for the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s (COI) report to be brought before the U.N. Security Council for a resolution that would impose targeted sanctions, in line with the COI Chair’s recommendation.

The law firm Hogan Lovells recently issued a report concluding that the COI’s findings could amount to genocide.

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Crowdsourcing the hunt for North Korea’s prisons and prison camps

The world didn’t awaken to the horrors in North Korea in time save Kim Jong Il’s victims or hold him accountable, but it may be doing so in time to give Kim Jong Un some pause as he prosecutes his bloody purges. Various reports from inside North Korea — reports that are impossible to verify — say that he has carried out mass arrests and executions, both in Pyongyang and near the border regions that represent the greatest threat to his total control over information.

If those reports are true, we would expect to see that some of the camps had expanded, or that new facilities are being built to replace those that, like Camp 22, have been compromised. Recent satellite imagery suggests that the capacities of Camps 12, 14, 16, and 25 have all been expanded to one degree or another, but with new imagery becoming available on a regular basis, North Korea still hasn’t given up all of its secrets. And I have less time each year to find them myself.

This is where you come in. With the help of a friend I’ve never met, I’m crowdsourcing the search for North Korea’s secrets. A man who prefers to be identified as “a software engineer in Europe” has created a web page that allows anyone to pick a grid square and search it for suspect facilities.

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OFK readers spot expansion of Camp 12, Cheongo-ri

Reader Andy Green* has spotted a significant expansion of Camp 12, Cheongo-ri.

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[Before: Christmas Day, 2008. What were you doing that day?]

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 9.03.32 PM[After: April 13, 2013]

Andy speculates, reasonably I think, that the expansion is a barracks. You can see that the perimeter wall and guard towers were also expanded around the new buildings.

If it is a barracks, it probably couldn’t hold more than a few hundred prisoners. This isn’t the answer to the question of what happened to the 30,000 prisoners of Camp 22. It is, however, consistent with reports of other camps being expanded recently — at Camp 14, Camp 16, and Camp 25.

Kim Jong Un’s brutal purge means that we should expect to see more camps expanded, and possibly new camps built. I can’t scan all of North Korea on Google Earth by myself, but if we crowdsource this, we should be able to spot these changes as new imagery becomes available. If you see something of interest, kindly drop a comment. This is information the world needs to know.

As for Andy, he earns the biggest hat tip of the year. So far.

Update: Reader Lou notes in the comments that he’d emailed me imagery pointing out these changes (and more) earlier this month.

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Former Camp 16 Guard: Prisoners forced to dig their own graves, killed with hammers

A new report by Amnesty International is providing our first eyewitness account of conditions at Camp 16, images of which were first published at this very blog back in February of 2007, using clues provided in David Hawk’s The Hidden Gulag. In April 2012, I followed up with an extensive analysis of Camp 16 imagery, in an attempt to collect and publish all of the open-source information about this largest and least-understood of all of North Korea’s prison camps.

Even then, there were still no known eyewitness accounts of conditions there, despite reports that 120 prisoners had escaped in 2006. We still can’t confirm whether that story is true, but Amnesty found a former guard, who told us this:

In an interview conducted in November 2013, Mr. Lee (full name withheld), who was a security official in kwanliso 16 in the 1980s until the mid-1990s, told Amnesty International of other forms of executions he had witnessed where inmates were forced to dig their own graves and then killed by hammer blows to their necks by prison authorities. In another instance, he had seen prison authorities strangling and then beating inmates to their death with wooden sticks. He also recounted that several women inmates disappeared after they had been raped by officials and he concluded that they had been executed secretly.

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Releases and higher mortality shrink North Korea’s prison camp population

The newest update on Camps 18 and 22 from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) continues to draw news coverage, most recently in the form of this grim report by Chico Harlan of The Washington Post. Harlan reports that the camps’ population is now likely between 80,000 and 120,000, much lower than the previous estimate of 200,000.

Part of this decline reflects a correction of previous overestimates of the population. I’d mentioned here and here, for example, my suspicion that some of the population estimates for some camps seemed on the high side, based on my hut counts.

The consensus is also that the camps’ population has actually declined. There is a good news / horrible news dichotomy behind this trend.

They attribute the drop-off in part to a spate of prisoner releases at one camp, but they also say it is because the camps, in general, are so reliably lethal, killing faster than the pace at which people arrive. Some analysts also say the number of arrivals at camps has tapered off.

Much of the decline is attributed to the liquidation of Camp 22:

South Korean news outlets that employ defectors and maintain sources in the North reported last year that the North had shuttered Camp 22.

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Camp 22 Update

In an update to its previous imagery analysis, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea seems to be migrating to the view that Camp 22 was closed in 2012, but if that’s the answer, the next question it raises is what happened to the prisoners there, once estimated to number as high as 30,000. The Washington Post asks that question in an editorial today:

In a way, the camp was a city in its own right, albeit a locus of inhumanity rather than a bustling metropolis. Camp 22 was one point in North Korea’s constellation of concentration camps that run on unadulterated cruelty, a secret world where prisoners are fed poison for experimentation, women are forced to kill their own children and entire families are murdered in gas chambers.

As the world sits by, North Korea has imprisoned as many as 200,000 people in these camps. Although human rights violations remain unfortunately common in many nations, these camps form a category of their own in today’s world. North Korea’s gulag is a place where people aren’t people but rather objects for exploitation and elimination.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea released a report this week detailing the harrowing reality of Camp 22.

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OFK in the WaPo

Many thanks to my friend Prof. Sung Yoon Lee for offering me the opportunity to co-write this with him, especially since he frankly did most of the writing this time.  It’s a pleasure to write with Prof. Lee.  He’s a terrific writer, and our views align so closely that there’s no need for painstaking negotiations over wording and content.  Really, I don’t know of anyone who (1) understands the pathology of North Korea better, and (2) can express it so well in my native language (which he speaks better than me, to tell the truth).

After you’re done with that, don’t miss this paper Prof. Lee wrote as part of a symposium for the National Bureau of Asian Research.  In the pages of Foreign Policy, Dan Blumenthal highlights it as “a much-needed dose of reality about what exactly we are dealing with.”  Must reading.

I also have to compliment the WaPo folks for a particularly speedy and professional job of editing this for publication.  I’ve been an editor, and I know how hard it is to boil something down to the space limits without harming the author’s intent.

In case you’re keeping score, that’s one-twothree times I’ve been linked by the Post today, which must be some kind of record.

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