The first research publication of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea was David Hawk’s expose on the prison system (Hidden Gulag, 2003); it has recently been updated. Based on a combination of refugee testimony and satellite photos, that work is now being institutionalized into a kind of monitoring system. The Committee has partnered with Colorado-based DigitalGlobe, a commercial satellite photography company, to keep track of developments in the prison camp system. The purpose is both to say “we are watching,” and— according to VOA—“to prevent the hard-line state from destroying any evidence of alleged torture and other abuses in the camps.” We wish.
Their first targeted investigation is on Camp 22; the full report can also be found on the Committee’s website. Camp 22 (or Kwan-li-so No. 22, Korean People’s Security Guard Unit 2209) is located within Hoeryŏng City in North Hamgyŏng Province. Very little is known about this maximum security facility as few have escaped; according to the few accounts we have, the camp was founded around 1965, expanded in the 1980s and 1990s, with the number of prisoners rising sharply when three other prison camps in North Hamgyong province were closed and the prisoners were transferred to Camp 22 (Kwan-li-so No. 11 (Kyongsong) in 1989, Kwan-li-so No. 12 (Onsong) in 1991 and Kwan-li-so No. 13 (Changpyong) in 1992.
Rumors had emerged in the defector community and press that Camp 22 might have been closed. Incredibly detailed and high-quality satellite imagery from three dates– November 5, 2010, May 21, 2011, and October 11, 2012—suggest that the camp remains in operation but that the North Koreans may be trying to camouflage their activities. Several small buildings have been razed, and it is possible that the security authorities are transferring some prisoners out of Camp 22 and replacing them with farmers and laborers from the region.
Whatever they are doing, its worth stating the obvious: the prison camp system and the treatment of prisoners in it—now thoroughly documented through refugee interviews—is an abomination and should remain at the top of any human rights agenda with North Korea.
For recent coverage of how the legal system feeds the prison camps, see our coverage of the UN Special Rapporteur’s report. The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights: North Korean Human Rights Archives has a very lengthy report (2011) on what is known about the prison camps; a must read. This and other information can be found through links in a particularly informative Wikipedia entry on Camp 22 that collates a lot of sources that were new to us.