Long shots and North Korea

It’s like a plot from irreverent cartoon Team America. Just as tensions between the US and North Korea are at historic levels, all-American basketball star Dennis Rodman swoops in and makes friends with the dear leader. ‘Basketball diplomacy’ they call it, though it is not clear that there is any diplomacy taking place – Rodman defended his visit in tweets, which said: “I’m not a politician. Kim Jung Un and North Korean people are basketball fans. I love everyone. Period. End of story”. Diplomatic, if not diplomacy. If this were a Team America plot, then this is all part of acting ignorant and everything’s going to plan.

Today, tensions escalated further. North Korea announced they would exercise their right to a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the ‘headquarters of the aggressors’ - meaning Washington. We have heard this sort of posturing before and at present, the consensus seems to be that although they may have the will, North Korea currently lacks the expertise to send a warhead that far. It is a chilling declaration though, and delegates at the UN Human Rights Council session which is currently underway, will be discussing the international response to North Korea’s nuclear threats. At the same time as they discuss the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, Amnesty has asked the UN to set up Commission of Inquiry into the abysmal conditions and the general human rights situation in North Korea, described by the UN as being in “its own category”. We are asking for the Inquiry as we publish a new round of satellite images which reveal developments in North Korea’s prison camps.

The new satellite images we have published today show the North Korean government is expanding the perimeters of prison camps north of the capital Pyongyang and blurring the lines between the camps and the surrounding population. These images add to the body of evidence of North Korea’s extensive prison camp system, which the government staggeringly continues to deny the existence of.

We commissioned the images and analysis following rumours that there was a new camp alongside the notorious Camp 14. Instead, we found that the new perimeter now incorporates civilian villages and encloses inhabitants within it. The satellite images also show the construction of controlled access points and a number of guard towers.  Analysts also identified the construction of new buildings that appear to house workers, likely to be associated with an expansion of mining activity in the region.

Life in the prison camps is dire. We know because of the testimony of Shin Dong Hyuk, the only person born in the camp who is known to have escaped. Hear his harrowing testimony on the video above – including how his finger was amputated and his mother and brother killed for attempting to escape. We estimate that around 200,000 people are being held in North Korean prison camps. People there are tortured, made to do forced labour, summarily executed and food is withheld as a punishment. Many of the prisoners are held because they have in some way criticised the government, but a large portion are sent to the camps just because they are related to someone who has, through a system known as ‘guilt by association’. In a report from 2011 conditions were described as some of the worst Amnesty had encountered in five decades of work.

Amnesty is calling for unfettered access to the area for human rights observers and for North Korea to officially acknowledge that political prison camps such as Camp 14 exist.

From the surreal to the ridiculous, you can watch this rambling interview with Dennis Rodman, dressed in a jacket covered in dollar bills, with various facial piercings and oversized sunglasses on inside  - this the man who has had more contact with the North Korean leader than any diplomat or observer.  It’s unlikely that we will be granted the access we have requested and until then all we can do is plead, monitor and report - and work on our long shots.

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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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