Human rights groups fear that up to 20,000 inmates at a North Korean gulag have ‘disappeared.’ These groups worry that they may have been killed or starved to death. These suspicions arose as a result of a report conducted by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), which detailed the conditions of the gulags after Kim Jong-un assumed power from his father in 2011.
The report, North Korea’s Hidden Gulag: Interpreting Reports of Changes in the Prison Camps, reveals that two of the prisons have been shut down since Jong-un came to power. Since 2010, prisoners have regularly been subjected to starvation as the country’s currency was devalued (prison authorities have been ‘unable’ to purchase enough food for the prisons) and the country experienced a poor harvest season.
The report highlights Camp 22 located in the North Hamyong Province, which is more than 770 square miles. The camp mined coal to supply power to the Chongjin thermal power plant. The camp also had extensive farms for potatoes, beans, corn and other vegetables, but was shut down because of the poor harvest season. In late 2012, the camp shrank dramatically in size before its eventual closure.
Trains were seen departing from the area at night, heading south towards Camp 16 or 25. While 7,000-8,000 are believed to have been transferred to other camps, there are still tens of thousands unaccounted for. Because of the severe food shortages in the country, little if any food was given to the prisoners. During this time, the size of the prison decreased from 30,000 to 3,000.
However, more than 130,000 individuals remain imprisoned at the hands of the government. According to the report, “Through this vast system of unlawful imprisonment, the North Korean regime isolates, banishes, punishes and executes those suspected of being disloyal to the regime. They are deemed ‘wrong-thinkers,’ ‘wrongdoers,’ or those who have acquired ‘wrong knowledge’ and have engaged in ‘wrong associations.’” At these detention centers, detainees are subject to forced labor, starvation, and other cruel and unusual punishment.
Some claim that prisoners are even fed poison for experimentation. Women report having to kill their own children and stone one another to survive. Activists claim that around 40 percent of all prisoners die during imprisonment due to malnutrition, sexual violence, torture, abuse, or are worked to death. Last month, the United Nations committee of inquiry held hearings in Seoul and Tokyo to examine claims of human rights abuses by the North Korean government.
The HRNK worries that, because of the report, the government will attempt to erase any evidence of the atrocities or eliminate existing prisoners who might serve as witnesses to the crimes. David Hawk, author of the report and a former United Nations human rights official, said “If even remotely accurate, this is an atrocity requiring much closer investigation.”
– Kelsey Ziomek