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Fears that 20,000 people died in North Korean prison camps

Recently I woke to the words of a truly horrific news item reaching my ears from my bedside radio -  news that the lives of 20,000 of my fellow human beings are currently unaccounted for, feared dead. Twenty thousand people I regard as my brothers and sisters, who I vowed to stand up for and to help liberate. Twenty thousand inmates of Camp 22, a political concentration camp run by one of the world's most despotic regimes in a country known as the Hermit State, North Korea.

Camp 22 is one of 6 known political prison camps currently in North Korea today. These camps reported to have been created in the 1950s and have over the past 6 decades grown in size and population and are by all accounts still expanding today in the 21st century. Initially built to house prisoners of war, the gulags now hold an number of arbitrarily detained prisoners ranging from the political victims of army purges, repatriated defectors/refugees and religious leaders to the seemingly mundane, such as those who do not take proper care of photographs of former leaders.

Inmates are held in conditions of constant near starvation forcing them to eat rats, frogs and kernels picked from dung, forced labour and cruel and brutal punishment which often ends in the maiming and deaths of inmates. In addition, as a result of a policy initiated by the founding father, Kim Il Sung known as guilt-by-association, up to three generations of the family of the offenders who are often imprisoned for life are often forcibly incarcerated along with them, often without any knowledge of which of their family members has erred. This is done without trial or any judicial process. The justification for this is a bid to supposedly remove the bad seed of the offender from the rest of the population.

A Washington based NGO, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea recently reported suspicions and fears that following a failed currency devaluation in 2009 combined with acute food shortage, up to 20,000 of Camp 22 inmates may have been allowed to die of disease or starvation in the run-up to the closure of the camp at the end of last year.

With no suggestion that the inmates have been released in conjunction with testimonies from former inmates and guards as to the dwindling population of the camp over the past year, this seems a feasible conclusion as to fate of the inmates. The organisation has also indicated that it fears the North Korean regime will attempt to remove evidence of atrocities or eliminate surviving prisoners.

The North Korean government continually denies the existence of the camps despite the numerous testimonies from escapees such as Shin Dong Hyuk an inmate who was born in and spent the first 22 years of his life in Camp 14 before escaping, amongst many others providing evidence to ongoing Commission of Inquiry On North Korea

In addition, satellite imagery such as those procured by Amnesty and other NGOs detail the extent and increasing expanse of four of the six known concentration camps in North Korea.

It is particularly disheartening that despite the outrage and widespread indignation that followed the uncovering of the worst excesses of the Holocaust in Central Europe, in the following decade, a virtually similar system of incarceration was secretly established 5000 or so miles away in North Korea. At times like this, I often despair that the shrill cry 'NEVER AGAIN' which greeted the horrors discovered in the aftermath of the 2nd World War sounds distant and muffled in this century, dulled by the passage of time.

Indeed, despair and resignation are the most natural reactions to one individual's powerlessness to effect an improvement in the circumstances of fellow human beings, but I am minded to recall as a counterweight, the eminent Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Weisel who once said: "There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest"

Amnesty campaigns on human rights in North Korea, the latest of which is an urgent action on two repatriated refugees who in all likelihood will end up in a prison camp just like Camp 22.

Amnesty campaigns on human rights in North Korea, the latest of which is an urgent action on two repatriated refugees who in all likelihood will end up in a prison camp just like Camp 22.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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