Families Imprisoned in Secret Camps

November 23, 2011

The Oh Family in North Korea's Yodok Political Prison Camp ©Amnesty International

As I gather with my family this Thanksgiving holiday to reflect upon the blessings we’ve been fortunate to experience, I know I’ll be thinking of Oh Kil-nam and his wife and daughters.

Dr. Oh visited Amnesty’s offices last week to talk about the nightmare of injustice faced by his family and so many others in North Korea. Oh Kil-nam has not seen his wife and two daughters for more than 20 years.  His family was sent to a secret political prison camp in North Korea after Dr. Oh sought political asylum abroad.

“Guilt by association” is one of the hallmarks of the political prison camps.  Family members of those suspected of crimes are imprisoned in an effort to sow fear and silence dissent.   The list of crimes that can get you sent to a camp is long and includes the simple act of listening to radio or television broadcasts from South Korea.  Often, people never even learn the reason they were sent to a camp.

In 1987, Dr. Oh’s wife and two daughters were sent to Yodok political prison camp, which holds an estimated 50,000 men, women and children.  (Yes, children.)  Although authorities deny the existence of political prison camps in North Korea, Amnesty International has verified that Yodok is one of at least six such camps in which 200,000 political prisoners and their families are held.  We know this because we’ve seen the camps via satellite photographs, and we’ve spoken with former guards and prisoners who were there.

For many people, a trip to a political prison camp is a one-way ticket.  Many die from the forced labor, malnutrition, torture, inadequate medical care and conditions they experience.

Dr. Oh’s wife, Shin Sook-ja, was a radio announcer before she was detained and sent with her young daughters to Yodok.  Oh Kil-nam received letters from his family in 1988 and 1989, and photographs in 1991.  However, Dr. Oh has received no further word about them since that time.  A former inmate at Yodok claims that Shin Sook-ja and her daughters were moved to the camp’s dreaded “total control zone.”

“Total control zones” are found in all of North Korea’s political prison camps. They are areas from which inmates are almost never released.  Infants born in “total control zones” are imprisoned there for life.

North Korean authorities must close down Yodok and all other political prison camps.  They must end this nightmare of political imprisonment that has engulfed entire families.

You can help.  Sign up to Write for Rights in Amnesty International’s Global Write-a-thon this December 3-11.  Call for the closure of the camps and for the release of prisoners of conscience in North Korea.  Take action on other cases from around the world.

This Thanksgiving, I will think of Oh Kil-nam and his family, and I’ll give thanks that there is something I can do – something we all can do – to help Dr. Oh in his struggle for justice.