North Korea's Concentration Camps for Political Prisoners(2)

How are the prisoners treated?

"We must give the enemies of the working class a taste of proletariat revenge." - Kim Il Sung
"Escapees must be caught and killed. If they escape, they will dishonor the Great Leader. So you guards have to make the border an impenetrable wall and ensure that absolutely no one escapes." - Kim Jong Il

The site of the class struggle

Some of the people who hear about life in North Korea's concentration camps say they cannot believe that humans can be treated that way. They think it is impossible for security agents and guards, who are human beings after all, to treat prisoners in that way. But the eyewitness account by Ahn Myong Chul, a North Korean defector who used to be a guard in a concentration camp, shows that such inhumane treatment is possible, and that it is happening not too far from our society.

When Ahn was recruited to work as a guard at a concentration camp, he was told the following during his orientation:

"Camp no. 13 is the site of the class struggle where evil sectarians who have betrayed our beloved leader and the party are sent with their children... They are so wicked that if you take pity on them, they will smile in your face and then stab you in the back. So you must not think of them as humans... Your duty is to show no mercy in oppressing them and to guard the camp so that not a single prisoner escapes. And if any of them try to rebel or escape, it is your duty to kill them."

The recruits do not understand these words at first, but they soon learn through experiences and adjust. In the same way that prisoners get over their initial shock at the inhumane conditions of the camp and adjust in order to survive...

As mentioned in the earlier part of the series, North Korean concentration camps took on their present form during the emergence of the one-ideology system and the process of Kim Jong Il's rise to power (end of the 1960s to 1974). Before this period, the number of prisoners in concentration camps was smaller, and their treatment was also not as harsh as it is today. The main purpose of these camps was to segregate political offenders from society. However, after the concentration camps went through an explosive population increase and a number of revolts, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il ordered the security agents to crack down harder on prisoners. The purpose of the camps turned from segregation to inducing fear and tension in society. The method of managing the camps also became established around this time.

Food barely enough to keep prisoners alive

The first and foremost method of controlling the prisoners is to give them just enough food to keep them alive. Eye witnesses give different amounts depending on which concentration camp they saw, but the average is about 500g of corn a day. According to Kim Yong, who was in camp no. 14 (Kaechun re-education camp in Pyongnam), prisoners there were fed 25 grains of corn per meal. The prisoners were working long hours in coalmines on such meager meals.

It is difficult for a South Korean to imagine how little the prisoners are fed even if they tried, since most of them have never done such intensive labor on an empty stomach. 70 to 80 grains of corn a day is barely enough to keep a person from starving to death. So most of those who were sent to concentration camps as children are less than 150 cm in height. The prisoners are all walking skeletons. When people first set foot in a camp, the sight of the prisoners strikes terror in their hearts. The prisoners are dressed in rags and look like ghosts. But what is more shocking is that all of them cannot even walk properly. With the ghostly sound of shallow pants, they rock their bodies back and forth and use the momentum to move their bodies forward・ Kim Yong described the prisoners as 'stick figures with only a sketch of human features left.'

With one foot in the grave because of starvation, the prisoners still work hard, not so much because they fear the merciless beatings, but because the punishment for laziness is giving them even less food. The prisoners are more afraid of being fed less than being beaten up, and so they drain what little energy they have left into working like horses.

Some say that the famine in North Korea explains why the prisoners are fed so little, but the concentration camps have fed prisoners the barest minimum even before the food crisis. Prisoners are strictly forbidden to grow vegetables or pick wild berries or catch wild animals for food. But the prisoners who are suffering from extreme malnutrition try to eat anything they can find. Cruel beatings and solitary confinement await those who are discovered, but the prisoners still stuff clumps of grass in their mouths when the guards are not looking.

The security agents make use of this inhumane method because extreme hunger makes the prisoners very weak and therefore very easy to control. The brutal treatment of prisoners naturally causes them to hate the security agents and guards. But because they are so weak from malnutrition, they do not have the strength to rebel or even talk back to the agents and guards. And even if the camps were not guarded as heavily as they are, the frail and sickly prisoners would still have no chance of making it out of the mountains that surround the camps.

