North Korea’s concentration camps are one of the worst places on the planet. According to a recent UN investigation into the camps, the prisoners suffer extreme starvation, torture, and “unspeakable atrocities” comparable to Nazi concentration camps during World War II. An estimated 150,000 – 200,000 North Koreans are subjected to horrific abuse and mistreatment, forced to work long hours of hard physical labor every day. Political prisoners and their extended families are imprisoned for life by the government, regarded as subversive class enemies that must be reformed. As little is known about the inner workings of North Korea’s concentration camps, much of the UN’s revealing investigation was based upon the eyewitness accounts from former North Korean guards and prisoners.
Haengyong concentration camp, officially known as Camp 22, is one of the largest camps in North Korea. The concentration camp houses nearly 50,000 people, most of whom are political prisoners who criticized the government. Due to the North Korean principle of guilt by association, prisoners’ entire extended families, from infants to the elderly, are imprisoned as well. Patrolled full time by guards armed with automated rifles, grenades, and trained attack dogs, escape is impossible. The camp is a death sentence – all prisoners are detained until they die and prisoners are never released.
Former North Korean prison guard Ahn Myong-chol worked at Camp 22 before defecting to the south, and his eyewitness report account for most of our knowledge about the camp. In an exclusive CNN interview Ahn described a scene of horror, recounting how he was systematically indoctrinated to abuse prisoners:
In the camp prisoners are forced to do hard physical labor from fifteen hours a day, followed by nightly self-criticism sessions. They work nonstop year round, except for a one day holiday on New Year’s Eve. All able bodied prisoners, regardless of age, are compelled to work constantly. Ahn estimates that nearly one third of the prisoners have deformities, such as torn off ears, heavily scarred faces, or missing limbs. Those who need crutches to walk are still forced to work.
According to Ahn, he witnessed disobedient children ripped apart by dogs and buried alive. Women were subjected to regular sexual abuse and beatings, while the elderly were quarantined, abandoned, and left to die.
World famous as the only escapee from a North Korean concentration camp, Shin Dong-hyuk has been described as the “single strongest voice” on the atrocities within the country. Born to two prisoners who were allowed to marry as a result of good work, Shin spent his entire life in the camp before escaping. Subjected to extreme abuse, many of his friends died from starvation, illness, torture, and work accidents. Shin learned to survive within the camp by any means, eating frogs, insects, rats, and reporting on other inmates for rewards.
Seeing his mother as a competitor for their insufficient food rations, Shin had few emotional bonds with his parents. When his mother and brother began planning an escape attempt, Shin reported them hoping to be rewarded. However in response Shin was immediately arrested and tortured by the guards, who believed him to be part of the plan. Holding him in place with metal hooks, they seared his back with red hot embers.
His scars today still show the seven months of brutal torture, after which he was forced to watch the public execution of his mother and brother.
After years of backbreaking labor and scraping to stay alive, Shin befriended an educated political prisoner from Pyongyang named Park. Not only had Park once lived in the exclusive capital, he’d traveled outside North Korea. To Shin, who’d never seen anything beyond the camp’s electric fences, the stories Park told were fantastical. While Shin had never eaten anything besides a soupy mush of corn and cabbage with the occasional insect, Park told him about delicious plates of exotic food. Recalling the experience, Shin’s acknowledged that he “still thinks of freedom as a roasted chicken”.
Assigned to work detail near the camp’s electric fence, the pair noticed the unusually long intervals between guards’ patrols. Taking advantage of the situation, Shin and Park waited until the guards were out of sight then made their escape. Park went first, attempting to crawl under the high voltage electric fence. Halfway, the fence slipped and Park was electrocuted, killing him instantly. Using Park’s lifeless body to absorb the electricity and prop up the fence, Shin crawled past Park to freedom. Suffering severe and permanent scars on his legs, he found an old military uniform and amazingly made his way across the country, crossing the Tumen River into China.
UN Commission of Inquiry
Dozens of eyewitnesses and guards testified in front of a UN human rights investigation panel in 2014, the first official international inquiry into the concentration camps. The committee’s report denounced the North Korean government, citing their practices of arbitrary detention, torture, and inhuman treatment. The North Koreans responded by calling the investigators “human scum”, claiming that there were no such human right violations in their country. However, despite the overwhelming evidence, the inquiry holds no official power into finding a solution.
After the world found out about Hitler’s death camps in Nazi Germany, we declared that such atrocities would never happen again. Politicians claimed that if they had known sooner, they would have taken action. However, while North Korea commits crimes on par with the holocaust every day in the modern era, no country is willing to take action. Safely protected by a heavily militarized society which boasts a million man army, North Korea’s concentration camps are locked away from the world. Afraid of war, no country is willing to take action and come to the aid of North Korea’s political prisoners.