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

North Korea is applying its unique brand of “zero COVID” policies to its political prison camps. Even if prisoners display symptoms of COVID-19, they receive neither proper treatment nor even a diagnosis. Instead, they are simply regarded as flu patients. 

In a telephone conversation with Daily NK on Wednesday, a source in North Korea said people in the country cannot even use the expression “confirmed case of COVID-19.”

He said this was the case in the society at large and that in the even more “abnormal” world of the prison camps COVID-19 patients “officially cannot exist.”

Within North Korea, people ordinarily use terms like “COVID isolation facility” or “COVID quarantine,” but they cannot get a diagnosis confirming they are COVID-19 positive, he added. 

Naturally, then, it would be impossible for prisoners in political prison camps to test positive for COVID-19.

North Korea has been adhering to a high-intensity quarantine policy since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The country has long claimed to be coronavirus-free, with not even a single confirmed case or death from the disease.

Meanwhile, the medical systems within the political prison camps are still terrible, the source said. 

He said suspected COVID-19 patients are treated as if they have the flu or paratyphus. They are given no treatment nor are any hygiene-related measures taken.

According to the source, the authorities will not treat prisoners because they believe inmates should simply be grateful that they were sent to the camps instead of being executed. He also said treating or providing medicines to prisoners violates party policy and runs counter to camp regulations.

North Korea strips inmates in these camps of their civil rights. As non-citizens, the state is not required to extend medical services to them. In short, the authorities completely ignore the basic rights of camp inmates.

The source said the authorities do not really care if prisoners live or die. He said to avoid dying, prisoners sometimes treat themselves with salt for external wounds and a mixture of weeds for internal disorders.

Meanwhile, the country’s political prison camps have seen a major upsurge in inmates between the fourth quarter of last year and the first quarter of this year.

The source said nationwide crackdowns have led to the arrests of hundreds of people, including cadres and families for alleged negligence in implementing North Korea’s recent law on youth indoctrination, along with people who made “reactionary” statements.

He said the authorities have also arrested dozens of members of an alleged gang that pilfered supplies from the construction sites of quarantine and inspection stations. The number of people sent to political prison camps has climbed greatly since last year, he added. 

In fact, a Daily NK investigation has found that the number of inmates at political prison camps in Pyongsan, Pukchang, Hwasong and Kaechon climbed by about 18,400 people between the fourth quarter of last year to the first quarter of this year.

Moreover, while violators of the country’s quarantine policies and “anti-reactionary thought law” made up most of those placed in the camps the past, the majority being sent to the prisons now are those who have criticized the government’s COVID-19 prevention policies.

Translated by David Black. 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.