Another reason for the use of this cruel method is that food can be used to get the prisoners to obey. As mentioned earlier, the prisoners' worst fear is being given less food. So the agents take advantage of the prisoners' survival instincts to instill fear in them and force them to obey every command.

Detention houses within the concentration camps

Another thing that prisoners fear as much as being fed less is being sent to the detention house within the camp. Prisoners who break camp regulations are sentenced to three months in the detention house. Talking back to the agents, stealing food, or using foul language are all against the regulations. Those who are sent to detention houses in re-education camps have a chance of emerging from there alive (even then, they usually die within six months), but very few survive the detention house in closed camps.

Eye-witness accounts differ slightly regarding the treatment in these detention houses, but basically, those who are sent to detention houses in re-education camps are beaten everyday, and made to kneel the whole day in cells no larger than 2 square meters, excluding meal times and 4 hours for sleeping. Just kneeling in a solitary cell may seem simple enough, but after three months, the prisoners' legs start rotting from bad blood circulation. Total lack of sunlight and too much moisture make the cells ideal breeding ground for lice. With lice crawling all over their bodies, it is impossible for the prisoners not to move, but fidgeting will earn them another beating.

Prisoners in some detention houses are subject to constant beatings and other forms of torture. According to Kim Yong and Ahn Myong Chul, almost all the prisoners sent to detention houses in closed camps die in there. They are simply beaten to death. For Ahn, guarding the ammunition depot next to the detention house was the worst experience he had. He had to listen to the sounds of beatings and screams throughout the night.

Detention houses are synonymous with death, and so prisoners are extremely careful not to do anything that might land them in the detention house. The purpose of operating these detention houses is of course to create a climate of terror that would make prisoners easier to control.

Public and secret executions

Executions carried out in concentration camps are divided into public and secret executions. The type of execution is determined by the nature of the crime. Those who break the camp regulations and those caught attempting to escape are executed in public, and those who may be a "bad influence" to the other prisoners are executed in secret. Public executions are again divided into executions by firing squad and by hanging. For example, escapees caught within the district where the camp is located are sent before a firing squad and escapees caught outside the district are sent to the gallows. But because death has become so commonplace, the public executions have little effect on the residents anymore.

Public executions are not carried out in camp no. 14 where Kim Yong was imprisoned. In 1990, the prisoners in camp no. 14, outraged by the public executions, had killed 8 security agents. Since then, public executions were banned in camp no. 14. The 1990 incident led to the massacre of 1,500 prisoners in that camp.

Secret executions are carried out in an area within the camp specifically designated for that purpose. A truck drives up to the accused person's house in the middle of the night, and the person is abducted and executed in a concentration camp. That is why if someone suddenly disappears in the middle of the night, the neighbors assume that the person was taken away to be executed.

Daily scenes of beatings and deaths

Even if the prisoners do not die of hunger or are not sent to detention houses, they live day by day in constant fear of death. In particular, being beaten to death by agents or guards is commonplace, since the agents and guards are not punished for killing prisoners, regardless of whether the dead prisoner deserved the beating or not. According to Ahn Myong Chul, a dog that the guards kept during the time he was working in camp no. 13 actually killed and ate a small girl. Instead of being reprimanded, the guards were praised for rearing such a fierce dog. Under the circumstances, whether a beating leads to bad injuries or death is completely up to the mood of the security agent on a particular day. And the prisoners are so weak that a sound beating can kill them just as easily as a shooting could.

The agents and guards regard the prisoners as less than flies, and so they think nothing of beating or killing the prisoners to relieve their stress. When Ahn was a recruit, there was a time when the senior guards used the prisoners for martial arts practice. They made ten prisoners stand in a row and used them as punching bags. So the prisoners try at all times to please the agents and guards and avoid running into them if possible.

