The notoriety of North Korea’s terrible living conditions for much of the ordinary population is well established. But additionally, they operate one of the harshest, most grueling prison systems in the world as a method of control by the state to strike fear into its people. Between 1945 and 1987 forced labor and concentration camps were responsible for over a million deaths. These political penal-labor colonies and prison-labor facilities, are scattered all over North Korea and generally referred to by their number designations. In total these camps intern up to what some estimate to be several hundreds of thousands in possibly over two dozen different camps.
Grounds for imprisonment range from accusations such as political treason to trivial matters such as spilling ink or failing to dust off photographs of the founder of the republic and its eternal leader Kim Il-sung. In spite of the closed nature of the country, public knowledge of these prison camps has beencorroborated owing to first-hand accounts from escapees’ testimonies.
Upon arrival new convicts are generally struck by the shortness, skinniness, premature aging, hunchbacks and physical deformities of the prisoners. Showers are only permitted once every six months which produces such an incredible stench to such an extent that the guards isolate themselves in glass booths to block the foul smell. A large number of prisoners are amputees with stumps from work accidents or frostbite on their toes, feet, fingers and hands. Those who live their entire lives behind the walls are completely oblivious to the outside world, not knowing such basic facts such as whether Earth is round or square. Behavior is strictly controlled, with no right to talk, laugh, sing or look in a mirror. When called upon from a guard prisoners must kneel down to the ground without uttering a single word unless permitted. Every day is for all practical purposes identical, consisting of toiling away 18 hours a day in the uttermost most brutal conditions in dark mines or manufacturing facilities. The prisoners produce clothes such as brassieres and sweaters for markets in Europe and Asia.
The food provided for them is negligible, comprising mostly salty soup, cabbage and broken corn, with most living under forced starvation with the draining feeling of constant hunger. Behavioural transgressions or menial mistakes are punished by the withholding of food, with more of it being withheld the harsher the punishment the guards warrant. Prisoners capture and eat mice, frogs, snakes and insects to eat as an additional source of nourishment.
Prisoners who died from excessive labor, poor treatment or execution were buried underneath fruit trees in the prison orchard, according to Ms. Soon Ok Lee from her time at Camp 1. These trees acquired a reputation for their considerable size and the delicious taste of their fruits, which not surprisingly, are only reserved for senior party officials.
Under what is called the ‘three generation’ policy, a punishment can be collectively enforced for three generations on to an entire family. Children are punished for their parents or even grandparents defiance of the North Korean government and are sent to these prison camps where they are doomed to never set foot outside ever again.
Camp Number 22 is a ‘family camp’ consisting of prisoners who were incarcerated because their family members or close relatives came under the wrath of the North Korean government and holds 50,000 people. Many are imprisoned without knowing why.
Children who are born grow up and live their entire lives behind the prison walls are destined to a life of endless bondage and slave labor. One of these children was Shin Dong-hyuk from Camp 14, documented in his book ‘Escape from Camp 14’. His birth was a rare occurrence that was allowed as a reward to his mother and father for good behavior. Otherwise pregnancies are viciously punished through execution or forced abortions. His brother and mother, as punishment for attempting to escape, were dragged out to the courtyard and put to death before his eyes. He reluctantly admits that he did not feel any emotion from their demise at the time because he did not have any emotional relationship with them.
When a newly incarcerated prisoner taught Shin about the outside world it motivated him to escape. After crawling over the body of a fellow escapee who was killed by the camp’s electric fence, he managed to flee the country. Today Shin is a human rights activist living in South Korea with a mission to inform and teach the public about the grueling conditions of these prison camps
To this day North Korean diplomats insist that they do not violate human rights at all and claim that they do not criminalize fundamental freedoms such as speech, press, assembly, demonstration and religion. Because the term “political prisoner” does not exist in their vocabulary they argue that de facto these political prisoner camps cannot exist. All the while new camps are being built with recent satellite photos showing 20 kilometers of fencing being constructed near small villages.
With North Korea insolently threatening war in the region on a frequent basis, the question on the minds of many is whether the country’s leaders might unleash a violent confrontation. But what should also be on their minds is the existing violence the North Korean regime already perpetrated upon its own people through the deplorable and inhumane conditions of these prison camps.