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North Korea: The inside story

A former prison guard at Kwanliso 16, the largest political prison camp in North Korea, who has never spoken publicly before, describes detainees being forced to dig their own graves and women being raped by visiting officials and then disappearing.

‘After a night of “servicing” the officials, the women had to die because the secret could not get out. This happens at most of the political prison camps.’
Prison guard

Under its new leader Kim Jong-un, North Korea is violating every conceivable human right. North Korea's political prison camps are a gruesome and powerful tool at the heart of a vast network of repression.

People are sent to the political prison camps without charge, let alone a trial, many of them simply for knowing someone who has fallen out of favour.

Conditions are dire. Torture is rampant, there are reports that women are raped, and we know that public execution is common place. Many of the prisoners die of malnutrition and overwork in dangerous conditions.

New satellite images

Hundreds of thousands of people, including children, are detained in political the camps and other detention facilities in North Korea. Many have not committed any crime whatsoever but are merely family members of those deemed guilty. They are detained as a form of collective punishment known officially in North Korea as 'guilt-by-association'.

Gallery: See all the satellite images

In a comprehensive mapping of camps, known as Kwanliso 15 and 16, we found new housing blocks, an expansion of work facilities and tight security with perimeter fences and guard towers clearly visible. The analysis, along with harrowing, newly-released testimonies, is included in the latest briefing North Korea: Continued Investment in the Infrastructure of Repression

Kwanliso 16

Kwanliso 16, near Hwaseong in North Hamgyong province, is approximately 215 square miles. It is one of the least investigated areas in North Korea’s vast political prison camp system. In 2011, an estimated 20,000 people were believed be imprisoned at kwanliso 16.
The latest images, taken in May, indicate a slight increase in kwanliso 16’s population, with newly-built housing blocks clearly visible. Significant economic activity - such as mining, logging and agriculture - is clearly visible in the satellite images and there is an expansion of an industrial area within kwanliso 16.

Forced hard labour is common in North Korea’s political prison camps. Testimony from former detainees and officials reveals how prisoners spend most of their time being forced to work in extremely dangerous conditions with inadequate food and very little sleep.
Mr Lee, a former security official at Camp 16 in the 1980s and 1990s, told us of the methods used to execute prisoners. He told how detainees were forced to dig their own graves and were then killed with hammer blows to their necks. He also witnessed prison officers strangling detainees and then beating them to death with wooden sticks. According to Mr Lee, women were 'disappeared' after being raped:

'After a night of "servicing" the officials, the women had to die because the secret could not get out. This happens at most of the political prison camps.'

Kwanliso 15

Kim Young-soon, a former detainee in Camp 15 between 1980 and 1989, described a public execution she witnessed of two detainees who were caught attempting to escape. She explained how they were first 'half beaten to death' and then:

'They were brought to a stage after they were badly beaten. The prisoners were tied to wooden stakes and shot three times in their head, chest and feet.'

The new images of Kwanliso 15, also known as Yodok, show that 39 housing blocks have been demolished since we last assessed satellite pictures of the camp in 2011. Only six new housing blocks have been built. The decrease in housing could indicate a slight reduction in the Kwanliso population. However, we are not able to definitively verify the prisoner population.  

Kwanliso 15 covers an area of 142 square miles, and is located in central North Korea around 45 miles from the capital Pyongyang. In 2011, an estimated 50,000 people were imprisoned in the camp, with the population concentrated in river valleys.

As with Kwanliso 16, security remains extremely tight in Yodok, and there is significant economic activity. Logging activities are clearly visible, as is the processing of raw lumber in what is thought to be a furniture factory.