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North Korea: New images reveal true scale of political prison camps

‘Hundreds of thousands of people exist with virtually no rights, treated essentially as slaves, in some of the worst circumstances we’ve documented in the last fifty years.’

Spokespeople, images, B-roll and full media briefing available on request

Amnesty International has today published satellite imagery and new testimony that sheds light on the horrific conditions in North Korea’s network of political prison camps, which hold an estimated 200,000 people.

The images reveal the location, size and conditions inside the camps. Amnesty International spoke to a number of people, including former inmates from Yodok, one of the camps, as well as guards in other camps, to obtain information about life there.

According to former detainees at the political prison camp at Yodok, prisoners are forced to work in conditions approaching slavery and are frequently subjected to torture and other cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.  All the detainees Amnesty International have spoken to have witnessed public executions.

Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International Asia Pacific Director, said:

“North Korea can no longer deny the undeniable. For decades the authorities have refused to admit to the existence of mass political prison camps.

“These are places out of sight of the rest of the world, where almost the entire range of human rights protections that international law has tried to set up for last 60 years are ignored.

“As North Korea seems to be moving towards a new leader in Kim Jong-un and a period of political instability, the big worry is that the prison camps appear to be growing in size.

“Hundreds of thousands of people exist with virtually no rights, treated essentially as slaves, in some of the worst circumstances we’ve documented in the last 50 years.

“Conditions in these camps are inhuman and Kim Jong-il must close them immediately.”

In the camps, the North Korean authorities are known to use a cube ‘torture cell’, where it is impossible to either stand or lie down. ‘Disruptive inmates’ are thrown in for at least one week, but Amnesty International is aware of one case of a child thrown into the cell for eight months.

An estimated 40 per cent of people in the camps die of malnutrition.

In most of the camps, no clothing is provided and prisoners face harsh winters. Inmates are also expected to work long hours undertaking strenuous and often pointless manual labour.

Food in the camps is scarce. Amnesty International has been told of several accounts of people eating rats or picking corn kernels out of animal waste purely to survive, despite the risks – anyone caught risks solitary confinement or other torture.

In just one camp, Kwanliso 15 at Yodok, thousands of people are believed to be held under ‘guilty-by-association’ wherein they are sent to the camps simply because one of their relatives has been detained.  

A significant proportion of those sent to the camps don’t even know what crimes they’re accused of.

Amnesty International believes the camps have been in operation since the 1950s.

There are two types of zones in the camps: Total Control Zones and Revolutionary Zones. The vast majority are held in Total Control Zones where no one is released. In six decades only three people are known to have escaped and left the country.

About 30 are known to have been released from the Revolutionary Zone at Political Prison Camp in Yodok and managed to leave North Korea.

Amnesty’s new satellite images show four of the six camps – each occupying huge areas of land and located in vast wilderness sites in South Pyongan, South Hamkyung and North Hamkyung provinces, and producing products ranging from soy bean paste and sweets to coal and cement.

A comparison of the latest images with satellite imagery from 2001 indicates a significant increase in the scale of the camps.

Jeong Kyoungil was first arrested in 1999 and detained in Yodok from 2000-2003. Amnesty International interviewed Jeong in Seoul in April 2011.

“We sleep on some sort of bed made out of a wooden board with a blanket to cover. 200g of poorly prepared corn gruel in a bowl would only be given if we finish our daily tasks. If not, we would not be given any food. The daily task is sweeping off overgrown weeds on fields.

“Seeing people die happened frequently – every day. Frankly, unlike in a normal society, we would like it rather than feel sad because if you bring a dead body and bury it, you would be given another bowl of food. I used to take charge of burying dead people’s bodies. When an officer told me to, I gathered some people and buried the bodies. After receiving extra food for the job, we felt glad rather than feeling sad.”

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