North Korea's Not-so-Secret Prison Camps

War and Peace

Picture, if you will, a young boy walking home from school. He sees in the distance a car driving toward him. As the car pulls up, a man steps out, places handcuffs on the boy and throws him into the back of the car. Unknown to the boy, their destination is Yodok Prison Camp. Arrested because his father is believed to have made a disparaging remark about Kim Jong il (though this is a charge he will never be informed of), the young boy’s life will never be the same. His days now consist of working 18 hours in the mines, ideological indoctrination, horrific torture, and - if he is lucky - meager portions of corn gruel. Forced to watch as friends and family members are tortured and executed in front of him, the boy begins to despair. As he sits in solitary confinement, unable to stand or lie down for weeks on end, he wonders what he could have done to deserve such a fate and if he will ever live to see freedom again.

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“Hundreds of thousands of people exist with virtually no rights, treated essentially as slaves, in some of the worst circumstances we’ve documented in the last 50 years.”- Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International Asia-Pacific Program Director

On May 3, 2011, Amnesty International released a report detailing the extensive political prison system in North Korea (DPRK). In line with the estimates of the South Korean government, as well as prior US State Department reports, Amnesty estimates North Korea is currently holding somewhere around 200,000 political prisoners in what are being likened to Soviet-era Gulags. The descriptions in the Amnesty report, as well as the US State Department’s 2010 Human Rights report on North Korea, are eerily reminiscent of historical documents detailing Nazi concentration camps. The stories of torture, starvation, forced labor, and execution of inmates are almost unreal. Unfortunately for the North Korean people, however, these stories are very, very real.

While there are many countries around the world that hold political prisoners (including the U.S.), North Korea is unique in a couple of ways (see a video here). First, and most obviously, it is unique for the sheer number of political prisoners being held. As far as current statistics are concerned, the only country to come close in number is Myanmar, which is said to be holding approximately 60,000 political prisoners.

The second unique aspect of North Korea’s system is the idea of collective punishment. What this means is that one’s family and friends are equally as guilty of the crime an individual is accused of committing. In other words, if you are accused of criticizing the leadership of North Korea, not only will you be arrested and sent to a camp, the government will also arrest any family or friends it deems to be responsible for your offense. No trial will be held, and often the charges will be unknown to those arrested. Not even children are exempt from this system. It is said that entire families reside in many of the prison camps, often having committed no crime other than guilt by association.

To give you an idea of the sort of offenses, beyond guilt by association, that are likely to land you in a North Korean prison camp, here is the list published by Amnesty International:

- Criticizing the leadership

- Being seen as having failed in your duties as an official

- Contacting South Koreans in other countries

- Being a part of, or being believed to be a part of an anti-government group

- Listening to South Korean radio broadcasts

- Un-repatriated Prisoners of War from the original Korean War circa 1950

- Attempting to flee the country

- Being connected to NGOs or government/military orgs

- Holding religious texts

Those who have committed any of the above crimes, along with various other crimes not listed, are split into two different types of camps: total control zones and revolutionary zones. Those sent to total control zones are considered enemies of the state, and will never leave the camp. They will either eventually die of starvation, or be executed. Those who are accused of lesser offenses are sent to the revolutionary zones for generally anywhere from three months to a decade. Though, again, many will still not survive their time in the camps. It has been estimated that at Yodok alone, 40 percent of the inmates died of malnutrition between 1991 and 2001.

What is further shocking about this story is that the world’s governments have known about it for decades. It is believed these camps have been in existence since the early 1950s. What Amnesty’s report does emphasize, and what the organization expresses as a major concern, is the recent growth of these camps. This is particularly worrisome in a time of political transition in the country, as Kim Jong-un prepares to take power. The fear is that 200,000 prisoners will soon be the small number of the past.

What has haunted me since this story broke, is that nobody seems to care. A report is released that 200,000 people are being held without trial, tortured and often killed in North Korea, and the world stands quiet. Where is the uproar? Where, aside from Amnesty who released the initial report, is the call for action? Why, other than the fact that it stands in China's shadow, is North Korea not being called out by the international community on a major level?

*For those who would like to gain more of a general understanding North Korea, I highly suggest you check out the Vice Guide to North Korea. A great documentary made a few years back, which gives a bit of insight into this very secretive country.

North Korea, Prison

Corrie Hulse

Corrie is The Mantle's Managing Editor. You can email her at corrie [at] themantle.net.

Formerly The Mantle's International Affairs Editor, Corrie specializes in matters of civilian protection and human security - specifically the Responsibility to Protect - her writing tackles the complicated intersection of politics and humanity.

Follow her on Twitter @corrie_hulse