North Korea is the enigma of the modern world. Ruled by the mysterious Kim Jong-Il through a God-like personality cult, its inhabitants are conditioned from a young age to worship their leader. The government relies heavily on a large propaganda machine that censors and controls all media, casting Kim Jon-Il and his family into a mythical light. Few North Koreans will ever see much of the world: they are unable to leave their country; mobile phones are banned and you need a permit to travel even within North Korea.
Repercussions of non-adherence to governmental rules are harsh to say the least. There is substantial evidence that torture is used to extract “confessions” from offenders and a fair trial is probably not a concept with which North Koreans are familiar. In 2001 satellite photographs showed a series of vast prison camps in remote areas of the country, surrounded by agricultural land and industrial developments such as mining. Products such a soy beans, coal, sweets and cement with camp origins have all been in circulation in the country. Earlier this year new satellite imagery re-confirmed the existence of six camps and worryingly, in the current period of instability as Kim Jong-Il prepares to hand over control to his son, Kim Jong-Un, these camps have grown. Yet North Korea continues to deny their existence.
Yodok is one of the larger camps with an estimated population of 50,000 inmates. The camp is spread along two river valleys with worked land possibly totalling up to 90 square kilometres. There are two sections to the camp: the “Revolutionary Zone” which houses people with supposedly shorter sentences, and the “Total Control” zone in which people are bound for life. Any babies born in the Total Control Zone will remain there for the entirety of their existence on earth; they are born, live and will die in circumstances akin to slavery. Families of those accused of crimes are often also imprisoned for life on the grounds of “guilt by association”. The original crime could have been something as simple as listening to a South Korean radio broadcast.
Life in the camps is hard. In the winter temperatures can drop to minus 20 degrees centigrade and the camps do not give people clothing to cope with working in these conditions. In a testimony to Amnesty International, former inmate Jeong Kyoungil described life in the camps. The working day ran from 4am until 8pm with two breaks for food, then “from 9pm to 11pm it’s time for ideology education. If we don’t memorise the ten codes of ethics we would not be allowed to sleep”. Work for Jeong at Yodok was sweeping overgrown weeds off fields. “Everyone would be assigned 350 pyong (1157metres squared) of field and only the people who finish off their task would be given food. If you finish half of your task, you would only be given half of your food.” Daily food rations are just 200g of “poorly prepared corn gruel” per meal.
Public executions in the camps are frequent as are deaths from malnutrition, preventable diseases and exposure. Inmates also describe people eating rats and picking out corn kernels from animal waste just to survive. But even for this desperate act you could be held in solitary confinement and tortured. According to a former detainee in the “Revolutionary Zone” at Yodok, approximately 40% of inmates died from malnutrition between 1999 and 2001. In his testimony Jeong also describes the reactions of inmates to death: “Seeing people die happened frequently – every day. Frankly, unlike in a normal society we would like it rather than feel sad because if you brought a dead body and bury it, you would be given a bowl of food”.
Amnesty International compiled a report based on the testimonies of 15 former detainees and prison guards from camps around North Korea. They believe the camps have been in existence since the 1950s. Only three people are known to have ever escaped from Total Control Zones and around thirty are known to have been released from the Revolutionary Zone at Yodok and escaped North Korea. Many still live in too much fear to publicly testify their experiences in the camps.
The Asia-Pacific director of Amnesty International, Sam Zafiri said: “These places are out of sight of the rest of the world, where almost the entire range of human rights protections that international law has tried to set up for the last 60 years are ignored”. Across the world, organisations and public protests have called for North Korea to recognise the camps’ existence and ensure that they are closed down.
In the words of Amnesty International: “Conditions in these camps are inhuman and Kim Jong-Il must close them immediately”.
Emily Judson is a guest contributor of the European Strategist.