Turning prisoners into secret informers

The whole of North Korean society is covered by a maximum-security surveillance system, but it is nothing compared to the surveillance system in concentration camps. Ever since the prisoners' revolt in 1970 and the imprisonment of hundreds of Kim Jong Il's political enemies, the internal surveillance system in concentration camps has become more elaborate than ever. Generally, one out of three prisoners are working as spies for the agents. They spy on fellow inmates to see if anyone is complaining. Even the slightest expression of dissatisfaction is reported to the agents. Organized activities in concentration camps is almost impossible, so most of the prisoners have no other way to vent their frustration but by grumbling under their breaths. But if their grumbling reaches the ears of the agents, they are sent straight to the detention house. That is why Kim Yong knew the names of only about ten inmates even though he was in camp no. 14 for three years. The prisoners avoid talking to each other for fear that they might end up in detention houses.

This system of informing against each other is applied not just to the inmates but also to the secret agents as well. So the secret agents are careful not to show the slightest sympathy for the prisoners. Any agent caught showing compassion to the prisoners, including giving them food, is sentenced to forced labor in the coalmines. And an even more heartless agent is sent to take his place. When Kang Chul Hwan was studying in a concentration camp schoolhouse, a teacher who was kind to the children was soon dismissed. He was replaced by another teacher who was famous even in Yongpyong closed camp for his cold-heartedness. Kim Yong once saw a new agent who was nice to the inmates get fired in three days.

Encouraging security agents to spy on each other is necessary not just to cut off any compassion that they may feel for the prisoners, but also because among the prisoners in the concentration camps are former high-ranking officials, who may win security agents to their side or use them to stage revolts. Several such incidents did occur, making it necessary to use the surveillance system to prevent any recurrences.

There are two main reasons why the North Korean regime keeps so many concentration camps in the country. First, it would be a waste to simply kill criminals when their labor can be exploited until they die. And second, the camps are used to maintain social order by proving that the class struggle is not over and instilling fear in the public.

In this regard, the concentration camps in North Korea are different from those elsewhere. In general, concentration camps are used to segregate a certain group from society. But North Korean concentration camps serve the added purpose of exploiting the people's labor and creating a climate of terror. In other words, no matter how obedient and ideologically "pure" the people are, the North Korean regime has to depend on these concentration camps to terrorize them. And that is the fundamental reason why the North Korean concentration camps are run in the most inhumane way possible.

Closing Down the Concentration Camps in North Korea

Fate of camps completely up to Kim Jong Il

Closing down the concentration camps is actually quite easy. Chairman of the National Defense Commission Kim Jong Il claims that he has the power to control the timing of reunification. All he has to do is make up his mind to soften the tone of his rule and order the camps to be dismantled, and it will be done. In particular, dismantling the concentration camps will be an effective and symbolic way of showing the international community that North Korea is on its way to reform and liberalization. All it takes would be a decisive gesture on Kim's part. Such a unilateral decision may prompt backlash from any other dictatorship country, but in North Korea, there is no one who can go against Kim's authority and command.

If releasing the prisoners immediately and returning them to society pose problems, then the regime can reform the camps to resemble society and train the prisoners to adapt to society before rehabilitating them.

Naturally, it would be difficult to predict the effect that the closing down of concentration camps will have on North Korean society. But if the Kim Jong Il regime is seriously considering reform and liberalization as its means of survival, it would do the regime good to be more daring. There might be adverse side effects in the short run, but after sorting out the big problems, the absence of concentration camps may actually help guarantee the regime's long-term stability. On the other hand, if Kim Jong Il is indecisive, calculating or even deceptive about such a symbolic issue as the existence of concentration camps, the longest he can hope to survive is perhaps a couple of years. The issue will one day prove to be the Achilles heel that leads to the total destruction of the regime and system.

In this regard, Kim Jong Il is well advised to consider closing down the concentration camps. Deception and shallow tactics can no longer guarantee the survival of his regime. If he repents his past misdeeds and pursues policies for the North Korean people, South Korea and the international community will do their best to aid the success of such sincere reform and liberalization. We in the movement for North Korean democracy will also show the same response.

