A satellite photo of No. 16 prisoner camp in Hwasong, North Hamgyong Province (Google Earth)

North Korean authorities recently divided political prisoners at North Hamgyong Province’s Hwasong political prison camp into two separate groups, Daily NK has learned.

“Political prisoners at the Hwasong camp have been split between two areas, with the really hard cases being transferred [to the new area]. Prisoners in the new area outnumber prisoners in the old one by a ratio of about eight to two,” a source in North Korea told Daily NK on May 6.

The source explained that North Korea has placed the new section of the camp, where the serious criminals have been relocated, under the authority of the Ministry of State Security, while the old section is being overseen by the Ministry of Social Security.

However, Daily NK has been unable to ascertain when exactly the division of the prisoners and the changes in jurisdiction took place.

“While jurisdiction over the old section was changed [to the Ministry of Social Security], it is under the same level of security and control. The wardens and guards from the Ministry of State Security were withdrawn from the old section and were replaced by people from the Ministry of Social Security,” the source said.

“The wardens from the Ministry of State Security who were in the old section were sent to manage the new section. Officials who wanted to work somewhere else were transferred with no changes to their rank,” he added.

The majority of political prison camps under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of State Security — as the Hwasong camp had been — are completely cordoned off from the outside world. Once inmates enter one of these camps, they are never allowed to return to society.

In December 2021, Daily NK quoted a source in North Korea as saying that the North Korean government was building a new system for detaining political prisoners and that it had sent the worst political prisoners in North Hamgyong Province, Yanggang Province, Chagang Province and North Pyongan Province (amounting to 60% of the total of this kind of prisoner) to the Hwasong camp. Daily NK also reported that some of the camp facilities had been expanded to accommodate the larger number of detainees.

In regards to the more recent changes, Daily NK’s source in the country explained that the Hwasong camp was divided into two areas and the prisoners split between them so that prisoners could be mobilized for the construction of sensitive facilities that require a high level of security.

“These measures were taken so that the prisoners who are under the charge of the Ministry of Social Security can be taken by armed guards to work on the construction of tunnels and special bases that are off-limits to the public. The political prisoners who are under the charge of the Ministry of State Security can’t leave the camp unless there are changes in laws or regulations,” the source said.

After recently revoking its moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), North Korea has reportedly been restoring its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, Kilju County, North Hamgyong Province. Since the Hwasong camp is a little over 20km from Punggye-ri, there is speculation that prisoners are being put to work on restoring the nuclear test site.

“While the number of management staff largely remains unchanged, the number of sentries, guards and armed transport staff have been tripled. These are the kind of workers who would be needed to put [prisoners] on secret work projects outside [the camp walls],” the source said.

The camp seems to have expanded the surveillance and guard staff needed to send prisoners to construction sites at high-security external facilities.

The source also said that the human rights situation inside the Hwasong camp is expected to get even worse for the prisoners. 

“Prisoners in the section managed by the Ministry of Social Security are being worked to death in secret tunnels and in places that are too dangerous for ordinary people to be sent. They aren’t given any food beyond the minimum or allowed any food from outside with chili pepper flakes or other seasoning. Many of them are dying on the job,” the source said.

“According to the camp management’s operational rules, people working under hardship conditions in mines and tunnels are supposed to receive 100g more food than ordinary workers even inside the camp, but they stopped giving out extra rations a long time ago,” he added.

Translated by David Carruth. Edited by Robert Lauler. 

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.