North Korean prison camps expanding: Amnesty International

By Daniele Pestilli on December 6, 2013
Image: satellite photo of North Korean gulags - source: Amnesty International website

On December 5th, Amnesty International released a number of satellite images exposing the development of two North Korean gulags. The report by the London-based human rights watchdog revealed that the two facilities, Kwanliso (lit. Management Bureau) 15 and 16, have expanded with new housing blocks, work facilities, guard towers and perimeter fences.

The treatment of the prisoners has allegedly become harsher under the present leader Kim Jong-un, who came to power two years ago.

Included in the report is an inside story by Mr. Lee, a former security official at Kwanliso 16, the largest political prison camp in the country. He describes the atrocious monstrosities of “detainees being forced to dig their own graves and then killed by hammer blows to their necks by prison authorities.” He also admits to having seen women being raped by visiting officials and then disappearing so that the secret would not be let out.

The report also documents the story of Kim Young-soon, a former detainee in Camp 15 between 1980 and 1989, who explains that the prisoners “were tied to wooden stakes and shot three times in their head, chest and feet.”

Many of the detainees are not guilty of any crime, but are collectively punished for being related to those who are deemed guilty, a practice known as “guilt by association.”

According to Amnesty International’s account, Kwanliso 15 - also known as “Yodok” - is 367 square kilometers (142 square miles - roughly the size of Washington D.C.) and is located 72 kilometers (45 miles) from Pyongyang in central North Korea. An estimated 50,000 people were imprisoned in this camp in 2011.

Kwanliso 16 is located near North Hamgyong and spans 557 square kilometers (215 square miles – roughly the size of Guam).

This report comes just several days after South Korean spy agencies have revealed that Kim Jong-un's uncle and Pyongyang’s de facto No. 2 official, Jang Song-taek, may have been publicly executed in late November for “anti-party activities.” According to South Korean parliamentary intelligence committee member, Jung Chung-rae, if this were indeed the case, North Korea’s power structure will be greatly shaken.

Amnesty International has criticized North Korea’s continued investment in an infrastructure of repression and has requested the closure of these prison camps, the immediate and unconditional release of prisoners, as well as unrestricted access for international human rights monitors to these gulags.

In its extended report, they also call on China and Laos to “respect their international law obligations and not forcibly return North Koreans who have fled the country” as these individuals would likely be relayed to the prison camps.

The London-based watchdog criticizes North Korea for its lack of independent domestic media, lack of civil societies, lack of an opposing political party, for its restriction on travel, food deprivation, dire conditions in the repression facilities and for the country’s lack of freedom of expression. According to Reporters Without Borders, North Korea’s press freedom index comes in second last place: 178th out of 179 countries – just before Eritrea.