Satellite Images of North Korea Prison Camps Find 200,000 Living as Slaves

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North Korean concetration campsNo one really knows how bad it is, but it's much worse than I thought possible. Piecing together information from satellite images and eye witness accounts, Amnesty International suspects that the horrific concentration camps in North Korea are growing. Some 200,000 people live as slaves - enduring starvation, torture, and rape while performing hard labor. Many die every year, only to be replaced by fresh bodies. Of those that survive, few will ever be released. Deemed 'prisoners', the victims of North Korea's political pogroms are interned for the smallest criticisms of the regime of Kim Jong-Il, and when they are carried away their extended families are rounded up as well. This is not genocide, it's not a war crime, it's an unending consequence of North Korea's authoritarian government. And it's been getting worse for the last decade. Amnesty International's satellite research shows these slave camp expanding, their populations swelling with 'criminals' as the general population starves inside its borders and refugees who are caught trying to leave North Korea are executed...or sent to these gulags. Sixty years ago the world was embroiled in a global war that saw some of the worst crimes against humanity we had ever experienced. Today, the concentration camp lives on in North Korea. Will this evil still be with us another sixty years from now? Despite all my hope about the future, a voice inside me says 'yes'...I can't believe this is still happening.

We are confronted with so many atrocities in global news that it's hard to pierce our desensitized skin. I can't describe the horrific conditions in the North Korean slave camps, but Jeong Kyoungil can. He was detained for years at Yodok, officially known as Kwan-li-so (reeducation center) Number 15. Inside its walls he fought frostbite from the bitter cold, starvation, endless work, and a continual stripping of his humanity. He describes how the death of fellow inmates was a joy - an opportunity - because burying these bodies earned an extra helping of food. To starving slaves such as Kyoungil, a few more bites of corn gruel was the difference between life and death. In the following video from Amnesty Internation, Kyoungil describes more of his time in Yodok, and the soul wrenching things he saw there.

Since the formation of these sinisterly named reeducation centers in the 1950s, Amnesty International counts only a sparse 30 or so individuals who have managed to be freed and then leave North Korea to tell their tales. Among them was Kang Chol-Hwan who survived a decade in Yodok, fled to China, and eventually wrote an account of his time in the camp: Aquarium of Pyongyang. Yet those who are consigned to reeducating "Revolutionary Zones" in these camps aren't the worst off, for there is the possibility that they will be freed after years of deadly conditions. In the camps' "Total Control Zones" no end is in sight. Dissidents and their families who are sent to the Total Control Zones will be there for the rest of their lives. Short or long as they may be. In the long history of the North Korean gulags, Amnesty International counts only three individuals to have escaped, fled far enough, and survived long enough to tell their tales. North Korea controls the information within its borders, and they leave precious few to bare witness to the crimes that go one inside the Kwan-li-so.

Yodok Prison

Overhead photographs of Yodok prison in North Korea. Amnesty International says these images show substantial growth since 2001.

While it's hard to imagine those crimes getting worse, it's very likely they are becoming more numerous. Amnesty International recently published satellite imagery that shows North Korea's prison camps have expanded considerably in the last decade. Amnesty International has been working for years to highlight the growing human rights abuses in North Korea. Their latest work took satellite images of four of the six major camps associated with political prisoners. These camps, located in South Pyongan, South Hamkyung, and North Hamkyung show major expansions in facilities for both prisoners and guard personnel when compared to images from 2001. Along with these overhead photos, Amnesty International was able to talk with some prisoners, such as Jeong Kyoungil. In Yodok alone, there is thought to be roughly 50,000 victims held without legal recourse. It is very likely that most of these people will die in Yodok due to starvation. Between 1999 and 2001, it is estimated that nearly 40% of the camp population died of malnutrition. Others lost ears, toes, and limbs to frostbite. Others were raped and forced to abort children. The fate of most is simply unknown.

