The number of inmates at North Korean political prisons has climbed by at least 20,000 or more since March of last year. This suggests North Korean authorities are responding to public discontent and ideological laxity in the wake of COVID-19-sparked economic troubles by maximizing control and fear.

A source in North Korea told Daily NK on Tuesday that the number of people at political prison camps has climbed “since the enactment of new laws.” Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said most of the new inmates were individuals guilty of “violating infectious virus [COVID-19] quarantine regulations and the Law on the Elimination of Reactionary Thought and Culture.”

Information in this table was compiled from information provided by Daily NK sources in North Korea

North Korean authorities have continuously bolstered the country’s legal framework to preserve the Kim regime. During Kim Jong Un’s ascent to power, the authorities strengthened laws pertaining to citizen control, including the people’s administrative code, criminal code, and the administrative penalties law.

In particular, the government enacted an emergency quarantine law and a law on eradicating “reactionary thought” last year and is making active use of them in controlling citizens. This suggests North Korea has been trying to head off potential disaffection from the regime stemming from COVID-19 or the spread of information from the outside world.

The source told Daily NK that North Korean authorities have dragged off many people to political prison camps for violating these laws. 

“The number of inmates [at political prison camps] have skyrocketed since December of last year,” he said. “The number has climbed most at the camp located in Sungho-ri [North Hwanghae Province], where there are currently over 21,000 inmates.”

Daily NK previously reported that North Korea built a new political prison in Sungho-ri last year. Based on that report, the camp mostly holds violators of COVID-19 quarantine regulations.

The general location of the recently-established political prisoner camp in Sungho-ri. / Image: Google Earth

“The number of prisoners at Yodok [Camp No. 15] climbed by about 1,800 between December and now,” the source said. “The number of inmates at the Susong camp [Camp No. 25 in Chongjin] has increased by more than 1,000, if you add together the transfers and the 500 to 600 new prisoners.”

The authorities reportedly transferred to Susong about 200 prisoners each from Camp No. 17 in Kaechon and Camp No. 18 in Bukchang, South Pyongan Province, which are both operated by the Ministry of Social Security. That is to say, “insincere” inmates were transferred to a camp run by the Ministry of State Security, suggesting the authorities intend to gradually intensify their control over malcontents.

Accordingly, the inmate populations of the Kaechon and Bukchang camps have each fallen by 200 to 19,000 and 24,000, respectively.

In total, the recent number of inmates at political prison camps might stand at around 232,400 – at least 23,400 more compared to March of last year, when the number was approximately 209,000.

That number could be larger if one takes into account the political prison camp at Pyongsan, North Hwanghae Province, where prisoner population numbers have yet to be determined.

Moreover, the source claimed that a “significantly growing number” of people have been dragged off to political prison camps for reasons other than violations of quarantine regulations or the anti-reactionary thought law. 

According to him, the authorities are now consigning to political prison camps “people who try to defect to South Korea, people who illegally cross the North Korea-China border, people who have contacted South Koreans, people involved in party, state or military corruption, people who say reactionary things, and critics of government policy.”

The authorities appear to have subjected such people to heavy punishment to prevent ideological laxity and bolster internal unity.

Outwardly, North Korea’s leadership talks of “the spirit of loving the people” with tears in their eyes, but the rise in the number of prisoners in political prison camps shows that the regime continues to use an iron fist to maintain its hold on power. 

People sent to political prison camps are stripped of their civic rights and subject to subhuman treatment, living lives of forced labor. Many die in the camps, never returning to society.

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.