|▲ Location of former Camp 22 nr. Hoiryeong, North Hamkyung Province (©DailyNK)|
Daily NK has belatedly confirmed that one of North Korea’s infamous network of political prison camps has been closed down, while also obtaining information suggesting that the decision to close it was triggered by a high-level defection.
A source from North Hamkyung Province informed Daily NK on the 27th, “Camp 22 in Hoiryeong was totally shut down in June. It was decided that it should be closed down after the warden who ran it and another officer ran away to China.”
The source said that all the camp inmates were transferred to other camps, and that as far as he is aware none were released.
“At the start of March they started transferring the sick and malnourished, and then in April they moved all the healthiest ones,” he explained, adding that the camp officers and then their families moved in May, and that the camp was completely empty by the start of June.
“Although it is true that nobody knows where they went,” he went on, “given that people saw the families of officers in the local market selling quite a lot of corn before they left, the guess is that they left the province. The land Camp 22 was on and all the buildings have been transferred to the ownership of Hoiryeong City.”
Rumors about the closure of Camp 22 began to circulate in North Korea back in March, which is indeed when the closure appears to have begun. Initially the rumors came from people living in nearby Onsung County and Hoiryeong itself; Daily NK also heard at the time that “the camp is closing” and “the prisoners are being sent elsewhere in secret,” but could not confirm the information.
Radio Free Asia did report the news at that time, however, while people entering South Korea since then have increasingly acknowledged that they already knew the camp had been abandoned.
Given that it was triggered by a case of high-level defection, the closure appears to represent an attempt on the part of the state to cover its tracks lest the defections lead to more widespread knowledge of the nature of the North Korean political prison camp network.
From the state's perspective, the defection of a camp warden is a very serious issue. ‘Prison camp warden’ is a critical post directly assigned by the National Security Agency (NSA). Persons in the post are usually holders of the top NSA field-grade rank, and the job is usually the last a given official will receive prior to his retirement. In that sense, it is possible that the warden of Camp 22 has not only information about the political prison camp system itself but also sensitive information about high-ranking officials beyond the camp fence.
The timing of and motivation behind the decision to defect has not yet been confirmed. However, the shutdown began in March, making it likely that the defection occurred around the time of Kim Jong Il’s death. As such, the idea that it may have been related to the purging of officials that took place in the process of establishing Kim Jong Eun’s power cannot be ruled out.
According to the testimony of former prisoners obtained by the privately run South Korean group ‘North Korean Human Rights Record Depository’, the camp, which encompassed parts of Hoiryeong City and the counties of Onsung and Saebyeol, was a so-called ‘Completely Controlled Zone’ run directly from Pyongyang by the NSA.
As such, those detained in the camp were overwhelmingly imprisoned without even the semblance of a trial and had no hope of release. The camp, which has been extensively documented through satellite photos as well as via the testimony of defectors, is believed to have contained 20,000-50,000 inmates at its peak.