In the far north of North Korea, in remote locations not far from the borders with China and Russia, a gulag not unlike the worst labor camps built by Mao and Stalin in the last century holds some 200,000 men, women and children accused of political crimes. A month-long investigation by NBC News, including interviews with former prisoners, guards and U.S. and South Korean officials, revealed the horrifying conditions these people must endure — conditions that shock even those North Koreans accustomed to the near-famine conditions of Kim Jong Il’s realm.
“It's one of the worst, if not the worst situation — human rights abuse situation — in the world today,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who held hearings on the camps last year. “There are very few places that could compete with the level of depravity, the harshness of this regime in North Korea toward its own people.”
Satellite photos provided by DigitalGlobe, which first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, confirm the existence of the camps, and interviews with those who have been there and with U.S. officials who study the North suggest Brownback’s assessment may be conservative.
Among NBC News’ findings:
At one camp, Camp 22 in Haengyong, some 50,000 prisoners toil each day in conditions that U.S. officials and former inmates say results in the death of 20 percent to 25 percent of the prison population every year.
Products made by prison laborers may wind up on U.S. store shelves, having been “washed” first through Chinese companies that serve as intermediaries.
Entire families, including grandchildren, are incarcerated for even the most bland political statements.
Forced abortions are carried out on pregnant women so that another generation of political dissidents will be “eradicated.”
Inmates are used as human guinea pigs for testing biological and chemical agents, according to both former inmates and U.S. officials.
Efforts by MSNBC.com to reach North Korean officials were unsuccessful. Messages left at the office of North Korea’s permanent representative to the United Nations went unanswered.
Eung Soo Han, a press officer at South Korea’s U.N. consulate, said: “It is a very unfortunate situation, and our hearts go out to those who suffer. We hope North Korea will open up its country, and become more actively involved with the international community in order for the North Korean people to be lifted out of their difficult situation.”
Labor, death, abuse
NBC’s investigation revealed that North Korea’s State Security Agency maintains a dozen political prisons and about 30 forced labor and labor education camps, mainly in remote areas. The worst are in the country’s far Northeast. Some of them are gargantuan: At least two of the camps, Haengyong and Huaong, are larger in area than the District of Columbia, with Huaong being three times the size of the U.S. capital district.
Satellite photos provided by DigitalGlobe show several of the camps, including the notorious Haengyong, for the first time outside official circles. Plainly visible are acres upon acres of barracks, laid out in regimented military style. Surrounding each of them is 10-foot-high barbed-wire fencing along with land mines and man traps. There is even a battery of anti-aircraft guns to prevent a liberation by airborne troops.
Ahn Myong Chol, a guard at the camp (which is sometimes known as Hoeryong) from 1987 through 1994, examined the satellite photos of Camp 22 for NBC News. They were taken in April, eight years after he left. But he says little has changed. He was able to pick out the family quarters for prisoners, the work areas, the propaganda buildings.
Looking at the imagery, Ahn noted what happened in each building:
“This is the detention center,” he said. “If someone goes inside this building, in three months he will be dead or disabled for life. In this corner they decided about the executions, who to execute and whether to make it public.
“This is the Kim Il Sung institute, a movie house for officers. Here is watchdog training. And guard training ground.”
Pointing to another spot, he said: “This is the garbage pond where the two kids were killed when guard kicked them in pond.”
Another satellite photo shows a coal mine at the Chungbong camp where prisoners are worked to exhaustion in a giant pit.
“All of North Korea is a gulag,” said one senior U.S. official, noting that as many as 2 million people have died of starvation while Kim has amassed the world’s largest collection of Daffy Duck cartoons. “It’s just that these people [in the camps] are treated the worst. No one knows for sure how many people are in the camps, but 200,000 is consistent with our best guess.
“We don’t have a breakdown, but there are large numbers of both women and children.”
Beyond the pale
It is the widespread jailing of political prisoners’ families that makes North Korea unique, according to human rights advocates.
Under a directive issued by Kim’s father, North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, three generations of a dissident’s family can be jailed simply on the basis of a denunciation.
NBC News interviewed two former prisoners and a former guard about conditions in the camps. The three spent their time at different camps. Their litany of camp brutalities is unmatched anywhere in the world, say human rights activists.