Kim Jong Il has made the wrong choice

Unfortunately, no substantial changes have been detected in the past year in which Kim Jong Il has purportedly pursued policy changes in preparation for the North-South summit. The concentration camps have yet to be closed down, the class system yet to be dismantled, and market economy yet to be introduced. Rather, worries over the effects of partial liberalization have caused the regime to tighten control over the residents. What few measures that have been taken to open up to the world are partial, arbitrary and passive, raising suspicion among South Koreans and the rest of the world over North Korea's sincerity.

Between opening up completely for the sake of the North Korean system as a whole and opening up only partially in order to secure the funds and goods needed to keep the government alive, it is obvious that Kim Jong Il has chosen the latter. Along with this, he has strengthened the system of oppression and surveillance within the country. In particular, the funds and goods secured through partial opening up has had the effect of strengthening the dictatorship by giving it the means to maneuver itself out of immediate crisis.

The significance of dismanthing the concentration camps

The dismantling of North Korea's concentration camps holds the following meanings:

First of all, the absence of concentration camps means the breakdown of North Korea's class system. As mentioned a number of times earlier in the series, the concentration camps took on their present scale not only because Kim Il Sung needed a place to dispose of his political enemies but because there was a need to specially manage the 'hostile class' after the entire population was classified into three classes and 51 subcategories. In other words, those classified as undesirable either ideologically or by birth under the central party's guidance project and the resident re-registration project had to be placed under special dictatorship, and that in turn rationalized the creation of concentration camps. Proletariat dictatorship was the rationale given for classifying every resident, but in truth, it was done to strengthen Kim Il Sung's personal dictatorship.

However, this class system is both the staying power of North Korean society and the fundamental threat to its system. According to a survey conducted by <Good Friends> on North Korean defectors to find out their thoughts on North Korean society, most of those surveyed had experienced some form of class discrimination. That a so-called socialist country that professes equality for all has the most rigid and unequal class system in the world is in itself a paradox. We can only conclude that during the period when North Korea began to expand its concentration camps, it had given up its socialist ideals and become a de facto dictatorship and class-structured country.

To this day, there are people in concentration camps who are living like animals just because their parents or grandparents had been landlords, religious leaders, public officials, or whatever job or calling that comes under the 'hostile class.' It is true that the caste system still exists in India and that class structures existed together with slavery a long time ago. But that was because society had yet to be civilized, or because the system had been in existence for thousands of years. But today, we live in a world of universal democracy. Furthermore, the kind of class discrimination in North Korea today does not have a deep history. In fact, no class system in any country has picked out a certain class and subjected it to such unspeakable hostility and persecution. In this regard, closing down the concentration camps will establish the foundation for a truly democratic society that is free of the discriminatory and inhumane class system that had propped up North Korean society for almost 50 years.

Secondly, the closing down of the concentration camps signifies the crumbling of the absolutism of the Great Leader, another ideology that had ensured the survival of the regime. Besides being the tool for the worst kind of class discrimination, the concentration camps are also used to persecute anyone who opposes Kim Il Sung's dictatorship, has the potential to oppose it, or has the power to oppose it. In fact, the camps grew to their present mammoth scale in the process of establishing the 'one-ideology system' of the Workers' Party and the 'ten-point principles,' as well as in the process of Kim Jong Il's ascension to his father's throne.

In particular, the rationale of the 'one-leadership system' has been applied not only to eliminating political dissidents but also to the daily lives of ordinary residents. Accordingly, just about anyone can be thrown into a concentration camp, not only for being born into the hostile class but also for even thinking about opposing the Great Leader, for refusing to or being unable to obey his commands, or for having displeased him. Such cases are very common today. As mentioned earlier, people are being shipped to concentration camps for failing to memorize Kim Jong Il's New Year Address, for tearing up newspapers that have Kim Il Sung's or Kim Jong Il's name printed on them, for not taking proper care of the two Kims' portraits, and so on. This shows that North Korean society has gone beyond the ordinary class structure or dictatorship to take on an outrageous and loathsome social system called 'absolutism of the Great Leader.'

