How has Kim Jong Un changed his country’s prison camps?

The number of people in Ministry of State security camps is around 160,000 as of Mar. 2020

Across all three generations of the Kim family (Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un), political prison camps have played a key role in locking up and monitoring North Koreans who oppose the regime and its ideology. What changes have taken place since Kim Jong Un came to power? 

According to multiple Daily NK sources, the number of prisoners has grown substantially compared to the past. While approximately 130,000 individuals were detained in prison camps run by the Ministry of State Security in 2012, the number reportedly stood at 160,000 as of Mar. 2020. What this means is that the country’s prisoner population has grown by around 30,000 during Kim’s eight years in power.

The number of prisoners held in specific facilities is believed to be 43,000 at Camp No. 14 (in Kaechon, South Pyongan Province); 55,000 at Camp No. 15 (in Yodok, South Hamgyong Province); 24,000 at Camp No. 16 (in Hwasong, North Hamgyong Province); and, 25,000 at Camp No. 25 (in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province).

While the number of prisoners held at the Chongjin facility was fairly low in the beginning, that figure is believed to have skyrocketed in October of last year. 

“The number suddenly jumped, with 150 prisoners crammed into rooms designed for 50,” a source in the country told Daily NK recently. “Most of them were arrested while conducting foreign currency-earning activities in Pyongyang.”

Many of the new prisoners appear to be those involved in corrupt activities, including embezzlement, while working to earn foreign currency for the regime. 

It is important to point out that some of the camps are run by the Ministry of Social Security, North Korea’s national police agency. The ministry is currently in charge of Camp No. 17 in Kaechon, South Pyongan Province, where 21,000 prisoners are detained. It also manages Camp No. 18 in Bukchang, South Pyongan Province, which holds 26,000 detainees.

It is typical for citizens who have committed more serious crimes to be detained at these political prisoner camps rather than forced labor camps,” the source explained. “Prisoners in [Ministry of Social Security-run] camps survive with the knowledge that they may be released by an order [from Kim Jong Un], but camps are still serious places to be detained in because anyone who doesn’t [abide by camp rules] is sent to Ministry of State Security prisoner camps.” 

Camps No. 17 and No. 18 were reportedly closed at one point but were reinstated by Kim, presumably as part of efforts to better “manage” and “control” the citizenry. 

The Kim regime appears to be operating the camps under the same principle that led to their establishment: namely, the idea that prison camps must remain in place to punish anyone who opposes the party’s ideology and the doctrines of Kimilsungism and Kimjongilism – at least until such ideas have been “fully adopted” by society. 

Prison camps in the country are still divided into “total control zones” – camps set up for those who can never be released back into society, and “revolutionary zones” – camps where inmates receive “ideological education” while engaging in forced labor. Prisoners are stripped of all rights and prohibited from making contact with the outside world. Indeed, Kim Jong Un has carried on the country’s brutal tradition of treating imprisoned citizens as nothing more than tools of production. 

Under Kim’s rule, it is now an official rule for all prisoners to be shot to death in the event of war breaking out or in other “extraordinary political circumstances,” according to the source. Prison camps are the embodiment of the regime’s brutality, which is why North Korea maintains the official position that such facilities do not exist. 

“(The authorities) worry that if they were to admit the existence of prison camps, it could undermine trust in the regime’s claim of being a society that puts citizens first,” the source told Daily NK. 

The source also confirmed that Camp No. 22 (in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province) was closed in 2012 during the early stages of Kim’s rule. This decision was based on the determination that it was inappropriate to have such a prison located in the birthplace of Kim Jong Suk who, along with being the mother of Kim Jong Il and the grandmother of Kim Jong Un, was one of the “Three Mt. Paekdu Generals” who fought against the Japanese.

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