New satellite images map scale of North Korea’s prison camps from above, new testimonies detail the horror from the ground

‘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.’

The haunting words of one of the prison guards from North Korea’s largest prison camp 16 (Kwanliso 16) one of two camps mapped in detail in new satellite images from Amnesty released today. He has never spoken publically before. The combination of detailed images from above and a breadth of testimony from the ground lift the curtain on the secretive world of the camps as never before.

It is hard to contemplate the suffering that the more than 100,000 people face, trapped in one of North Korea’s four prison camps. But the new briefing issued today goes someway to giving a unique insight into the dire conditions.

In a video interview, Kim Young-soon, who spent nine years in Kwanliso 15, or Yodok, describes witnessing executions of prisoners who were first half beaten to death before being publically shot multiple times. She hauntingly describes the lack of emotion from the other prisoners witnessing the executions. The guard goes as far as to say that the prisoners are not even human really, they are reduced to an animal state – except he adds - they can talk.

The UN has described North Korea as being in a ‘category of its own’ and certainly the descriptions of torture, malnutrition and forced labour are amongst the worst that Amnesty has documented in more than half a century of research.

Amnesty has shared the latest evidence with the UN Commission of Inquiry investigating human rights abuses in North Korea and taken together with other satellite images Amnesty has commissioned in recent years, the scale of the vast camps – some as big as Manchester – can be seen, with guard towers and logging facilities clearly visible. Staggeringly, the North Korean authorities continue to deny the existence of the camps. It is important then to make people aware of these brutal nightmarish places; some of the coverage today on the BBC, the Mail, Sky News, the Telegraph and the Metro amongst other outlets, goes someway to giving the lie to their denial.

The images taken from the satellites, whilst forming an important part of a dossier of evidence of the human rights abuses taking place in the country where every conceivable human right is being violated, are simply maps. They don’t portray the human suffering.

Journalists often ask for pictures of people to accompany the story, but there are almost no pictures suitable. In fact, the haunting picture above is the only known picture from inside Yodok  – it was sent to a defector, Dr Oh, to show him that his family were imprisoned in a camp after he had fled the country. They were arrested and imprisoned in his stead under a system of collective punishment known as 'guilt by association'. His wife, a former news reader, and their two daughters are thought to still be in Yodok’s notorious ‘total control zone’.

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