The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (truth in advertising: I’m on the Board) has published two groundbreaking studies written by David Hawk on the North Korean prison camp system. Last week he put out a third, “North Korea’s Hidden Gulag: Interpreting reports of changes in the prison camps” which examines the alleged closure of two of the kwanliso. The report suggests that the closure of Camp No. 22 last year may be associated with the deaths of thousands of prisoners, but that the dismantlement of Camp No. 18 could actually serve as a model of how to wind down the system.
Camp No. 22 was an enormous camp in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong with extensive mines and fields worked by the prisoners. More than ten times the size of Washington, DC, at its peak Camp No. 22 was thought to have housed 50,000 prisoners, though in more recent years the figure was put at 30,000. It was reportedly closed last year, by some accounts due to the defection of the prison camp commandant and other officials. At the time of its closure, estimates of the prisoner population ranged from 3,000-8,000. If these figures are correct, they imply the disappearance of tens of thousands of prisoners. Where did they go?
Mortality among overworked and underfed prisoners is thought to be high. In the case of Camp No. 22, a combination of bad harvests and the unavailability of purchased food due to economic chaos associated with the November 2009 currency reform, reportedly led to the deaths of many prisoners in 2010. As the report notes, if this is the primary explanation for the apparent decline in the prison population, then it amounts to “an atrocity requiring much further investigation.” Indeed, it would likely constitute a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute.
Some of Camp No. 22’s survivors were reportedly transferred to Camp No. 16 in Hwasong County, North Hamgyong, and Camp No. 25 outside Chongjin. But according to the report, analysis of satellite imagery does not indicate substantial expansions of housing facilities at these camps, suggesting that the number of transferees was not high. As the report concludes, “the closure of Camp No. 22 in late 2012 leaves several thousand former prisoners unaccounted for.”
In certain respects Camp No. 18 in Bukchang, South Pyongan was very different from Camp No. 22. It was administered by the regular, not political, police, even employing some civilian administrators, discipline was less draconian, and unlike Camp No. 22, prisoners were sometimes released from Camp No. 18. (Some of these subsequently fled to China and South Korea which is one reason we have more information on the internal workings of Camp No. 18 than Camp No. 22.) Indeed, prisoners at Camp no. 18 were at times “cleared”—that is to say had their limited rights as non-elite North Korean citizens restored, though many, having had no contact with their families or villages for decades, chose to remain within the camps or in close proximity, essentially living as freed slaves.
At its peak, Camp No. 18 was thought to have held up to 40,000 prisoners. Some were subsequently transferred to Camp No. 17, bringing the population down to 19,000 in the late 1990s. It appears that in 2007, the camp was closed with 2,500-5,000 prisoners classified as ineligible for “clearance” and transferred to other facilities, and the remainder either dead or cleared.
The report concludes that the overall numbers of prisoners in the North Korean political prison system may well be declining as deaths exceed new incarcerations. The frequently cited figure of 150,000-200,000 prisoners held in the kwanliso may have been accurate a decade or two ago, but since then the number may well have fallen to 80,000-120,000. Of course, reduced numbers due to high rates of mortality is nothing to cheer about. And as the report reminds us, the number of political prisoners in North Korea is larger insofar as people are held in other types of penal facilities on political charges. As it concludes, “The number of prisoners unlawfully held on political grounds remains extremely high, as does the number of political prisoners who are missing and the scores of thousands of prisoners who died in detention.”