The general location of the political prisoner camp in Sungho-ri. (Google Earth)

North Korea recently changed how it is using the Sungho-ri Political Prison Camp, a relatively new prison built in 2020. The camp is now a corrections facility for high-ranking cadres, with the existing inmates having been transferred elsewhere.

A Daily NK source in North Korea said Wednesday that Sungho-ri Political Prison Camp was “completely disbanded” in mid-June.

The inmates were dispersed to Yodok, Camp 14 (in Kaechon, South Pyongan Province, run by the Ministry of State Security), Camp 17 (also in Kaechon, run by the Ministry of Social Security) and Camp 18 (in Pukchang, South Pyongan Province).

Daily NK reported in September 2021 that North Korea had built a new political prison camp in Sungho-ri, North Hwanghae Province, to detain the skyrocketing number of people caught violating COVID-19 quarantine regulations since late 2020.

However, the source said the Sungho-ri camp has now become a forced labor camp for the “Special Investigations Bureau” of the Ministry of Social Security.

“It’s called Forced Labor Camp 75,” he said.

Formerly referred to as the Special Security Bureau, the Special Investigations Bureau investigates mostly high-ranking cadres and individuals performing sensitive duties at secret bases. This means the camp at Sungho-ri has become a forced labor camp for high-ranking cadres and security professionals.

The source said a term at the camp lasts between three months and a year.

“Inmates can re-enter society after completing their sentences, or be transferred to another place,” he said. “But so far, the plan is to hold only prisoners who will be released back to society after their terms of forced labor, per internal regulations.”

This means the camp is meant to temporarily detain high-ranking cadres and people who handle secrets for reeducation, rather than completely isolating them from society.

The establishment of the camp could also be a measure to prevent the leaking of secrets, a risk if high-ranking cadres or employees at security agencies were incarcerated alongside ordinary people.

FALLING NUMBERS OF INMATES NATIONWIDE

Meanwhile, although North Korea’s political prison camps are receiving a growing number of new inmates, the total number of inmates has reportedly decreased. According to the source, this is because deaths are outnumbering new arrivals.

“The number of new inmates at most camps has increased,” said the source. “The total number of inmates has increased in some facilities and decreased in others, so everywhere is different.

“Where the population has increased, it’s because the new arrivals have supplemented existing prisoner populations that have suffered few deaths due to disease, hunger or punishments,” he continued, adding, “Where the population has decreased, it’s because while the camps may have received many new arrivals or regularly received prisoners, deaths have skyrocketed.”

According to the source, a Ministry of State Security survey for the first half of the year found that while Camp 25 in Chongjin held 49,000 people on paper, the actual prison population was 36,000. An investigation last year by Daily NK put Camp 25’s prisoner population at the time at about 41,000, which suggests the prisoner population has shrank by about 5,000 over the course of the subsequent year.

Camp 16 in Hwasong currently holds about 28,700 prisoners. Last year’s investigation put the population of the camp at around 24,000 prisoners, suggesting that its population has increased by about 4,700.

The source said while the population of Camp 16 has increased, the populations of Camp 14, 17, 18 and 25 have shrunk.

REGIME LETS UP A BIT ON COVID-19 RULE BREAKERS

Moreover, North Korea is reportedly sticking to its policy of going easier on people who commit simple infractions of quarantine regulations.

“People who violate quarantine regulations are not sent to political prison camps anymore. They are sent to forced labor camps or reeducation facilities,” said the source. “The political prison camps get people who cause mishaps while executing quarantine policy or [who are deemed] impure elements.”

Previously, North Korea harshly punished people who committed even minor violations of quarantine guidelines with incarceration in political prison camps. Since late 2021, however, the authorities have lightened punishments for minor violations, while still coming down hard on people who make both direct and indirect complaints about government disease control policy. 

In short, North Korea faces insufficient administrative manpower or prison space to punish everyone, so it is meting out punishment for those deemed to have committed “particularly serious” crimes.

Additionally, the country’s authorities continue to crack down and severely punish people who violate the law to eradicate “reactionary thought and culture,” as well as those who threaten regime cohesion. 

According to central government statistics, about 700 people were dragged off to Camp 17 and about 1,000 to Camp 25 for violations of the law on reactionary thought and culture in the first half of this year alone, the source said. 

“Those busted in the act for violations of the law to eradicate reactionary thought and culture, usually in Pyongyang or major cities, have their homes and property confiscated and are sent to political prison camps,” he explained. 

SOCIAL CLASS CAN DETERMINE CHANCES OF ARREST

The source further reported that the authorities have ordered the arrest of five households each month among the “lower classes” who have relatives confirmed to be in South Korea, made “impure comments,” or spread rumors and lies. 

In short, the authorities have given local agencies monthly quotas to arrest people with specific class backgrounds, and this measure has led to the incarceration of many people in political prison camps.  

North Korea operates what is called the songbun system, which broadly divides the population into three classes: core, wavering and hostile. These classes, in turn, are subdivided into about 50 categories. This discriminatory system restricts where people may live and which jobs they may take.

“Many people have entered the camps after getting caught using mobile phones to sell party, state or military secrets overseas,” said the source. “Even about 10 people who were handling duties related to economic policy on a temporary Cabinet standing committee were sent to Camp 25 for saying reactionary things.” 

The source added that the authorities have issued an internal order to “uncover impure elements among party, state, military, security and prosecutor’s office staff who are harming the establishment of the unitary leadership system for incarceration in political prison camps.”

Beset by political, social and economic chaos due to COVID-19 and economic sanctions, North Korea seems to be intensifying its control over public order with a view to strengthen solidarity toward the regime.

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.