Former prisoner recounts life in ‘Camp 607’

‘Camp 607’ as visible via satellite and sent by Daily NK’s source,
a former prisoner at the camp who currently resides in South Pyongan
 Province, North Korea. On the left he has written,
 ‘Hoechang labor-training camp’; on the right, ‘valley of death.’
 Image: Daily NK

Scores of detainees in ‘Camp 607,’ a military
labor-training camp under the Korean People’s Army Defense Security Command,
are dying from starvation according to a local source with experience being
detained in these facilities.

The camp is located in the neighborhood of Shiji, about 20
ri (7.86 km) away from Hoechang County, South Pyongan Province and 40 ri
(15.72 km) away from Inpyong Station. Set far back in the mountains, the camp
is almost impossible for anyone other than the detainees or their relatives to
access. Of the labor training camp’s population, 80% are soldiers while 20% are
either military cadres or civilian workers on military bases. The minimum
period of internment is six months; those placed in the ‘Revolutionization Zone’ must serve a 24-month sentence at the camp.   

Daily NK recently conducted an interview
via telephone with the source, who resides in South Pyongan Province, to shed
light on the unspeakable conditions facing the prisoners that continue to
languish in this camp. For his protection, Daily NK agreed to redact the specific details regarding the reason behind his detention as well as the dates.

What kind of place is Defense Security
Command’s ‘607 labor-training camp?’

‘Camp 607′ is a military labor-training camp
located in Hoechang County, South Pyongan Province; it is managed by Defense
Security Command (DSC), the agency in the Korean People’s Army (KPA) General Staff
tasked with monitoring the activities and political loyalties of DPRK military
commanders and other KPA officers. If one serves time in another corps labor-training camp and is still found “lacking sufficient training,’ he or she is sent to ‘Camp 607.’ 

Also sent to ‘Camp 607’ are military cadres,
heads of foreign currency-making companies under the umbrella of the Ministry of the
People’s Armed Forces, and heads of military bases–that is, only if they are found
guilty of minor mistakes rather than espionage.  

For officers in particularly high-ranking positions as well as so-called ‘masters’ (this includes actors and sports coaches, as both of these fields
fall under the umbrella of the military) are sent to the ‘Revolutionization
Zone.’ Those confined to this section must serve a two-year term and are not
allowed visitors at any point. In a few rare cases, however, detainees from
this zone have been released due to severe illnesses, but bribery played a
major role in making it happen.

How many prisoners are committed to ‘Camp 607’
and what type of labor do they have to perform?

‘Camp 607’ holds around 400 people. Once a
prisoner enters the camp, he or she is grouped with other ‘recent arrivals’ and
transferred to a work crew after 1-3 months. Work crews are divided
into two sections: section 1 is composed of groups 1-5; section 2 of groups
6-10. Both sections delineate factions for farming, mining, carpentry,
construction, and stockbreeding, with at least 30 people serving on each crew.   

Farmers group do farming on side plots
owned by the company located around 10-15 ri (approximately 4-6 km) away from
the camp. These plots are surrounded by mountains with several dozen
hectares of cultivated land fenced in and heavily monitored by armed security

Stockbreeders tend to a menagerie of animals,
including cows, sheep, and goats. Another group tends to solely the vegetable
plots. Both animal husbandry and vegetable cultivation are highly sought after work details because they are relatively less arduous tasks. Being assigned to one of
these two groups, however, is difficult,  requiring major connections
or payment of exorbitant bribes.

The final group is the loggers; it is relatively small in comparison to the other work units and its members, if deemed particularly healthy and loyal, are
plucked from other labor assignments. Loggers have far more opportunities to interact with those outside of the
confines of the camp given that they must trek into the surrounding areas–in
most cases unregulated unlike the camp’s farming plots–in order to procure

What is the daily schedule like inside the

At 6a.m. a blaring alarm goes off to get
everyone up and lined up by work unit in front of the main camp to go out
for pre-breakfast chores; during the peak of farming season, wake-up time is pulled back to 4a.m.

Most of the daily work involves collecting
stones, carting sand, and weeding corn and bean patches. There are occasionally
people who collapse during pre-breakfast labor due to hunger and/or anemia.

As far as showering and eating go, both are
done in groups, waiting in line and taking turns. When prisoners return to the
main camp after a hard day’s work, their pockets are thoroughly examined. A
prisoner cannot even bring in a single rock, lest he try to use it to commit

After dinner, every last detainee partakes
in a ‘loyalty class’ and sings songs praising the leadership. When the clock
strikes 10p.m., another round of inspections is carried out and each prisoner
is checked off a list by name.