The concentration camp is where that absolutism is epitomized. Therefore dismantling the concentration camps will definitely be the starting point of the crumbling of the absolutism of the Great Leader. In all democratic societies and even in countries like China where the communist party has dictatorship, it is common to see people commenting or criticizing their political leaders. Only North Korea has such cruel punishment for criticizing the head of state. The absence of concentration camps will be a dramatic change in the eyes of the North Korean people. Although they will not be able to immediately oppose their leader's policies, they will be able to at least think about whether the policies are right or wrong, and to develop their own ideas about alternatives. But under the kind of absolute persecution that exists today, the North Korean people are naturally fearful of even thinking about opposing the regime, and the regime in turn is making use of this situation to keep the people ignorant and docile.

To dismantle the concentration camps

No one knows better than Kim Jong Il what kind of effect the dismantling of concentration camps will have on the future of his dictatorship. But if he makes up his mind to seek the stability of his government and nation through complete liberalization and closes down the concentration camps, he may be able to protect his government. It is impossible to ensure the long-term stability of the regime with the current situation anyway, so taking the bull by the horns may be a better solution. But Kim Jong Il seems to be headed in the opposite direction right now. The worldwide movement for human rights will not wait indefinitely for Kim Jong Il to clean up his human rights record, and he may decide to hold out on reforms for as long as he can. We have to be prepared for that eventuality.

Today, it is possible for the world to learn about conditions in North Korean concentration camps. But in reality, the existence of these camps is still not a well-known fact in South Korea or the rest of the world. One urgent task therefore, is to inform influential countries of the conditions in North Korean concentration camps. Efforts have been made to this end, including the publication of Kang Chol Hwan's journal in France. But this is not enough. It is up to South Korean organizations advocating North Korean human rights such as Nknet to continue these much-needed publicity activities.

The North Korean ruling class is definitely not immune to public opinion in the international community. But believing that global opinion alone can dismantle the concentration camps is much too optimistic. The problem is that although extensive effort is needed to wipe out concentration camps in North Korea, there is a severe limit to realistic measures that we can take at the moment. Furthermore, because the entire ideology of absolute allegiance to the Great Leader is compressed into the issue of concentration camps, it is unrealistic to handle this as a separate issue from the rest of North Korea's problems. Thus, unless there is a fundamental change in Kim Jong Il's attitude, the fate of concentration camps hinges on the movement for North Korean democracy.

In this regard, human rights activists should support the movement for North Korean democracy while continuing to raise awareness of North Korean concentration camps and call for the dismantling of these camps. Only then can we expect the democracy movement to grow in North Korea and the human rights situation to improve.

In conclusion

In the midst of concluding the series on North Korean concentration camps, an important news article was published in 仝Chosun Ilbo々 about Lee Baek Ryong (alias), a North Korean defector who had been imprisoned from April 1994 to January 1999 in camp no. 15 in Yoduk, the same camp where Kang Chul Hwan and Ahn Hyuk had been sent.

Lee's testimony, together with Kim Yong's, provides information regarding the changes that have taken place in North Korean society and concentration camps since the food crisis in the mid-nineties. The first shocking change is that in the span of one year in 1996, 400 of the 2,000 inhabitants of a prisoner's camp in Yoduk died of starvation. North Koreans outside the concentration camps are starving to death, so one can imagine the conditions in the concentration camps that led to the deaths of the inmates. But more important than the number of deaths is the increasing number of prisoners in Yoduk despite these deaths. The number has increased from the approximately 20,000 as testified by Kang Chul Hwan to some 40,000. According to Lee, most of the prisoners are escapees who had come into contact with South Koreans while in China, students who had studied abroad, and political dissidents who had organized anti-government groups.

