Yesterday the Daily Mail in England broke the news that North Korean prison camps had been found on Google Earth. North Korea has long denied the existence of prison camps in its supposed utopia, but even as far back as 2004 The Guardian was reporting that the camps held an estimated 200,000 citizens. 50,000 of them, all deemed enemies of the state even though many had been actually born inside, are in North Korea’s most notorious hell, Camp 22.
And believe us, hell isn’t nearly strong enough of a word. According to reports from defectors, citizens are tossed into camps on any official whim, with most offenders being taken away for being even minutely critical of Kim Jong Il’s regime. But it’s not only the supposed offenders that are sentenced to a life of intense slave labor and malnourishment that only ends in death from exhaustion or random execution. In order to purify offenders’ blood of anti-government discontent, officials throw three generations of their family in to join them in suffering senseless torture, eating rotten food and the occasional feces and horrifying ‘scientific’ experiments involving chemical and biological weapons.
In its 2004 documentary Access to Evil, shared above, the BBC chatted with Kwon Hyuk, a former military attaché at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing. Hyuk, who changed his name, was also the former chief of management at Camp 22. He defected upon seeing the light, but his descriptions of experiments he watched over are simply horrifying. Entire families, along with random single prisoners, were (and possibly still are) placed in giant glass boxes. While pumping in poisonous gasses, scientists stood on top of the box, recording the reactions of the dying families below.
“I witnessed a whole family being tested on suffocating gas and dying in the gas chamber,” he said in the BBC doc. “The parents, son and a daughter. The parents were vomiting and dying, but till the very last moment they tried to save kids by doing mouth-to-mouth breathing.”
Perhaps even more frightening is Hyuk’s admission that he felt absolutely no remorse at the time for any of the prisoners. According to him, they were simply enemies of the state, and deserved to die.
The BBC also talks to Sun Ok-Lee, who was one of the few prisoners to be released from the camps after it was deemed she was sufficiently reformed. While talking of the torture she endured in her seven years there, she describes an experiment she took part in.
“An officer ordered me to select 50 healthy female prisoners,” she said. “One of the guards handed me a basket full of soaked cabbage, told me not to eat it but to give it to the 50 women. I gave them out and heard a scream from those who had eaten them. They were all screaming and vomiting blood. All who ate the cabbage leaves started violently vomiting blood and screaming with pain. It was hell. In less than 20 minutes they were quite dead.”
Most of the info on the camps from the interviews in Access to Evil were corroborated by a 2008 Washington Post story on Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person known to have successfully escaped from a North Korean prison camp. Dong-hyuk was actually born in his camp. At one point he was tortured and locked in an underground room for seven months because his mother and brother were supposedly hatching an escape plot. He later saw them both executed.
The importance of the Daily Mail‘s report is that it lends a whole lot of weight to past prison camp reports. North Korea has always denied the existence of the camps, and with independent verification impossible in a country that so tightly controls foreign press, there’s always that shadow of a doubt (At least in the public eye. It’s hard to imagine that the imaging resources of Google Earth outpaced government agencies in discovering the camps). Hell, 2008’s Vice Guide to North Korea provided some of the most in depth information on the country many people had ever seen and it required journalists to sneak into the country and, as VICE is apt to encourage, leverage hard partying to gain exclusive access to information. What’s paramount, as grinding diplomacy plods back and forth in the region, is reminding the public of the existence of these horrors is key in pushing leaders to demand concessionary change.