North Korea's government may hide these crimes from their population, and they may deny these atrocities to the UN, yet these camps are blatantly visible from above. North Korea seems to have done little to disguise their size and growth from satellites passing overhead. You can even see some of these structures in the old photos on Google Earth and other digital globes (go to 39.674163 N, 126.851406 E). Perhaps North Korea's cavalier attitude about these camps is due to the general lack of attention they receive in world press. Amnesty International's recent revelation about North Korean camps has garnered some attention in the New York Times and on NPR, but little in other mainstream news outlets. I don't know which is more shocking, the fact that these camps exist in plain site, or the fact that after they are uncovered the world seems to shrug, and the major media hardly even seems to be covering it. In 2004, Japan's FujiTV ran a video clip that was reportedly recorded at Yodok...but it eventual passed out of public perception as its veracity was impossible to determine.

One place where concerns over North Korean prison camps seem to be growing is on the internet. There are many organizations aimed at raising awareness on conditions both in these prisons and in the nation in general, some religious others secular: LiNK, Helping Hands Korea, and The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea to name a few. There have been several documentary films about conditions in North Korea. Shadows and Whispers, now more than a decade old, explores the life of refugees. With regular cycles of famine, North Korea see millions go malnourished or face outright starvation every year. Many of those who flee these dire conditions go into Northern China. A good portion of those who are smuggled across the border are children, sent away by parents hoping that such an exodus will keep them alive. There, their lives seem little better as they face extremely high rates of human trafficking and police brutality. As China doesn't officially categorize fleeing North Koreans as refugees, they are free to extradite them back across the border where many will face possible execution. The producers of Shadows and Whispers have made a portion of the film available for free online. Here is the 10 minute preview of the documentary:

In part, North Korea can starve its citizens, imprison them, and execute those who flee because they maintain such a tight control on public information. All news outlets are state controlled, and visitors are allowed little access to potentially 'embarrassing' areas. Violators are dealt with harshly, both in Korea and China. Adrian Hong, founder of LiNK, was arrested in China for helping North Korean refugees. Even casual harassment helps silence would be detractors: one knowledgeable contact I spoke to was unable to go on the record because he/she has plans on returning to North Korea, and believed that being linked to an article critical of the regime would cause the nation to deny his/her visa. Apparently, googling your name is part of the application process. Use (and possession) of video cameras is tightly controlled, and foreign press agents are given little access.

Yet even the most authoritarian governments cannot control information completely. Camp survivors, documentary filmmakers, and human rights activists are using email, the internet, and even text message newsletters to spread word about the situation in North Korea. It reminds me, somewhat, of the years leading up to the fall of the Soviet Union - government institutions getting 'leaky' with information was a precursor to the change in regimes. The rise of technology which could easily disseminate news without central government approval was one of the factors that allowed Ray Kurzweil to accurately predict the collapse of the Soviet system. This continues today. In recent years we've seen how communications technologies and freedom of information helped foment change in the Middle East. In some parts of the world the tech developments we discuss on Singularity Hub may be making it harder to perpetrate crimes against humanity. Perhaps current technologies - the internet, mobile devices, etc will provide similar leverage to end the atrocities in North Korea. And perhaps emerging food technologies, like those making their way to China, could help with the food shortages that plague the nation.

Of course, those are mainly my own hopeful dreams, and I fear the truth that these concentration camps in North Korea teach us is far from hopeful. The nation is undergoing an Orwellian nightmare. Starvation, slave camps, endless propaganda - these are the trappings of 1984 alive and well in 2011, and they may be fueled by modern technology rather than hindered by them. I consider myself inured to most of the world's ills due to prolonged exposure to blaring 24 hour news streams that fry sensibilities with their constant emotional appeals. Yet there is something in the news of 200,000 North Korean slaves that pushes past my modern American apathy and sets my teeth on edge. The world has seen the forest fires of genocide sweep through populations and leave scars in humanity that we may never heal from. Yet North Korea's crimes aren't blazing...they are a smoldering sin that shows no sign of burning itself out. Hundreds of thousands have been 'processed' through these camps, dying on site or leaving with broken minds and bodies. Hundreds of thousands more will come through as these camps continue to grow. And the death toll will slowly rise, and the people of North Korea will remain starved, cowed, and broken because no one from outside is coming to rescue them (with due respect to the NGOs and nonprofits aimed at doing exactly that...they just don't have the power to put an end to these slave camps).

China is complicit in these atrocities, or at the very least enabling them with their immigration policies...and that is appalling on an entirely new level. I can admire China's growth in infrastructure and technology, it's pursuit to compete on a global scale, but what good is all that growth if it allows these crimes to go on next door? Even opening their borders would be something...