“Listening to their stories, it’s horrific,” said David Hawk, a veteran human rights campaigner and a consultant for the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Hawk has interviewed many former prisoners in Seoul.
“It’s hard to do more than one or two a day because they’re just so painful to hear: horrific mistreatment - all sorts of suffering, beatings to death, executions.”
Kang Chol-Hwan is now a journalist with Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s most important newspaper. His recent book, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang,” is the first memoir of a North Korean political prisoner. For nearly a decade, he was imprisoned because his grandfather had made complimentary statements about Japanese capitalism. He was a 9-year-old when he arrived at the Yodok camp. His grandfather was never seen again, and prison conditions killed his father.
“When I was 10 years old,” Kang recalled, “We were put to work digging clay and constructing a building. And there were dozens of kids, and while digging the ground, it collapsed. And they died. And the bodies were crushed flat. And they buried the kids secretly, without showing their parents, even though the parents came.”
The system appears to draw no distinction between those accused of the crime and their family members.
Soon Ok Lee, imprisoned for seven years at a camp near Kaechon in Pyungbuk province, described how the female relatives of male prisoners were treated.
“I was in prison from 1987 till January 1993,” she told NBC News in Seoul, where she now lives. ”[The women] were forced to abort their children. They put salty water into the pregnant women’s womb with a large syringe, in order to kill the baby even when the woman was 8 months or 9 months pregnant.
“And then, from time to time there a living infant is delivered. And then if someone delivers a live infant, then the guards kick the bloody baby and kill it. And I saw an infant who was crying with pain. I have to express this in words, that I witnessed such an inhumane hell.”
Testing on humans
Soon also spoke about the use of prisoners as guinea pigs, which a senior U.S. official describes as “very plausible. We have heard similar reports.”
“I saw so many poor victims,” she said. “Hundreds of people became victims of biochemical testing. I was imprisoned in 1987 and during the years of 1988 through ’93, when I was released, I saw the research supervisors — they were enjoying the effect of biochemical weapons, effective beyond their expectations — they were saying they were successful.”
She tearfully described how in one instance about 50 inmates were taken to an auditorium and given a piece of boiled cabbage to eat. Within a half hour, they began vomiting blood and quickly died.
“I saw that in 20 or 30 minutes they died like this in that place. Looking at that scene, I lost my mind. Was this reality or a nightmare? And then I screamed and was sent out of the auditorium.”
Prison guard Ahn’s memories are, like the others’, nothing short of gruesome. Every day, he said there were beatings and deaths.
“I heard many times that eyeballs were taken out by beating,” he recalled. “And I saw that by beating the person the muscle was damaged and the bone was exposed, outside, and they put salt on the wounded part. At the beginning I was frightened when I witnessed it, but it was repeated again and again, so my feelings were paralyzed.”
Moreover, said Ahn, beating and killing prisoners was not only tolerated, it was encouraged and even rewarded.
“They trained me not to treat the prisoners as human beings. If someone is against socialism, if someone tries to escape from prison, then kill him,” Ahn said. “If there’s a record of killing any escapee then the guard will be entitled to study in the college. Because of that some guards kill innocent people.”
President Bush told author and Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward last year that he was well aware of the camps and the atrocities. That, officials say, partly explains why Bush insisted on North Korea’s inclusion in the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address.
“I loathe Kim Jong Il,” Bush told Woodward during an interview for the author’s book “Bush at War.” “I’ve got a visceral reaction to this guy because he is starving his people. And I have seen intelligence of these prison camps — they’re huge — that he uses to break up families and to torture people.”
Brownback, a senator with a reputation as a human rights advocate, thinks that the prison camps and abuses have for too long taken a back seat to nuclear arms and other Korean issues.
“It seems that what happened is that there got to be a complex set of issues, and people said, ‘Well OK, it’s about our relationship with China, it’s about the Korean Peninsula, it’s about this militaristic regime in North Korea that we don’t want to press too much because they may march across the border into South Korea.”
Brownback says the North’s nuclear program, its missile tests and generally unpredictable behavior has blurred a critical issue:
“I think people just got paralyzed to really put a focus on the human face of this suffering,” he said.
Lisa Myers, Rich Gardella and Judy Augsberger of NBC News and Michael Moran of MSNBC.com contributed to this report.