Overworked and underfed, multiple internees die at prison camp in North Korea

Sakju County in North Pyongan Province, North Korea
Sakju County in North Pyongan Province, North Korea. Image: Daily NK

Forced labor, malnutrition, and other serious human rights violations have led to a string of deaths at the No. 12 Correctional Labor Camp in Hoeryong county, North Hamgyong Province.

A source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK that prisoners at the camp, also known as Chongori Re-education Camp, are exploited for their labor, forced to cut wood by day and make wigs at night.

“They only sleep five hours a day,” he said.

“The worst of it all is the wood cutting. The prisoners are forced to go deep into nearby forests with carts. People are pulling the carts, not animals, so a lot of accidents occur.”

He explained that prisoners who struggle to properly handle carts full of wood on steep slopes sometimes die in accidents, despite several people pulling simultaneously as a precaution.

“Prisoners who pull the carts from behind can just let go of the carts when they get tired, but those in the front pulling the carts down don’t have that luxury,” he said. “Accidents occur so frequently – around 30 percent of the time – that nobody wants to pull the carts down from the front.”

A separate source in North Hamgyong Province reported that there were two separate cart-related incidents in April, each taking the life of a prisoner who was run over.

Equally grave is how the prison authorities handle the bodies of dead prisoners. If a prisoner dies while conducting forced labor, authorities just place their bodies into straw baskets, she said.

She then cited another case of human rights abuse that occurred at the prison camp.

“A young woman who was forcibly repatriated from abroad came to the prison in a malnourished state,” she said. “She was moved to the prison cafeteria but not so she could eat something. Rather they just told her to ‘smell the food’ to give her energy. She eventually died because the authorities just didn’t care.”

The female prisoner also suffered burns from touching a porridge pot that were so severe her skin was torn away from the bone. Despite being malnourished and suffering from a serious burn, she was unable to receive proper medical attention and died just two days later.

Satellite imagery of Chongori Correctional Labor Camp
Satellite imagery of Chongori Correctional Labor Camp. Image: Google Earth

Many North Korean defectors have already testified about the poor human rights conditions at the prison. Kim Chan Mi, a defector who was imprisoned at the Chongori camp told Daily NK in 2016 that she saw “people dying of malnourishment every day” at the camp, where  “beatings were commonplace.”

Asia Press International, a North Korea-focused news outlet based in Japan, interviewed a female former inmate as part of a story on hunger, malnourishment, and contagious diseases leading to deaths in the camp. The interviewee said that “male inmates transported around 10 bodies every four days to the mountains to burn them,” and “family members weren’t even made aware their loved ones had died.”

The interviewee also told Asia Press that approximately three people in the camp died per day due to contagious diseases and starvation.

A report entitled “North Korea’s Prison Facilities” published by the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) in December 2015 found through in-depth interviews with defectors who had been inmates in Chongori Concentration Camp from 2010 to 2014 that inmates suffered from inhuman treatment, overwork, violence, and cruel punishments, and that prison authorities failed to handle the bodies of those who died in the prison with any respect.

The report also noted that “deaths in Chongori Concentration Camp are generally due to weakness and disease, and there are cases where inmates die because they do not receive proper treatment after being beaten by the border patrol or prison guards. There are also cases where people die of excessive bleeding after being shot while trying to escape.”

According to a 2017 report based on defector-testimony from the Asan Institute, “20 interviewees who were inmates in the late 1980s and from 2002 to 2012 witnessed 276 deaths and cases of disease, averaging 24.3% and 66.7%, respectively.”

“More than half of the people spoken about by the interviewees were exposed to malnutrition (52.7%) and contagious diseases (51.6%),” the report stated.

Noting that the food situation in the camp remains poor, and most inmates continue to suffer from malnutrition,  the report called on the international community and human rights groups to increase collaborative efforts to improve the human rights situation on the ground and “demand that the North Korean government provide an accurate assessment of the human rights situation in the country.”