Conditions inside North Korean prison camps are unsanitary and life-threatening. Prisoners are subject to torture and inhumane treatment. Public and secret executions of prisoners, even children, especially in cases of attempted escape are commonplace. Infanticides (and infant killings upon birth) also often occur. The mortality rate is very high, because many prisoners die of starvation, illnesses, work accidents, or torture.
The DPRK government denies all allegations of human rights violations in prison camps, claiming that this is prohibited by criminal procedure law, but former prisoners testify that there are completely different rules in the prison camps. The DPRK government failed to provide any information on prisoners or prison camps or to allow access to any human rights organization. But according to a North Korean defector, North Korea considered inviting a delegation of the UN Commission on Human Rights to visit the Yodok prison camp in 1996.
Lee Soon-ok gave detailed testimony on her treatment in the North Korean prison system to the United States House of Representatives in 2002. In her statement she said, "I testify that most of the 6,000 prisoners who were there when I arrived in 1987 had quietly perished under the harsh prison conditions by the time I was released in 1992." Many other former prisoners, including Kang Chol-hwan and Shin Dong-hyuk, gave detailed and consistent testimonies on the human rights crimes in North Korean prison camps.
According to the testimony of former camp guard Ahn Myong Chol of Camp 22, the guards are trained to treat the detainees as sub-human, and he gave an account of children in one of the camps who were fighting over who got to eat a kernel of corn retrieved from cow dung.
The internment camps for people accused of political offences or denounced as politically unreliable are run by the State Security Department. Political prisoners were historically subject to the family responsibility principle, where immediate family members of a convicted political criminal were also regarded as political criminals and interned. However, since 1994 there has been a near-abandonment of this family responsibility principle.
The internment camps are located in central and northeastern North Korea. They comprise many prison labour colonies in secluded mountain valleys, completely isolated from the outside world. The total number of prisoners is estimated to be 150,000 to 200,000. Yodok camp and Bukchang camp are separated into two sections: One section for political prisoners in lifelong detention, another part similar to re-education camps with prisoners sentenced to long-term imprisonment with the vague hope of eventual release.
The prisoners are forced to perform hard and dangerous slave work with primitive means in mining and agriculture. The food rations are very small, so that the prisoners are constantly on the brink of starvation. In combination with the hard work this leads to huge numbers of prisoners dying. An estimated 40% of prisoners die from malnutrition.
Moreover, many prisoners are crippled from work accidents, frostbite or torture. There is a rigid punishment regime in the camps. Prisoners who work too slowly or do not obey an order are beaten or tortured. In cases of stealing food or attempting to escape, the prisoners are publicly executed.
Initially there were around twelve political prison camps, but some were merged or closed (e. g. Onsong prison camp, Kwan-li-so No. 12, following a suppressed riot with around 5000 dead people in 1987). Today there are six political prison camps in North Korea, with the size determined from satellite images and the number of prisoners estimated by former prisoners. Most of the camps are documented in testimonies of former prisoners and, for all of them, coordinates and satellite images are available.
The South Korean journalist Kang Chol-hwan is a former prisoner of Yodok Political Prison Camp and has written a book, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, about his time in the camp. The South Korean human rights activist Shin Dong-hyuk is the only person known to have escaped from Kaechon Political Prison Camp. He gave an account of his time in the camp.
The reeducation camps for criminals are run by the Ministry of People's Security. There is a fluent passage between common crimes and political crimes, as people who get on the bad side of influential partisans are often denounced on false accusations. They are then forced into false confessions with brutal torture in detention centers (Lee Soon-ok for example had to kneel down whilst being showered with water at icy temperatures with other prisoners, of whom six did not survive) and are then condemned in a brief show trial to a long-term prison sentence.
In North Korea, political crimes are greatly varied, from border crossing to any disturbance of the political order, and they are rigorously punished. Due to the dire prison conditions with hunger and torture, a large percentage of prisoners do not survive their sentence terms.
The reeducation camps are large prison building complexes surrounded by high walls. The situation of prisoners is quite similar to that in the political prison camps. They have to perform slave labour in prison factories and in case they do not meet the work quotas, they are tortured and (at least in Kaechon camp) confined for many days in special prison cells, which are too small for them to stand up or lie full-length in.
To be distinguished from the internment camps for political prisoners, the reeducation camp prisoners are forced to undergo ideological instruction after work and they are also forced to memorize the speeches of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and they even have to undergo self-criticism rites. Many prisoners are guilty of common crimes which are also penalized in other countries e. g. illegal border crossing, stealing food or illegal trading.
There are around 15 to 20 reeducation camps in North Korea.
|Reeducation Camp||Official Name||Location||Prisoners||Comments|
|Kaechon Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so No. 1||Kaechon, South Pyongan||6,000||Lee Soon-ok testimony|
|Sinuiju Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so No. 3||Sinuiju, North Pyongan||2,500||Near Chinese border|
|Kangdong Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so No. 4||Kangdong, Pyongyang||7,000||30 km (19 mi) from Pyongyang|
|Ryongdam Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so No. 8||Chonnae County, Kangwon||3,000|
|Chungsan Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so No. 11||Chungsan County, South Pyongan||3,300||Many repatriated defectors|
|Chongori Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so No. 12||Hoeryong, North Hamgyong||2,000||Many repatriated defectors|
|Hamhung Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so No. 15||Hamhung, South Hamgyong||500||Former colonial prison|
|Oro Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so No. 22||Yonggwang County, South Hamgyong||6,000|
|Tanchon Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so No. 77||Tanchon, South Hamgyong||6,000|
|Hoeryong Reeducation Camp||Kyo-hwa-so||Hoeryong, North Hamgyong||1,500|
The South Korean human rights activist Lee Soon-ok has written a book (Eyes of the Tailless Animals: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman) about her time in the camp and testified before the US Senate.
In December 2016, the South China Morning Post reported on the existence of a secret prison in Hyanghari, known euphemistically as 'resorts', where members of the country's political elite are imprisoned.