Thanks to Lee's testimony, we now have some clues to the North Korean government's treatment of defectors and its attitude regarding concentration camps. We can also confirm the existence of anti-government activists.

Opposing the government in North Korea involves stakes much too high for someone in South Korea or anywhere else to ever fully understand. It does not stop at sacrificing one's own life; political dissidence puts the lives of entire families and relatives at stake. The fact that anti-government activities are actually taking place under such severe circumstances shows that the North Korean people are at last beginning to assert their rights. Their demands are emerging through the cracks that the food crisis has made in the social system. This can be seen as the prelude to the inevitable and unmistakable fate of the North Korean regime.

The time has come for democracy fighters in South Korea and the world to support the struggle of their North Korean counterparts for human dignity and independent development. The time has come to redouble our efforts for North Korean democracy. That is the only way we can help the forerunners of democracy in North Korea who are fighting against insurmountable odds, the only way we can help the North Korean people. And that is the only way humanity can destroy the pockets of hell on earth that remain in North Korea and comfort the souls of the innocent people who were massacred there.


1)The following reference materials were used in writing about the concentration camps for political prisoners in North Korea.

-Kang, Chul Hwan. 仝Festival of the King々 (Wails of Mt. Byongpung). Korea: Hyangshil Publications, 1993
-Ahn, Hyuk. 仝The Yoduk List々. Korea: Cheonji Media, 1995
-Ahn, Myong Chul. 仝They are Crying々. Korea: Cheonji Media

Monthly Magazine:
-Kim, Yong. "First-ever Testimony of a Survivor - Inside 'North Korea's Auschwitz' Camp No. 14." 仝Monthly Chosun々, May, 2000

-Database on North Korea's concentrations camps for political prisoners at
-Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights website corner on North Korean defectors' journals at
-Newspaper articles from 仝Daily Dongah々 and others

2)Introduction of interviewed witnesses

Kang Chul Hwan
Born on Sept. 18, 1968 in Kyongrim-dong, Jung-gu, Pyongyang
Entire family deported to Yoduk camp (no. 15) after his grandfather Kang Tae Hue, committee member of Jochongryun, was framed by the authorities.
Entire family lived in the concentration camp for a decade (1977~1987)
Escaped North Korea with Ahn Hyuk, entered South Korea 4 months later via China (1992)
Currently working as a reporter in the Reunification Institute of Chosun Ilbo (2000 ~ present)

Ahn Myong Chul
Worked as a security guard at concentration camps no. 11 (Kyongsung, North Hamkyung Province), no. 13 (Jongsung, North Hamkyung Province), no. 26 (Seungho, Pyongyang), and no. 22(Hweryong, North Hamkyung Province) from 1987 to 1994.
Escaped North Korea to come to South Korea in 1994

Ahn Hyuk
Born on Jan. 3, 1968 in Manpo City, Jakang Province
Entered Central College of Physical Education, a training center for national sportsmen, on Sept. 1, 1979
Arrested as a political criminal in Jan. 1986 after touring China with friends
Imprisoned in the secret detention house of the Ministry of State Security (Maram Detention House) until Nov. 17, 1987
Imprisoned in Yoduk concentration camp (no. 15) from Nov. 17, 1987 to Feb. 29, 1989
Escaped North Korea with Kang Chul Hwan in March 1992
Arrived in South Korea in Aug. 1992

Kim Yong
Born on Jan. 18, 1850 in Daepyong-ri, Jeokyeo-myon, Shinkye-gun, Hwanghae Province
Majored in Automation Engineering at Kim Chaek College of Engineering from 1974 to 1980
Worked as an agent for Seohae Asai Trading company, a new company managed by the Ministry of State Security from 1990 to 1993
Arrested and interrogated for forging his resume in May 1993
Deported to camp no. 14 located in Bukchang-kun, North Pyongan Province, in Aug. 1993
Transferred to camp no 18 in Oct. 1995
Escaped from camp no. 18 in Sept. 1998
Defected to South Korea in Oct. 1999

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