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North Korea: 100,000 prisoners missing, feared dead in gulags

Analysis by Martin Sieff
North Korea prison camps: A photo Amnesty International released in 2011 shows a satellite image of prison camps in central North Korea. [AFP]

North Korea prison camps: A photo Amnesty International released in 2011 shows a satellite image of prison camps in central North Korea. [AFP]

Kim Jong-un’s regime in North Korea may have presided over the deaths of as many as 100,000 people in the gulag network of the country’s harsh concentration camps, known as the kwan-li-so, in the past few years.

Most of the deaths seem to have been caused by incompetence through food shortages and not by deliberate policy.

Reports are starting to emerge of what may have been the deliberate massacre of 20,000 people in the Camp 22 slave punishment facility, which is closed.

North Korea’s notorious gulag is a network of about 20 large, hard labor, long-term prison camps. Reports indicate a total of 200,000 prisoners, a high rate of incarceration for a country of 24.5 million people. That would be the equivalent of well over 2.4 million prisoners in a population the size of the United States or close to 700,000 in one the size of Germany.

The StrategyPage.com website reported, “Recent reports [and satellite photos] that North Korea had reduced its labor camp population [to under 100,000 prisoners].”

This drop of 50 percent in the North Korean gulag population was not caused by releasing prisoners, as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev did in the mid-1950s after the death of long-time dictator Josef Stalin. Instead, the decline “appears to have been the result of a higher death rate among prisoners in the last few years and not a policy of sending fewer people to prison and closing the unneeded camps,” StrategyPage.com said.

“Some of the deaths were the result of more executions, but most were caused by food shortages,” the website said. “With growing hunger among civilians and military personnel, the government sought to obtain more food wherever it could. Cutting the already skimpy rations for prisoners was one such desperate measure and it meant more prisoners dying of starvation and disease.”

“The disappearance of some 20,000 prisoners of conscience, and possibly many more, from North Korea’s Camp 22 – a massive concentration camp neighboring Hoeryong city which was geographically larger than Los Angeles and thought to have once held between 30,000 and 50,000 captives – cannot represent anything less than a Srebrenica-level massacre of an already enslaved and frightfully brutalized population,” wrote Robert Park, a former American missionary in North Korea and a member of the Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea, in an op-ed in Forbes magazine.

“Satellite photographs indicate that guard posts, interrogation and detention facilities at the camp had been razed last year; by which time those groundlessly accused and exploited had all of a sudden been reduced to about 3,000,” Park wrote.

Prisoners moved to other camps

“While an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 prisoners are believed by some observers to have been spirited away at nighttime via train to analogous slave labor/death camps No. 16 [located in a secluded mountain area in Hwasong County], and No. 25 [near the city of Chongjin], the rest remain thoroughly unaccounted for,” he noted.

In August, David Hawk of the Washington, D.C.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea [HRNK] published a report that raised another warning flag about what had happened to Camp 22’s prisoners.

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

Park described “North Korea’s reasons for shuttering this camp [as] plainly a remorseless and genocidal attempt to divert, cover-up and avoid accountability.”

He concluded, “As for the tens of thousands who vanished from Camp 22, it is not difficult to ascertain what happened.”

The new reduced estimate of the number of people still alive in the North Korean gulag “was first released in January by the Korea Institute for National Unification [KINU], a government-funded think tank in Seoul whose researchers studied satellite images of the camps’ barracks. But the estimate has since gained wider acceptance among the small group of researchers in South Korea and the United States who study the North Korean gulag.”

In August 2013, “KINU’s research team testified about the likely prison population decline” to the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea when it held a series of hearings on abuse in the North Korean camps.

Hawk, in his report, noted the testimony of a recent North Korean defector to South Korea that a massive famine struck the camp and the areas around it in 2010 following a succession of poor harvests in the region.

This report appeared credible to South Korean experts as three out of the past four harvest across Northeast Asia, including much of northern China, have been far poorer than usual because of erratic weather including heat waves, widespread droughts and even exceptionally severe flooding at unexpected times.

What actions should United Nations take to push North Korea to abandon its gulag system? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.


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Reader Comments


richard on 05/11/2013 at 09:28PM

Cash in exchange for a prisoner, thereby creating an economic demand for prisoners (saving prisoners). Those who are in charge of gulags may be incentivised to turn in the prisoners in exchange for food or cash at border market.

Robin Tudge on 15/11/2013 at 01:14PM

No, that just incentivises gulag bosses to hoover up more innocent people as prisoners.

Ralph on 05/11/2013 at 08:34PM

'equivalent of well over 2.4 million prisoners in a population the size of the United States' USA has around 2.2 million incarcerated. The pot calls the kettle black. Awkward.

ก้าน on 23/01/2014 at 09:43PM

2.2 million slave-like prisoners in the U.S.?

Robin Tudge on 15/11/2013 at 01:18PM

It doesn't really work to try and distract from the north Korean gulags by pointing to the US' incarceration system. But in the Land of the Free the prison population, second in the world only to North Korea, has quintupled since the 1970s, way, way beyond the rate of growth in the population. US court judges have been caught being bribed into incarcerating people by profiteering prison firms, and there are people serving life sentences for stealing food three times - famine or prison? Is this North Korea?

Amanda on 13/11/2013 at 08:32PM

Yes, but the difference is that those who are in American prisons (for the most part) did something worth of their incarceration. North Korean's in camps did things like own Western media, use the internet, buy food on the black market, or are born into the camps because their ancestors did one of the illegal (stupidly illegal) things. There is no equating the people who live in concentration camps (who also don't get fed a majority of the time, live in the worst conditions possible) to those in American jails and prisons. If you want to know more about North Korean Concentration camps a great read, is Escape from Camp 14. It paints a very real picture of the Camps based on a mans experiences being born into and lived 23 years in Camp 14.