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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Sources: Amnesty International Report on the Prison Camp System

by | December 13th, 2013 | 10:35 am

Abuse in the prison camp system of North Korea is arguably not news, but hearing it from those with first-hand experience is always harrowing. The first day of the Commission of Inquiry hearings in Washington DC last month featured testimony by two defectors on sadistic treatment by guards in lower-level detention centers for those repatriated by the Chinese.

Amnesty International has issued a new report that includes testimony by guards and inmates at the infamous kwanliso political concentration camps 15 (Yodok) and 16. Amnesty’s press release can be found here.

The most recent addition to our collective memory is an interview conducted in November 2013 with a security official in kwanliso 16 in the 1980s until the mid-1990s. He reports executions he had witnessed where inmates were forced to dig their own graves and then killed by hammer blows to their necks, cases of strangling and beating inmates to their death, and women who disappeared after they had been raped by officials.

But equally disturbing is the claim in the Amnesty report that these two camps may be expanding. Based on satellite imagery analysis of kwanliso 15 since 2011 and kwanliso 16 since 2008, Amnesty concludes that the population of camp 15 is stable and that of camp 16 may have increased. The satellite images reveal significant investment in administrative structures and robust economic activity such as mining, logging and agriculture.

These findings may be at odds with those in a new report by David Hawk (.pdf here). Hawk believes the camps are undergoing an overall contraction; Marc Noland reviews the evidence. One explanation for the contraction is simply that mortality is exceeding new incarcerations. But a wave of repression is likely to descend on the country in the wake of Jang Song Thaek’s ouster; given the nature of the indictment, his followers are exactly the type of political relegated to the kwanliso.