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.
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.
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.
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.
By 2006, it appears to have been razed.
By 2011, there is no trace of the building, except for the vegetation patterns.
Similarly, this agricultural area inside the camp shows significant changes between 2004 and 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.
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.