Hoeryong concentration camp, northeast North Korea; officially named Kwan-li-so, No. 22. A Russian doll of obscurity, the camp lies within a valley, enclosed by 1,300 – 2,300 ft. high mountains. It measures 225km2 in area, skirted by an inner 33,000 volt electric fence and an outer barbed wire fence. The space between is laden with traps and hidden nails. The lengths to which the North Korean government have gone to ensure its isolation is unsurprising considering the camp’s purpose. It is worth preliminarily stating that the content of this article is graphic; but it must be written in this manner precisely because it is unnerving to read. One must question why these camps are still functioning, why they are unspoken of, and why they are unchallenged.
We only have a small corpus of testaments and information concerning North Korea’s political prison camps due to their isolation, and the extents gone to ensure this isolation. Information is primarily sourced in accounts given by prisoners who have escaped, ex-guards, and satellite picturing. Of these accounts most in this article are from Hoeryong concentration camp, although numerous testimonies exist from the five other kwan-li-so (penal labour colonies) affirming the similar severity and functioning of these camps to Hoeryong. The penal labour colonies, such as Hoeryong, function as the physical manifestation of North Korea’s limited human rights, which, despite existing in the country’s constitution, do not manifest themselves as rights of free speech or other fundamental rights in practice. Anyone who breaches the restrictions on free speech, or ‘dissent’, are dealt with through the kwan-li-so. What’s more, based on the association principle (yeonjwaje), ‘political dissenters’ are often imprisoned with their whole family, including children and the elderly. In Hoeryong, all prisoners are detained until death.
Jeong Kwang-il is a North Korean who was accused of being a spy in 1999, due to contacting a South Korean and visiting China. His escape and testimony, along with other prisoners and ex-guards, provides us with our primary source of information regarding the conditions of the penal colonies. After being kidnapped under arbitrary arrest and beaten with a balk, Jeong suffered severe head injuries and had all his teeth broken. His life, from that point, was that of being “investigated and beaten”, a monotonous daily existence which consisted of humiliation and pain. The testimony of former guard Ahn Myong-chol is consistent with Jeong’s experiences, describing the conditions of the camp as life-threatening and the prisoners as skeletons in rags, estimating 30% had deformities caused by intensive beatings. Escaping from North Korea in 1994, Ahn defected to South Korea in order to “indict [North Korea] for exterminating people”. A life of intensive “indoctrination” finally shattered by the horrors he had control over.
Ahn’s testimony is a valuable resource in the attempt to indict North Korea, yet he is by no means a hero of resistance. In his interview, he admitted to having ordered the execution of 31 people from five families as a collective punishment after one family member had attempted to escape. He was also involved in torture, of which there are five main types: water, hanging, box-room, kneeling and pigeon. Of these, Jeong had been tortured using pigeon torture, where his hands were tied behind his back and handcuffed so he could not stand, sit or sleep. Political offenders are confined in cells underground. There are no toilets, prisoners urinate in their cells. Of the three men Jeong was detained with, only he survived. Jeong was tortured from the day of his arrest. Finally, in March 2000, admitting to the false claims that he was a spy, he was transported to Yodok concentration camp. His daily life consisted of getting up at five o’clock in the morning, and working from six o’clock until noon; he then had one hour for lunch, and continued to work from one o’clock until seven. Dinner commenced at eight o’clock, ended at nine, and after dinner, they took classes for political re-education. Prisoners were denied sleep until they had memorised everything from the day’s lesson.
The details of Jeong’s experience are harrowing. He was released from Yodok in 2003, and escaped from North Korea in 2004. He is now a human rights advocate. Relatively speaking, Jeong is lucky to have survived his ordeal and for being released. In Hoeryong prisoners are detained until death, their existence comprising regular beatings, torture, sexual harassment, human experimentation and murder. In 2012, satellite images showed the detention centre and guard towers being razed. Reports are mixed, however, with many claiming a case of mass starvation and a high profile defection of the camp warden. There are unconfirmed rumours that Hoeryong has been closed due to this defection to avoid further investigation, with all remaining prisoners transferred to other camps. Evidently, these efforts to cover up Hoeryong are in vain. There is indisputable evidence that these camps are active within North Korea, constituting major breaches of human rights and examples of some of the worst cases of mass torture and murder in post-Holocaust history. The question naturally arises: how are they still functioning in 2016?
The first obvious answer is: obscurantism. There are an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 political prisoners housed within kwan-li-so. Of these prisoners, Shin Dong-hyuk is reputed as the only known prisoner to have escaped from a North Korean “total-control zone” grade concentration camp. Security is tight. Escape is hard enough without being starved, crippled and wary. In terms of ex-prison guards, North Korea is also particularly stringent that no information is leaked. Only two ex-guards of Hoeryong, Ahn Myong-chol and Kwon Hyok, are known to have escaped from North Korea. Yet they escaped, and with them exists consistent accounts of camp horror, supported by satellite picturing of these facilities. Based on the evidence, there have been initiatives to pressure the North Korean government to close these camps. In October 2013, Amnesty International commissioned analysis of satellite images of kwan-li-so 15 at Yodok concentration camp, in South Hamgyong province, and kwan-li-so 16 at Hwaseong in North Hamgyong province. Despite the growing calls for closing of these camps by human rights organisations, the North Korean government has continued to fund these institutions, with kwan-li-so 16 appearing to have slightly increased in size. The ongoing funding of these penal labour camps continues to fuel the systematic oppression of dissent from a regime which abuses human rights on an unprecedented scale.
There are two reasons why North Korea continues to fund and operate these camps. The first is necessity. For a regime functioning on such a large scale, the North Korean government needs detention facilities to detain and exterminate individuals who threaten them. This, in turn, leads to a mass anxiety that keeps citizens in line and prevents dissent. Of course, state-owned media, schools and the military go some way to indoctrinating the population, but there are many (the number of which is impossible to estimate) who resent the regime. A minority of these escape the country, one example being Park Yeon-mi, a North Korean woman who escaped from North Korea in 2007 and recounted her experiences of the state. The second is lack of effective punishment or enforcement. On November 18, 2014, the third committee of the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution endorsing the Commission of Inquiry’s conclusions that the North Korean government had committed systematic human rights abuses. The resolution called on the UN Security Council to consider North Korea’s leadership to the International Criminal Court (ICC), facing claims of crimes against humanity toward their population.
The effort was ineffective. The reason is simple: North Korea has ratified four international human right treaties and signed another without ratification, and has constitution enshrining human rights, but paper does not equal praxis. They can continue to fund and operate the camps despite superficially cooperating with the UN. Furthermore, the Security Council has refused to call many votes on inquiries into human rights abuses, due to near certainty that North Korean allies Russia and China would veto them. Despite this, the UN is continuing to build a case against North Korea for crimes against humanity. But the likelihood that these efforts will be effective is slim unless the Kim Jong-un government collapses. Marzuki Darusman, the UN Special Rapporteur to North Korea, summarises this situation as “quite unique… compared to the general practise where justice seeking is then implemented after the big bang”. The big bang being the decision that North Korea has committed crimes against humanity, leading to Kim Jong-un’s trial and prosecution. However whilst the state is still functioning under Kim Jong-un’s regime, or any regime similar to it, the camps are almost definitely going to continue operating.
One can only hope mounting sanctions and pressure lead to a weakening of the regime’s staunch opposition to recognising the human rights of its citizens, and, crucially, that more people begin talking about the unspoken concentration camps of the 21st century.