North Korea: New satellite images show scale of forced labour in prison camps

Former prison guard speaks out for the first time about rape by visiting officials:

‘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

New satellite images

North Korea’s vast infrastructure of repression is exposed in new satellite images showing the development of two of the country’s largest political prison camps, Amnesty International said today as it published a new briefing on the notorious prisons.

Gallery: See all the satellite images

In a comprehensive mapping of camps, known as kwanliso, “15” and “16”, Amnesty 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 

Inside story

A former security official at kwanliso 16 – the largest political prison camp in North Korea – has never spoken publicly before. He describes detainees being forced to dig their own graves and women being raped by visiting officials and then disappearing.

Amnesty has shared the latest evidence with the UN Commission of Inquiry investigating human rights abuses in North Korea.
The report’s author, Amnesty International’s North Korea Researcher Rajiv Narayan, said:

 'Under its new leader Kim Jong-un, North Korea is violating every conceivable human right.

'The 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.

'We are calling on the North Korean authorities to acknowledge the existence of the camps, close them, and grant unhindered access to independent human rights monitors like Amnesty International.'
Rajiv Narayan, Amnesty International North Korea Researcher

Hundreds of thousands of people, including children, are detained in political prison 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'.

Camp 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 Amnesty in an interview last month 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.'

Camp 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 Camp 15 - also known as “Yodok”- show that 39 housing blocks have been demolished since Amnesty 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, Amnesty is 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.

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