Archive for The Camps

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. You’ll find the map, and instructions on how to use it, here.

By the way, our web designer friend in Europe already has one “find,” a possible prison up in remote Ryanggang Province.

New prison in Ryanggang

It bears all of the characteristics typical of a prison, including guard towers, but I would not attempt to say that any location is confirmed to be a prison without witness corroboration. It could be a factory, or a military installation. But it’s a beginning to a process of investigation.

Prisons of this kind typically house a combination of violent, economic, and political criminals. Some of the prisoners there would be sent to prison in most countries for the behavior that got them sent here. Many others, such as those imprisoned for religious activities, unauthorized trade in consumer goods, or trying to flee the country, would not. But it is the conditions in these prisons — and the high mortality rates they cause — that really distinguishes them.

Obviously, our friend could be deluged with false reports or people mistaking power lines for fence lines, so if you want to join the search, I would first urge you to read and study these pages and become familiar with the distinctive characteristics of North Korean prisons. Large prison camps surrounded by fence lines and guard posts look nothing like the smaller, walled penitentiary-style prisons, and either can resemble military (or even industrial) facilities.

If you have experience as an imagery analyst, your assistance is especially welcome. And now that Congress has funded an online database for North Korea’s prison system, the information is likely to get wide dissemination, once confirmed. I’m obviously happy to credit anyone who is willing to be named.

Thank you, good day, and good hunting.

OFK readers spot expansion of Camp 12, Cheongo-ri

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

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 9.03.56 PM

[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. I apologize to Lou for the oversight, and tip my hat to him as well. Thanks to both Lou and Anders for keeping watch on this place.

Lou noted a few small barracks huts that were torn down, but also caught something more interesting in what I’m guessing is the “old” main barracks building. Look at this image from May of 2013, and compare it to the April 2013 image. It shows evidence of recent construction work. The north side of building has been torn down, and new footings have been dug.

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 7.06.43 AM

Although there is no imagery available between December 2008 and April 2013, Lou’s find suggests that the construction work at Cheongo-ri is relatively recent. It may still be ongoing.

If I had to venture a guess, I’d say they need stronger footings to build the building taller and sturdier. One thing satellite imagery isn’t very good at is measuring height. If new stories are being added to buildings, that would certainly increase their capacity — potentially by a few thousand, if you include all the new construction.

* A pseudonym.


Professor Lee and I have an opinion piece up at on the camps, for those who are interested. Many thanks to the good professor for inviting me to this dance.

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.

We eagerly await the AP’s investigative report.

Amnesty also points to evidence of recent construction at Camp 16, which Curtis had previously analyzed in greater detail in July. Amnesty concludes that Camp 16’s capacity has expanded, but not enough to hold the 30,000 people who were previously housed at Camp 22. As far as we know, those people were simply vaporized. Orwell used this verb as a metaphor; in the case of Camp 22, this may be true, literally.

Overall, nothing suggests that the state has made a policy decision to cease its reliance on its prison camp system as a tool of control. The suspected mass releases at Camp 18 and the suspected liquidation of Camp 22 are two aberrations on opposite ends of one spectrum of brutality. The most significant change is the improved fencing around the prison known as “the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea.”

Although Amnesty has published other satellite imagery of the camps, this is the first time it has contributed new and original research to the subject. I look forward to seeing more of that. (It seems unlikely that Amnesty independently found the camp and traced its perimeter without consulting this blog or Curtis’s, but never mind that.) Amnesty’s name recognition and media savvy means that its reporting will attract significant media attention (and has). That’s a vast improvement over past years, when only a few of us were publishing these images, and when the only people who saw them were our relatively small audiences. It’s gratifying to see this issue begin to get the attention it deserves.

Hat tips: Glans and Curtis.

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. Satellite images showed razed or abandoned guard towers and interrogation facilities. But it remains unclear what happened to the prisoners, estimated several years ago to number 30,000. Hawk’s report cited unconfirmed reports from defectors that between 7,000 to 8,000 were transferred. Hawk cited another defector who reported a massive famine in the camp beginning in 2010 after poor food harvests in the region.

