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