Prisoners rarely run away from the camp but a scant few do manage to do so by taking off from worksites on the fringe of the main camp. Once it is discovered that someone has fled, a state of emergency is declared
and security agents quarantine all the prisoners within the main camp and the
guards from the camp and surrounding areas are mobilized to pursue the

-What type of food do they eat?

The detainees stockpile the harvested corn
in a warehouse and then grind it to make cornmeal to be mixed with rice. This
cornmeal rice and salted white radish soup forms the majority of their
daily diet.

Portions are typical of those distributed
to the military–basically enough to fill a bowl about 15cm in diameter. But
the rice contains the husk and cob so the actual amount of rice is fairly
meager, really.  

On the ‘Day of the Sun’ (Kim Il Sung’s
birthday and the biggest national holiday in North Korea), detainees are served beef stock; in the event that a diseased cow dies, they are
given bits of beef to eat on the side. 

At one point during my detainment, all I was given for an
entire week was potatoes.

You know, labor and discipline are hard to
endure, of course, but all that pales in comparison to the relentless, excruciating
hunger I recall. When young men are served a handful of rice and toiling 13
hours a day at mines or farms, it feels like the sky and land are spinning
around in reverse…like you’re always on the verge of fainting.   

Visitors are the best shot detainees have
to stave off severe malnutrition: families of detainees make a monthly visit to
ensure their loved ones do not starve to death. It is typical for the families
to bring roughly 60 bags, each containing 200 g of cornmeal, salt, sugar, and
chili powder mixture. Those fortunate enough to receive these supplemental bags
are allotted a special snack time outside of regular meals.

If it weren’t for the visitors, at least
half the detainees would perish from starvation. It’s pretty common for the
prisoners to attempt to curb their hunger by stealing and then binging on
salted white radish; tragically, this excessive salt consumption by people in
an already weakened physical state often leads to death. 

In these cases, then, according to ‘Camp 607’ regulations, bodies, bereft of caskets, are buried back in the forest. Workers at
the camp, unsurprisingly, feign complete ignorance of this practice in front of
the bereaved families.  

–What is the process for release from ‘Camp

DSC determines the exact date for any
release but the camp does not reveal this date to a given detainee’s family.
For four hours a day leading up to the release of a prisoner, he or she
receives an intensive series of ‘release lessons,’ during which the detainees
must vow never to divulge any details about anything they sustained or witnessed within the
confines of the camp.

Those eligible for upcoming release are
also given numerous speeches exemplifying former detainees who have
reentered society and become ‘exemplary citizens living with complete loyalty
to the Supreme Leader and the Party.’

After these lectures, the soon-to-be-released
detainees are given the clothes worn upon their arrival to the camp as well as
five kg of canned corn. Additionally, the travel expenses allocated do not
factor in distance—upon release everyone is given the same amount whether they
are headed to Yangkang Province or either of the Hwanghae Provinces. They are
also given three meals worth of rice mixed with cornmeal and a side of salted
white radish. Some of these detainees bestow this food on their fellow
convicts…it’s really hard to watch and people always end up in tears.   

Those detainees destined to stay within the
camp show no ill will toward those with upcoming release dates; they usually even throw them a
farewell party of sorts complete with quietly-sung songs pertaining to their respective hometowns.  

The following day, the prisoners to be released follow officers from the provincial military mobilization office to receive an official seal on their release papers and are issued
military travel passes. At this stage, they are officially free.

-Are the officials at Camp 607 corrupt? 

Of course. Everyone from the head of the
camp to the management supervisors are easily pulling in thousands of dollars
in kickbacks annually. Last year a fire ravaged one of the security agents’ homes, so he
capitalized on the chance, using it as a catalyst for raking in more bribes and trying to regain everything he lost. Countless detainees contributed to pulling
that officer out of financial hardship; those who paid more were, naturally,
inspected less, assigned as the heads of work crews, and able to eat in more comfortable

The meeting room for detainees to visit with their family is another breeding
ground for bribery; there really isn’t even any attempt to hide it. After the
stipulated visiting time–10 minutes– is over, visitors hand over money to the
presiding supervisor in order to draw out their stay; small sums of money only
grant visitors an additional 10 minutes of visitation with their loved ones, but this, like most everything in North Korea, can be extended if one is willing to pay.    

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