“If even remotely accurate, this is an atrocity requiring much closer investigation,” he wrote.

The regime is also incarcerating fewer family members of prisoners:

Analysts say that fewer people are now arriving at the camps. Under Kim, the North sent entire families to the gulag — not just the perpetrators, but their parents and children. This practice has not stopped, defector testimony indicates, but it has slowed over the past 15 years.

The Closure of Camp 18

David Hawk, the author of HRNK’s report, relies on satellite imagery and interviews with escapees to conclude that the authorities began “clearing” and releasing prisoners from Camp 18 in large numbers in 1989, and that the camp was finally closed down in 2006:

[A]s many of these defectors now testify, and as reported by the Data Base Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), 43 sometime around 2006, the last villages within Camp No. 18
were decommissioned as forced-labor camps with the exception of a small number of prisoners described below.44 With the noteworthy exception described below, most of the remaining former prisoners were “cleared.” The mines, formerly operated with prison labor, now operate as civilian enterprises. Analysis of satellite photos seems to confirm that “the fence lines of the camp are still visible, but the main checkpoints seem to be dismantled or degraded.

The quotation above is from an e-mail communication between Hawk and myself in April of this year.  That was the first time I saw the 2011 imagery, which finally persuaded me of the camp’s closure, although Curtis Melvin had mentioned to me at least a year ago that he’d seen the coal mines of Camp 18 on a North Korean news program, suggesting it was no longer a camp.  At the time, I wondered–aside from how anyone finds the time or interest to watch North Korean TV–how Curtis could recognize a specific mine and place it geographically. The lesson I learned from this was never to underestimate Curtis.

As explained here, conditions in Camp 18 were always the least oppressive of those in any major North Korean prison camp. Unlike the other camps, it was run by North Korea’s “ordinary” police force, not the dreaded Peoples’ Safety Agency (Anjeonbu).

I’ll show you the evidence of the degraded security I referred to in that communication. In these images, you can see how Camp 18′s main (west) gate and the nearby fence line changed between 2004 and 2011.

Click on any image for full size.

Camp 18 W gate @ 2300, 3-2004

In the 2006 image below, we see the first indication that the check point has been dismantled. Vegetation patterns also suggest that the fence line has been breached, and that people have crossed the boundary to gather firewood and clear land for farming.

Camp 18 W gate @ 2300, 12-2006

In the 2011 image below, the former site of the check point is overgrown with weeds. The fence line no longer appears to be maintained, and is overgrown.

Camp 18 W gate @ 2300, 8-2011

Further east (upstream) along the Taedong River, we see a second checkpoint, probably meant to guard against prisoners trying to swim or float downstream (Camp 14, which continues to operate on the opposite bank, would not be an inviting destination). In 2004, the buildings appear to be well maintained.

Camp 18 riverside guard post @1500, 3-2004

By 2006, it appears to have been razed.

Camp 18 riverside guard post @1500, 12-2006

By 2011, there is no trace of the building, except for the vegetation patterns.

Camp 19 riverside guard post @1500, 8-2011

Similarly, this agricultural area inside the camp shows significant changes between 2004 and 2011.

Camp 18 riverside @2000, 3-2004

Camp 18 riverside @2000, 8-2011

Satellite evidence doesn’t clarify whether these buildings, believed to have been prisoner housing, are still inhabited, but the greenish hue on some of the roofs may be mold or weeds growing up through the tiles, suggesting that the huts have fallen into disuse.

Camp 18 main settlement @2500, 8-2011

No one really knows what happened to the prisoners.  The Post report offers several alternative theories:

The fate of Camp 18’s prisoners is slightly clearer, as prisoners there have been released in stages since the mid-1980s, with a handful escaping to the South. Defectors say that the last of those clearances was completed in 2006 and that the final several thousand prisoners were transferred to a nearby mountainous area near Camp 14, located across the Taedong River. Experts say they are not sure whether Camp 18 has been folded into Camp 14 or exists as its own entity, albeit in a new area.

Depending on that distinction, North Korea’s gulag consists of either four or five camps.

