Illustration of a North Korean detention facility. Illustration=DALL.E (AI Image Creator)

The North Korean authorities keep men and women serving life sentences in the Hamhung and Kaechon concentration camps in separate quarters in accordance with the country’s corrections law.

In 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, the women serving life sentences in Kaechon Prison Camp had to focus on producing export goods such as knitwear, wigs and false eyelashes, even though they were suffering from hunger and illness.

The workshop of the prison camp urged the women inmates to use up all the materials they had received before North Korea closed the national border because of COVID-19. Even the women who were quarantined in the infirmary because of tuberculosis or malnutrition were forced to work.

Since the import of materials had been suspended for almost two years, the women in the Kaechon prison camp were no longer able to produce the export goods that had been their main form of punitive labor. Instead, they were subjected to brutal physical and mental torture.

Concluding that the female prisoners should not be left to their own devices, the prison administration made them get up at 6 AM every day to memorize the deeds of the North Korean leaders and the prison rules and regulations, and ordered them to perform various tasks such as cleaning the inside and outside of the prison buildings and cells, running laps in the yard, loading and unloading trucks and carrying water.

After the announcement of the end of COVID-19 measures in August 2022, Kaechon Prison Camp received permission from the Bureau of Corrections under the Ministry of Social Security to import the materials needed to resume the production of export goods. As a result, female prisoners had to work 16 hours a day, dividing their time between their cells and the workshop. Day and night, they worked endless shifts amid the whine of the machines, unable to stop even when their fingers became calloused, cracked, and oozed bloody pus.

Forced to endure punishingly long workdays in horrific conditions, the women’s health deteriorated, but Kaechon Prison Camp did not provide them with proper breaks or medical treatment because of their status as lifers.

Between early 2020 and August 2022, there were approximately 40 deaths among the 500 or so female inmates serving life sentences at the camp.

Life was bleak for the inmates, who faced the prospect of dragging their ailing bodies to work nonstop for the rest of their lives. On top of that, they had to work non-stop just to survive under a rigorous system of management and supervision that would throw them into solitary confinement for the most trivial of mistakes.

The prison administration only cared about the inmates’ production and flagrantly violated their human rights. They were denied the right to a decent life. The export goods produced in the camp were the grim fruits of those brutal human rights violations.

Even now, these knitted goods, wigs and false eyelashes are exported to China, where they are given final processing by one or two other companies and then posted on Internet platforms for sale around the world.

How many of these buyers realize that they are ordering the products of the blood, sweat, and tears of North Korean women serving life sentences and forced to work 16 hours straight in dank prison rooms filled with the hum of machines?

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