Shining a light on North Korea’s political prison camps

Statues of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung
Statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang. / Image: Rodong Sinmun

A family in Chongjin…

There was a family living in the North Korean city of Chongjin in North Hamgyong Province. Though the father was a ceramics factory driver in name, he made a living selling gasoline. The mother supplemented the family’s finances by selling miscellaneous goods at the market.

Unfortunately, their child was intellectually disabled. The parents had to leave him by himself while they went out to work and were in constant worry about their son playing alone at home. After much deliberation, they recruited a kotjebi (street urchin) near his age roaming the market to look after their son during the daytime. One day, the son broke the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hanging on the wall in their home and used scissors to cut up a calendar with the faces of “The Three Generals” (Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Suk, and Kim Jong Il).

The street urchin who had been playing with the son reported this to the Ministry of State Security (MSS). When the MSS made a sudden and unannounced visit to the family’s home, they discovered the broken portraits and the sliced up calendar in a wastebasket. That same night, the family disappeared. Even their inminban (similar to a neighborhood watch) leader was in the dark about their whereabouts. One month later, rumors began circulating that the family had been hauled off to a political prison camp on charges of insulting the “supreme dignity” of the Kim family and of subversion against the state. This story was recently reported to the Daily NK by a source in North Hamgyong Province.

…and another confined in Yodok

There was another family confined to Yodok Prison Camp in South Hamgyong Province. The prison’s rules forced the four members of the family to live apart from each other. One day, six months after their arrival to the prison camp, they were able to spend the night together after the family’s parents won a “commendation” for their diligent labor.

However, the family did not appear at roll call the next day. A prison camp officer visited the house where the family had stayed the night together and discovered all four members dead inside. After strangling his wife and two children to death, the father had committed suicide by stabbing himself in the neck. Rumors circulated around the prison camp that given that the family had been imprisoned for political reasons, they despaired over the limited possibility of ever seeing the outside world again.

Grappling with this hopelessness, they could not bear the agony of life within the prison camp and committed suicide, believing that death was a preferable alternative. The prison camp authorities condemned the family, saying that “[t]hey committed an act of treason [because] they failed to recognize that they were graciously shown mercy after committing a grave crime.” The corpses of the family were dealt with swiftly. This account was relayed by a source in South Hamgyong Province this past August.

These two accounts provide evidence that North Korea continues to operate prison camps for political prisoners. One story reflects the reality of how a family can be dragged off to a political prison camp for disparaging the “supreme dignity.” The other story reflects the reality of how people imprisoned within these camps are dying amidst suffering and despair.

UN calls for more attention on North Korea’s political prisons

At the Universal Periodic Review of the United Nations Human Rights Council last May, North Korean officials asserted that “there is no such thing as ‘political prisoner’ or ‘political prison camp’ in the vocabulary of the criminal law and the criminal procedural law” of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK. However, accounts provided by North Koreans to Daily NK and other organizations undermine such an assertion. The most recent report released by the UN Committee on Information estimates that the total number of political prisoners in North Korea is somewhere between 80,000 to 120,000 individuals. The committee believes that these prisoners are detained across at least four large-scale prison camps.

Recently, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, submitted a report for the seventy-fourth session of the General Assembly of the United Nations to be held in New York on September 17. In the report, he wrote that “The political prison camps, in which a large number of political prisoners are detained in the worst conditions, remain in operation under complete secrecy.” His report also calls on the North Korean government to “[r]elease detailed information about kwanliso (political prison camps) and invite independent international monitoring bodies to monitor them.”

Quintana also lamented that “[d]espite the fact that there is no sign of improvement in the situation of people’s human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, human rights considerations have not been part of the agenda in the peace talks to date.” Nonetheless, he expressed the hope that his recent report would “inform the ongoing negotiations and [reiterated] the need for integrating a human rights agenda into the peace talks.”

Out of sight and out of mind

The world is now facing countless global issues that include the US-China trade war, the ongoing Brexit situation, the dispute between Japan and South Korea over compensation for forced wartime labor, stagnation in the South Korean economy, preferential treatment allegations relating to the daughter of Moon Jae-in’s recently appointed justice minister, and, of course, US-North Korea nuclear negotiations. Naturally, many people are trying to find solutions to these problems.

It is regrettable, however, that political prison camps in North Korea have drifted both out of sight and out of mind on the global stage. Tens of thousands of individuals are living in despair within political prison camps inside a country almost completely isolated from the outside world. Unable to overcome that despair and suffering, they are dying. Few issues are as pressing as the human rights abuse they are facing; however, merely because it is all transpiring inside such a closed country like North Korea, there’s little international attention to it. It is my hope that more people will pay attention to the situation in North Korea so that these prisoners can be freed and allowed to live like human beings as soon as possible.

About the Author: Kwang Baek Lee is the president of Unification Media Group and has over thirteen years of experience creating and broadcasting radio content for residents of North Korea. His work has been cited by, among others, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Institute for Far East Studies, the Institute for Peace Affairs, and the Korean Association for Broadcasting and Telecommunication.

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