Amnesty International Report Exposes North Korean Gulags

Satellite image of Political Prison Camp 22 in North Korea, courtesy of The American Association for the Advancement of Science
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June 1, 2011

Amnesty International Report Exposes North Korean Gulags

*CORRECTION: The Spring/Summer 2011 print edition of Amnesty International magazine omitted the credit for the rare satellite image shown on page 4: the American Association for the Advancement of Science. We apologize for the error.

By Tania Stewart

Survivors of North Korean prison camps told Amnesty International of malnourishment so severe they had to pick corn out of animal waste to survive. This testimony, along with rare satellite imagery obtained from the American Association for the Advancement of Science by Amnesty International USA’s Science for Human Rights team, was included in a May Amnesty International briefing about North Korea’s expanding network of prison camps that garnered major coverage by the New York Times, CNN, the BBC and other media outlets.

The AI briefing documents the growth of the prison camps utilizing satellite imagery of six camps in South Pyongang, South Hamkyung and North Hamkyung provinces. An estimated 200,000 people are believed to be imprisoned in the camps, many as a result of “guilt by association”—a charge often applied to relatives of those convicted of political crimes.

“Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are treated essentially as slaves, in some of the nastiest conditions Amnesty International has ever documented in its 50-year history,” said T. Kumar, director of international advocacy at Amnesty International USA. “This type of detention and treatment of civilians is absolutely unconscionable, and these camps must be shut down at once.”

Testimony by former inmates describes daily executions and torture, including imprisonment in a cell measuring 4 feet by 4 feet, where it was impossible to either stand or lie down. One child is known to have been imprisoned in the tiny cell for eight months. Inmates work up to 16 hours a day making products ranging from soybean paste and military uniforms to cigarettes. Survivors told of eating snakes and rats to sustain themselves in an environment where nearly 40 percent of prisoners die of malnutrition, according to the AI report.

North Korea has denied the existence of such camps, and few people are known to have escaped. AI has also noted an increase in public executions across North Korea and a crackdown on dissent in the wake of the leadership succession from current leader Kim Jong-Il to his third son, Kim Jong-un. AI is calling for the immediate closure of all political prison camps, the release of all prisoners of conscience, including relatives held on the basis of “guilt by association,” and the fair trial of all other inmates.

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