The government of North Korea denies that these camps ever existed. North Korea may be the only place on earth where facts of such profound humanitarian significance must be studied and analyzed based on satellite imagery, rumors, and the occasional fragmentary witness account.

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. Satellite imagery suggests the camp recently closed. Good news? Not exactly. According to the report, after a food shortage in 2009-10, Camp 22’s population shrunk to somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000 people from around 30,000 in previous years. Thousands of prisoners seem to have evaporated into thin air — perhaps via Camp 22’s crematoria.

Truthfully, I don’t know how accurately these populations can be estimated, but it’s clear by now that thousands of prisoners disappeared from Camp 22, and that if they were released, we’d have heard their stories by now. By all accounts, the last surviving prisoners were loaded onto trains in the middle of the night and sent to points unknown.

The Post also takes note of the testimony of North Korean refugees to the U.N. Commission of Inquiry in Seoul. I suppose I should have written more about this; I’ve come to the conclusion that the COI’s report could be significant if it leads to the passage of another U.N. sanctions resolution, which in turn would make it easier for many in Congress and the administration to support tougher human rights sanctions legislation and condition the lifting of those sanctions on closing the camps down … without the use of crematoria. That’s also why China and Russia will probably prevent that from happening. For that matter, Europe is also profiting from its trade with the perpetrators of these atrocities and may not want effective action, either.

The hardest reaction to explain or excuse continues to be the apathy of most South Koreans. One day, a new generation of Korean nationalists will have to airbrush that out of history. North Korea has called the testimony slander, but otherwise has largely ignored the proceedings.

Here in the United States, North Korea is still not such a pariah that it can’t serve as a backdrop for a reality TV circus, a sort of reversed-polarity version of Borat in which Dennis Rodman stands in as a parody of us all, just a week after North Korea refused to receive our Special Envoy for Human Rights, and months after Rodman asked North Korea to release Ken Bae (which North Korea also ignored).

One reason I didn’t write about the COI testimony is that I was simply busy with other things, but another must be that I found the accounts both too familiar and too depressing to inspire much thought–expect that here we are, ten years after most of these accounts stopped being news, still trying to pierce the factual ignorance of the State Department, the ambivalence of multiple administrations, the hopeless impotence of the U.N., the corruption of some of our media, and the inexplicable disinterest of much of the Human Rights Industry. The sad fact is that it doesn’t serve any powerful constituency’s pecuniary agenda to make an issue of this.

Update, Sept. 8:  I’ve removed three comments from this and one other thread in keeping with the comment rules policy (see “About” link).  Two were using sock puppets of one IP address, and the third, pretending to engage one of the sock puppets in discussion, posted within minutes of the others, suggesting that it was either the same person or coordinated. The latter comment’s IP address also matched that of another commenter who was banned for using sock puppets and being a troll.

(If you wonder why I moderate comments, just read any Washington Post comment thread.)

Based on the stilted prose, the comments appear to have been posted by a non-native English speaker, maybe even one of these hired trolls we’ve been warned about. Obviously, I can’t do much more than speculate about who left the comments, but in the last item of this post, you’ll see a screen grab I took of a visit to this site from Pyongyang, which I had saved for just such an occasion.

All I can say is that someone is upset that people around the world are talking about Camp 22 and wants to change the subject to something else.

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-two-three times I’ve been linked by the Post today, which must be some kind of record.  For that, I owe many thanks to Adam Cathcart and, of course, Max Fisher.  After all these years, I’d grown accustomed to being dismissed as a crank raving from the margins.  I hope I won’t miss that old familiar feeling.  I mostly hope that all of this effort will eventually matter where it counts.

Update:  Geez.  Get a load of The Washington Post‘s Editorial Board, sounding like us:

This should not mean trying once again to engage North Korea in negotiations: More than 15 years of such efforts have demonstrated that the United States lacks the leverage to induce the regime to give up its nukes. If any country has such leverage, it is China, which supplies its neighbor with fuel and food. U.S. diplomacy should be aimed first at pressuring Beijing to take responsibility for the growing menace on its doorstep. New Chinese leader Xi Jinping has the opportunity to change a policy that, in backing the Kim regime in the interest of “stability,” has made the Korean peninsula steadily more dangerous.