Other nations around the world have similar problems. There are crimes against humanity on every continent, in every region. They may not always be visible to satellites, but they are there. The US, EU, Brazil, China, India...if these nations used their (emergent) technological good fortune to champion the rights of these victims perhaps things could change. I fear that unless economically powerful countries take up the charge to end human rights abuses, the world will always be plagued by concentration camps.

For now the reality of the situation is that little is bound to change in North Korea unless more people become both aware and outraged by the human rights violations that continue to occur. I know that gulags, even those revealed by kickass satellite technology, are a little out of Singularity Hub's purview. I hope, however, that you'll see this story as a great chance to experiment with some human rights crowd sourcing. Go to Amnesty International's website (or any such organization of your choosing) and see if you can't help spread the word and raise awareness. 200,000 political prisoners, hundreds of thousands of refugees, and millions of hungry citizens may all benefit from your time.

In sixty years we could live in a world where abundant energy resources, ample food supplies, and automation mean that even the poorest people have their basic needs met. Or, if we allow it, we could live in a world that makes great strides forward, but that can never rid itself of the abhorrent authoritarian tool that is the concentration camp.

[images: Amnesty International, Aquariums of Pyongyang]

[sources: Amnesty International]

Discussion — 32 Responses

  • Eric K May 12, 2011 on 9:02 am

    3 million people in prison , in usa

    the prison state

    and they work for a little of food, and for for free

    this is not slavery

    no FU

    • Kristof Eric K May 12, 2011 on 11:43 am

      Your an idiot!!!!

      • Morgan Freeman Kristof May 12, 2011 on 4:42 pm

        Erik K seems to be making a false equivalency, but your flagrant response to him makes me think you are unfamiliar with the injustice in the judicial system.

        You are aware we’re locking up an astonishing number of people for crimes such as small time drug possession, right?

        • Kristof Morgan Freeman May 13, 2011 on 11:09 am

          I absolutly understand the US judicial system, however the injustice that exsist within it are uncomparable to the travisity dicussed within this article. To even bring up the US system diverts attention from the fact that 200,000 are enduring starvation, torture, and rape at the hands of an international leader. Eric K’s comments are idiotic and so are you if feel that the treatment of these people is ok becaues in the US “the prision state” were are enslaving people too.

          • Kristof Kristof May 13, 2011 on 11:11 am

            And last time I checked, small drug possesion was a crime, not that I agree with the law, but its know that if you get caught with drugs you run the risk of being locked up.

    • David Eric K May 12, 2011 on 5:11 pm

      Where your assertion fails is that, according to this article, they are there due to their opposition to the leadership. In the US our prisoners are there due mostly to violence against fellow citizens. Their 200,000 is about equivalent to our 3M in prison.

      If you can show that these prisoners are their due to violence against their own people then you may have an argument. Until then it is a false equivalence.

      • Morgan Freeman David May 12, 2011 on 6:52 pm

        How does your claim that Americans in jail are “mostly due to violence against fellow citizens” square with this?

        • sbb Morgan Freeman May 12, 2011 on 7:55 pm

          that chart doesn’t really help the discussion all that much, but there is lots of info on this related wikipedia page:

          quoting from the page:

          “As of 2006, 49.3% of state prisoners, or 656,000 individuals, were incarcerated for non-violent crimes. As of 2008, 90.7% of federal prisoners, or 165,457 individuals, were incarcerated for non-violent offenses.[23] Drug offences account for two-thirds of the federal inmate population… approximately half a million people are in prison for a drug offense today compared to 40,000 in 1981—and increase of 1,100 percent. [24]”

          • quickstart90909 sbb May 12, 2011 on 8:29 pm

            The important factor here is that American Prisons and North Korean camps are fundamentally different. To be put in a US jail you must be found guilty of a crime, and event then an unjust ruling can be appealed. In North Korea, people are put away without a trial.

            Without trials, how can anyone know whether or not the defendant actually committed a crime? No one can. So a government without a fair legal system faces no repercussions from incarcerating innocents.

            Furthermore, this situation seems Very similar to the Nazi concentration camps. I’ve been to them, and can say very definitively that it is unacceptable to stand by and do nothing while people are punished for not believing in a communist state.

