• Press Release

Amnesty International Releases Images Revealing True Size of Political Prison Camps in North Korea

May 6, 2011

Amnesty International Media Release
For Immediate Release
Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Amnesty International Releases Images Revealing True Size of Political Prison Camps in North Korea

Contact: AIUSA media relations office, 202-509-8194

(Washington, D.C.) — Amnesty International has published satellite imagery and new briefing of testimony and other facts that reveal the true scale of North Korea’s network of political prison camps, in which some 200,000 people are held in horrific conditions.

The briefing was compiled from testimony of nearly 15 former inmates and prison guards — a majority of whom, for their own security, have decided to remain anonymous — and other facts about the North Korean regime.

The images reveal the location and size of the camps, where prisoners are forced to work in conditions approaching slavery, while the testimony describe executions, torture and shocking treatment in one of the harshest penal regimes in the world.

"The North Korean authorities cannot refute that major political prison camps exist as they have done for decades," said T. Kumar, director of international advocacy at Amnesty International USA. "The new testimony and satellite images released by Amnesty International illustrate where these camps are located and its grand size. The most appalling is that 200,000 people languish — many under ‘guilt by association’ — in the direst conditions conceivable."

Amnesty International believes the camps have been in operation since the 1950s, yet only three people are ever known to have escaped. A comparison of the latest images with satellite imagery from 2001 indicates a significant increase in the scale of the camps.

"As North Korea looks towards a new leader, a major concern is that the population at the camps appears to increase," said Kumar. "These camps may have been in operation for nearly 60 years, yet only three people have ever been known to have escaped and 40 percent will die of malnutrition."

Satellite images show the six camps occupying huge areas of land and located in vast wilderness sites in South Pyongan, South Hamkyung and North Hamkyung provinces, and producing products ranging from soy bean paste and sweets to coal and cement.

In just one camp, Kwaliso 15 at Yodok, tens of thousands of people are believed to be held through "guilt-by-association" or sent to the camps simply because one of their relatives has been detained.  The majority of prisoners, including those ‘guilty-by-association’, are held in areas known as ‘Total Control Zones’ from which they will never be released.

"Many sent to these prison camps do not know what crimes they are responsible to have done and thousands are sent because they are the children of political prisoners," said Kumar.

The North Korean authorities are also known to use a horrific cube ‘torture cell’, where it is impossible to either stand or lie down. "Disruptive inmates" are thrown in for at least one week, but Amnesty International is aware of one case of a child thrown into the cell for eight months solid.

In most of the camps, no clothing or blankets are provided and prisoners face harsh winter temperatures that can dip as low as -35C. Inmates are also expected to work long hours undertaking strenuous and often pointless manual labor.

Food in the camps is scarce. Amnesty International has been told of several accounts of people eating rats or picking corn kernels out of animal waste purely to survive, despite the risks — anyone caught risks solitary confinement or other torture.

"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 Kumar. "This type of detention and treatment of civilians is absolutely unconscionable and these camps must be shut down at once."

Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.

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