Though sanctions on North Korea are already tight, the Obama administration should look for new ways that the U.S. financial system can be used to cut off the regime’s access to international banks. It should work to bring greater attention to the human rights calamity in the North.

That’s the next best thing to an endorsement. I never thought I’d live to see that.

Major expansion of Camp 25

I have updated the Camp 25 page with new imagery of the camp, whose land area was approximately doubled by a major expansion prior to May 2012.

Big hat tip to Curtis.

In Poor Taste

Quite a few readers have been coming in over the last two days from this New York Times Op-Ed by Adam Johnson, author of the acclaimed The Orphan Master’s Son.  Johnson links to the Camp 14 page and asks how anyone could be so tasteless as to post a satirical review of a North Korean concentration camp.  Johnson thinks that in the same sense as the maps review something disturbing and inhuman about North Korea, the reactions reveal something disturbing and inhuman about us. Writing at Foreign Policy several days ago, Blaine Harden had also asked, “Should we really be making jokes about North Korean prison camps?”  Both pieces are well worth a read in full, and reach slightly different conclusions.  I have spent the last week vacillating between those conclusions myself.

As a fan of South Park and those sketchy Untergang parodies on YouTube, I feel underqualified to denounce anyone else’s tasteless sense of humor, but there’s a line that I think these reviews cross.  The distinction, I think, Read more

The Whole World Is Watching

Since I started this blog nearly ten years ago, I’ve had one primary objective — to do my small part to make it impossible for people with more influence than me to ignore North Korea’s crimes against humanity.  This week, for the first time, this quixotic campaign does not seem like such an exercise in futility.  Today, everyone on earth seems to be talking about Google maps and satellite imagery of concentration camps in North Korea, even posting fake “reviews” of the camps, which often cross the line of questionable taste.

It’s gratifying, after all the effort that it took, to be able to claim a significant contribution to the study and publication of that imagery.  We are, nevertheless, still a long way from doing much good for the people in those camps.


[People gathered in the courtyard at the southwest entrance to Camp 22

on April 27, 2002.  Who were they?  How many of them are still alive?]

But we are closer to the goal, because the regime is now on notice that the whole world is watching.  It can’t expand, establish, or significantly modify a camp without attracting global interest, the the state’s whole system of terror rests on the capacity of these camps.  Today, reporters who ignore these camps can be called out for bias, and the U.N. has finally been shamed into at least token acknowledgement, however ineffectual it will prove to be.

Our next Secretary Secretary of State, who has said next to nothing about the camps for the last ten years and was widely rumored to be angling for a visit to Pyongyang, is the latest of the latecomers.  Last week, he felt compelled to mention them at his prepared speech for his confirmation hearing:

American foreign policy is also defined by food security and energy security, humanitarian assistance, the fight against disease and the push for development, as much as it is by any single counter terrorism initiative – and it must be. It is defined by leadership on life threatening issues like climate change, or fighting to lift up millions of lives by promoting freedom and democracy from Africa to the Americas or speaking out for the prisoners of gulags in North Korea or millions of refugees and displaced persons or victims of human trafficking. It is defined by keeping faith with all that our troops have sacrificed to secure for Afghanistan.  America lives up to her values when we give voice to the voiceless.

To be sure, this is a token throwaway clause, buried inside the sort of sentence that defines the term “long-winded” — really, I can only marvel at the lung capacity one can build by being so pompous.

Wiser folk parse the words of politicians at their confirmation hearings the way they might parse the words of convicts at their sentencing hearings.  The words ring about as sincere as the speaker’s personal history suggests them to be.  In fact, no politician of either party with a prominent foreign policy role has had less to say about human rights in North Korea over the last decade than John Kerry, who ought to be thanking Chuck Hagel for the gift of an easy confirmation.  But saying a little is better than saying nothing at all, and it will give us something to point to when, nine months from now, he asks Barack Obama to give him a long leash to negotiate Agreed Framework III, an agreement that will inevitably offer regime-sustaining aid and offer no hope to the victims of the camps.