            So the real question is, what should the world do about this situation? We have the power to intervene. Given the facts, do we not also have an obligation?

            • Morgan Freeman quickstart90909 May 12, 2011 on 9:38 pm

              I agree that the two justice systems are far different, but the point I and likely the OP were trying to make is that our system is still incredibly unjust. It is self-evident that the NK concentration camps are an abomination, but not quite as many people realize just how [expletive] up the USA system is. As I mentioned, we are locking up people in this country that aren’t crimes in other countries.

              I think we’re better off examining the problems in our own system than going half way around the world to find someone to fault. I also disagree with your assertion that we have the power to intervene.

              • Kristof Morgan Freeman May 14, 2011 on 10:12 am

                I understand your point completely and agree the US system is F’d up (big time), but go talk about it where the topic is applicable. This article didnt mention the US judicial system once, its about NK concentration camps.

          • Morgan Freeman sbb May 12, 2011 on 9:30 pm

            “that chart doesn’t really help the discussion all that much”

            The point I wanted to make required some (too much?) extrapolation. Basically, if America is locking up 7x the amount of people (per capita) as Europe, then one of the following is the case:

            A) America has a astronomically higher number of violent crimes than Europe.
            B) European countries are not locking up violent criminals at the rate we do.
            C) America is locking up people for things that other countries don’t (i.e. non-violent crimes.)

            I think the answer is obviously C, and is backed up by endless reams of data beside that chart (such as the figures you cited.) I went with the chart because picture are usually more powerful than words, though I appreciate the input.

            • Eric K Morgan Freeman May 12, 2011 on 11:06 pm

              2,292,133 were incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails at yearend 2009

              ARE YOU STUPID OR WHAT ? WAKE UP : if you accept a society like this, in a ponzi scheme ( and you are not on top of the pyramid ) , understand that your turn will come ! you idiot !

              For people who think they are genius : well in fact you are dumb fools.


              POVERTY : destruction of middle class

              = VIOLENCE

              = NEO LIBERALISM

              = THE CHOC DOCTRINE



              I don’t think this state will last forever but it can go worse or better

              you choose you idiot

              • Eric K Eric K May 12, 2011 on 11:08 pm

                Studies say violence is created because of poverty

                let see how you beautiful social system work

                when automation comes : and there is no more jobs, and no more money for the people

                they tried to survive how they can, with what they can do

              • Eric K Eric K May 12, 2011 on 11:14 pm

                1 in 142 US residents now in prison

                I know : human brain cannot understand number

                millions ? 2 million people in jail ?

                2 000 000 x you people in jail ?

                1 in 142 US residents now in prison

                you take 5 generation in your family , and one people of your family is in jail

                • Eric K Eric K May 12, 2011 on 11:16 pm

                  What you do to other, you do it to YOU

                  What you accept to do to other, you do it to you

                • Eric K Eric K May 12, 2011 on 11:20 pm

                  Privatized Prisons and Prison Labor IS Slavery


                  you society with same mad dictator and ideology

                  is with the power of technology

                  is more dangerous than north korea

  • SaintWells May 12, 2011 on 1:05 pm

    In modern civilized societies people are enslaved by corporate company tactic , brainwashed to believe they are the only right and the best , held prison with with extensive packages they are made to believe they cannot survive without , further captured by a media market and tell e vision ” the greatest scam of earths existance as we know it ”
    Aldious Huxley was a man of vision indeed .
    In another part of the world people are captured by fear and intimidation and so controlled into committing industrial , commercial and economical sabotage , made to believe it is gonna give them a enriched life .
    a large portion of our population worldwide is ” educated ” yet uncultured and so stupid when it comes to the essentials , the lame leading the blind to the opera delivered by toungeless .
    Is it not ironic how the cause of the problems are always ignored and the power of politics for the wealth of a few is maintained as the masses suffer by the millions in a prison of any nature.
    I have seen many happy and elated people in the worst imaginable circumstances , and realized , freedom is within .

