Amid reports that the North Korean authorities have mobilized prisoners at the Bukchang concentration camp in South Pyongan Province for coal mining, Daily NK has learned that the living and working environment at the camp is extremely poor. 

“[The camp] provides prisoners sent there for re-education with 18 grams of rice and salted vegetable soup per meal in accordance with criminal law and the Ministry of Social Security’s meal supply regulations,” a source in North Korea told Daily NK in an Apr. 12 phone call. “They receive no wages or any other compensation.”

The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines forced labor as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.” North Korea uses the pretext of “re-education” to threaten prisoners and force them to perform hard labor, but in reality, the unpaid, heavy labor inmates do is equivalent to forced labor.

In addition to the ILO, the international community prohibits forced labor through international human rights treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In particular, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which North Korea is a signatory, contains regulations condemning the use of forced labor.

“Many prisoners suffer from malnutrition because they work ten times more than ordinary people outside the prisons, but only get to eat [the amount of food] criminals [are allowed to consume],” the source said. “They have no winter clothes to change into, so they have no choice but to bundle up into three or four sets of clothing to perform their punitive tasks.” 

Without access to adequate food or clothing, the prisoners suffer a great deal while performing intense amounts of labor. 

“After a day of work, [management officers] provide prisoners with one washbowl of water for every three people,” the source said, adding, “That’s not even enough to wash the coal off their bodies…[The officers] allow the prisoners to bathe in a nearby brook when they are in a good mood or during national holidays, but that is very rare.”

Sunchon, South Pyongan Province
An image of Sunchon, South Pyongan Province. / Image: Daily NK

The harsh working conditions in the camps reportedly drive some prisoners to their deaths.

“Accidents frequently happen when prisoners conduct ‘ant operations’ [to mine] in deeper areas beyond the pit prop-supported safe zone,” the source said. “[When using the ‘ant method’] prisoners crawl further inside [the mines] and carry coal out on their backs while crawling on their knees…[The guards] treat people like animals because no equipment is provided [to them].” 

Camp management officers force prisoners to work on dangerous sites without safety equipment such as mine hoists (needed to transport miners, coal, and materials within inclined shafts), pit props, hutches, and other items. This lack of safety equipment has led to severe accidents. The source said that 28 prisoners at the Bukchang prison camp were buried alive in March when a mine collapsed as they carried bags of coal out of the mine.

“People die or get injured due to mine collapses, but a lot of people also die because of disease and malnutrition,” the source said, adding, “In the first quarter of this year, [the prison] cremated over 200 prisoners that died from accidents, diseases, and malnutrition.”

There have also been instances where prisoners died while being physically assaulted by management officers in the camps.

“There have been about 16 cases of managers killing prisoners by beating them to death with whips or the butt plate of their rifle, or by punishing them by stepping on their neck with their boot,” the source said. “However, they record these cases as ‘accidental deaths’ in their reports.” The source said that camp managers frequently conceal prisoner deaths resulting from assault.

Meanwhile, the handling of corpses of prisoners who have died from accidents or disease is also conducted in a haphazard manner.

“Prisoners are more susceptible to diseases,” the source said. “The ridiculously low food provisions lead to malnutrition, and group confinement in small cells and shared spaces weakens their immunity… When the managers send a prisoner to a ‘sick room’ because he is close to death, he will come out as a corpse within two or three days.”

According to the source, prison authorities “take the dead prisoners’ bodies – usually about ten in the summer and a few dozen in the winter – and burn them all together in a secluded mountain valley. Then they just leave the ashes there.” 

Daily NK reported in November of last year that contained descriptions of prisoners’ bodies being burned at the “Pulmangsan” crematorium inside the Chongori Reeducation Camp, which is in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province.

*Translated by S & J

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Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to