Intellectual and religious freedom in North Korea are almost non-existent. Controlled by a totalitarian leader and isolated from the world, the 25 million people who live in North Korea are unable to exercise their basic human rights.
Though the government of North Korea officially denies their existence, there is a vast network of prison camps throughout North Korea [see downloadable infographic 1A]. And yet, numerous reports have chronicled the existence of these camps and their brutality. The 2014 United Nations report accused the Kim regime of sponsoring crimes against humanity, and a late 2017 report from the International Bar Association chronicles a number of horrific atrocities, including the starvation deaths of 1,500 to 2,000 children in a single labor camp.
The camps, which have been described as “worse than Nazi camps,” are estimated to hold between 80,000 to 130,000 prisoners, with other estimates as high as 200,000. A recent study from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea used satellite technology to identify 25 sites in North Korea comprising two complementary prison systems. All 25 sites are known to commit human rights abuses, including torture, starvation, mass killing, ongoing malnutrition and forced labor.
Hea Woo, a prison camp survivor now living in South Korea, shares what life is like in the camps:
“We woke up at 5 a.m. and started with the guards’ count of people. And after a small meal, we started the labor from 8 a.m. At 1 p.m., we ate a little [and then] we went out to work again. When there was a lot to do during the summertime, we returned inside at night. In winter time, however, because the sun set early, we went back inside at around 7 p.m. After dinner, we took politics classes [where we] learned about politics for about two hours. When anyone dozed off, he or she was beaten. There was a weekly unification meeting. If anyone was against it, he or she was locked up in a small room where people could not lie down nor stand up straight. The politics classes held at night were the worst of times.
“Even [the] food [we got was] too little for everyone to eat. We got one or two small pieces of rotten vegetables. Because there was no salt, we got watery, bland soup. We got three meals like that a day. And if there was not enough food in summer and autumn, we got two meals [per day]. When cows passed by on the street and defecated, people would search for corn kernels [in the excrement] and pick them up to eat.”
Additional background reading:
- More information on the prison system in North Korea: https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/12/11/north-koreas-brutality-laid-bare
- The latest U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report on North Korea: http://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/USCIRFannual2018tagged508.pdf
- An interesting perspective from prisoners who have been freed and returned to the States: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-usa-detainees/time-stands-still-freedom-comes-fast-in-north-korea-say-americans-once-held-there-idUSKBN1I609S
- A more recent report on the North Korean prison camp system: https://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/HawkHiddenGulag4FINAL.pdf