    • Mark Clayton SaintWells May 13, 2011 on 7:30 am

      “Enslaved corporate company tactic” ? Too much of the Kool-aide has given you brain damage

  • Michael Seiler May 12, 2011 on 2:44 pm

    Here(Australia) the mining companies can come in and take your land and poison it and the aquifers under and on it and protesters are arrested. How is that any different? This is even happening all over again to aborigines in this land after a big “Sorry” and land rights etc. and then if they don’t give access to the miners they just take it all back again. The dollar enslaves all don’t be fooled that western democracy is any better than other political or ruling systems.
    It is even ok to kill people in other countries so they can enforce this ideology on them. And that is apparently “helping them”. That is how Afghanistan and Iraq wars are sold here. Along with an unprecedented campaign to promote ancestor worship in the “Anzac Tradition”
    I am neither aborigine or an Arab actually anglo-saxon descent but can still see how our Country participates in crimes against humanity.
    I use to donate to Amnesty but now red cross because I found amnesty too involved in politics instead of helping people.

  • Joe Nickence May 12, 2011 on 2:54 pm

    Considering that North Korea’s government is Communistic in principle, it will always be politically linked to the Peoples Republic of China. A Communistic government that only recently has put on a thin mantle of open commercialism, applied to it’s international public face like a harlequin’s mask. How does one go about condemning a country’s human atrocities when its primary sponsor is itself indifferent to its own human atrocities global image? Amnesty International has been making great strides, but it has always had it’s work cut out for it.

    May God have mercy on the human race.

  • Morgan Freeman May 12, 2011 on 4:33 pm

    I understand the outrage, but what power – short of dropping bombs – do we have exactly? I think, as the author likely does too, that we learned that from Iraq that dropping bombs doesn’t work. I agree with the rueful tone of this article, but bad stuff happens in the world.

    Maybe China will make some progress on human rights and in 20 years will exert enough pressure that this madness stops. In the meantime, let’s focus on the problems we have here – as one person noted, we lock up a full 1% of our population.

    • sbb Morgan Freeman May 12, 2011 on 7:59 pm

      It is my understanding that the oil pipeline from China into North Korea is critical to the viability of the regime. So China could take down the regime by stopping the flow of oil. There are supposedly two reasons they won’t do this: 1) there would be a huge influx of refugees, as well as possible chaos in the former N Korea, and 2) if the Korean Penninsula reunited, then there would be US troops on the Chinese border.

      Assuming this is all true, China is actively complicit in everything happening in N Korea. Not that this necessarily means they are any more likely to do anything about it.

      • Morgan Freeman sbb May 12, 2011 on 9:46 pm

        I think you forgot reason 3): China does not have the same human rights views that Western nations have, nor does it have the same views of international law.

        One of their major foreign policy beliefs is that countries do not have the right to intervene in the internal affairs of foreign countries. China won’t intervene because it doesn’t philosophically believe that it should (as well as because of the other 2 reasons you stated.)

  • Critique May 13, 2011 on 4:27 am

    North Korea interprets all crime as crimes against the state: pickpocketing is seen as a denigration of fellow workers, and thus a crime against Kim Jeong Il.

    So, while Amnesty claims 200,000 political prisoners in Gulags, a more accurate claim would be just that there are 200,000 enslaved prisoners.

    Enslaved? Yes. North Korea does not have money to put into its prisons, and so they must be self-supporting. More likely, the prisons turn a profit, and so the government is motivated to expand them. That’s slavery.

  • Frank Whittemore May 14, 2011 on 5:51 pm

    (Reuters) – North Korea and Iran appear to have been regularly exchanging ballistic missile technology in violation of U.N. sanctions, according to a confidential U.N. report obtained by Reuters on Saturday.

    Click on this link for the complete report –

  • Frank Whittemore June 2, 2011 on 5:45 am
  • amfinn April 26, 2012 on 12:28 pm

    The Economist just did a really quick and interesting podcast on the North Korean prison camps if anyone is interested. Here is the link –

  • Hukkinen September 3, 2012 on 2:23 am

    Why don’t activists send UAV’s to North Korea, Syria, etc. to get video footage?

  • Lorrie Pineda January 24, 2013 on 12:54 pm

    In America it’s simple, don’t do the crime if you don’t want to do the time. But, if one of your family members rolls the dice and risks freedom, the chances of you going to prison with them to do hard labor and dying of starvation is about zero percent.

  • colinberry1 August 10, 2013 on 10:10 am

    Well, I suppose they are returning the compliment.

    ‪North Korea Comedy Show : ‪North Korea TV – How Americans ‬