The topic of political prison camps in North Korea, though not a novel topic, has only recently started to garner the attention it has long deserved. First-hand accounts in memoirs dictated by former political camp inmates, such as The Aquariums of Pyongyang and Escape from Camp 14, in addition to the work performed by human rights NGOs like Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and Liberty in North Korea, have succeeded in shining a light on the atrocities committed by the North Korean regime in a state wherein little political rights are conferred and as many as 150,000-200,000 people are incarcerated as “political prisoners” in one of six political prison camps (관리소) that may still remain.
This essay by Christopher Green, originally published at Asia Times, covers the alleged closure of Camp 22 in the northeastern city of Hoeryong. By addressing the many questions regarding the camp, Green explains what such an action does, or doesn’t, tell us about the approach Kim Jong-un is taking towards human rights in North Korea. Also addressed is the discovery of what may be the enlargement of an existing camp at Kaechon, a revelation which, if true, cast a long shadow on more optimistic analysis of the new leader’s approach to running a country that is, as some accounts suggest, “a huge slave state.” – Steven Denney, Managing Editor
Camp 22 and Camp 14: Barbed Signposts for the New Kim Era
by Christopher Green
Closing Camp: Reports on Camp 22 | Perhaps few things better indicate the parlous state of human rights in the DPRK than the country’s network of political prison camps. Hidden in some of the least accessible, mountainous parts of the country, this network of camps, amply documented by refugees and satellite imagery analysts alike, is used to arbitrarily detain an estimated 0.5% to 1% of the country’s entire population.
Given the gravity of the situation involved, it was natural that excitement would greet reports last summer that the DPRK government had closed one of six camps believed to remain: Camp 22, which lay near the border city of Hoeryong. Accounts published at the time revealed details of the movement process, which took the three months from March 2012, when the harsh winter weather eased off, until June the same year. Prisoners were moved over two nights in spring, sources reported; first, agents from the Ministry of State Security sealed the small border city, and then prisoners were locked in sealed trucks and taken to Hoeryong’s main train station. From there they were transferred to freight cars and transported south toward the port city of Chongjin. Residents of two nearby counties, Saebyeol and Eundeok, were brought in to maintain the site, continuing with the farming and mining activities that have long sustained the area.
Many of the 1,500+ refugees escaping across the Tumen River during 2012 were from the region, and most said they had heard about the closure of Camp 22. The final decision to abandon the camp was apparently taken shortly after Kim Jong-un came to power at the end of 2011. Some, though by no means all, said that it was inspired by the defection of the camp warden, a catastrophic security breach.
Though the reason behind the closure has still not yet been compellingly established, subsequent analysis of satellite imagery by the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea did uncovered further evidence of the closure itself. In particular, it showed that a building fingered by former inmates as the camp’s infamous detention and interrogation facility had been razed to the ground. Given that the building will have been the scene of many of the most egregious human rights abuses that went on in the camp, this represented first class evidence of an essential step in efforts to cover up what went on there.
Balancing the Optimism: Alternative Explanations and Sobering Discoveries | Meanwhile, and irrespective of the rationale, a number of experts have since been predisposed to view the closure as a positive step forward. Just last week, former Soviet diplomat Dr. Alexandre Mansourov went on record at 38 North to say that the closure may be evidence of a more developmental approach, commenting in an op-ed piece that it “could have been initiated to erase the evidence of past injustices and atrocities, or may be [an early sign] of political decompression set in motion by the new regime.”
However, optimism is fraught with danger where the DPRK’s ethno-nationalist dictatorship is concerned, and alternative explanations abound. The greater likelihood is that the Ministry of State Security, the entity that operates the political prison camp system, concluded that it is no longer capable of guaranteeing the security of border areas of North Hamkyung Province. In this scenario, the question of whether or not the warden of Camp 22 defected matters little: that the camp lay just 8km from the outskirts of Hoeryong City and a stone’s throw from the Chinese border will have been concern enough, and the battle was surely lost once the ruling Korean Workers’ Party decided in 2010 that the downtown core of the city should be remodeled into a tourist destination, one in keeping with the municipality’s impeccable revolutionary heritage as the hometown of none other than Kim Jong-il’s mother, Kim Jong-suk.
There may now be another, even more disastrous situation for optimists to contend with, as evidence has emerged that another of the network of political prison camps, the more readily defended Camp 14 at Kaechon, has been enlarged. Building on an already formidable reputation for squeezing information from satellite images that others simply cannot see, Curtis Melvin, the steward of the essential North Korea Economy Watch, has seemingly discovered an additional detention facility to the west of the original, which opened in 1960 and has since been rendered infamous by the central character in the book Escape from Camp 14, Shin Dong-hyuk,.
As Melvin himself has noted, it is far too soon to be sure what this mysterious outgrowth of Camp 14 really is. It may, in fact, be nothing at all. However, if it is a new section of Camp 14 then it may get us one step closer to knowing what happened to the prisoners formerly interned in Camp 22. Alas, it will also take us one large step further away from having cause for optimism about the country’s future under KWP First-Secretary Kim Jong-un.
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