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    Satellite Images Show North Korea Expanding One of Its Prison Camps

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    North Korea's prison camps are far from being a state secret anymore. The generations of chemical experiments and other horrors of the gulags have been fairly well documented by escapees like Shin Dong-Hyuk, and now some of them are even on Google Maps. But rather than clean up or scale back the camps after coming under international scrutiny, there's photo evidence that North Korea is making at least one of the camps larger.

    That's according to a report published by DigitalGlobe (PDF) that consists of sattelite photos dating back to 2003 that tracks the growth of what's known as Camp 25. DigitalGlobe released the report with The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a U.S.-based NGO that studies the camps. Camp 25 is thought to hold around 5,000 prisoners, a small portion of the 150,000-200,000 prisoners estimated by HRNK to be in North Korea's gulags.

    But Camp 25 has grown consistently since 2003, and new developments found in 2013 suggests that the camp is only getting bigger. Now, there are two likely reasons for this. First, perhaps the ranks of North Korea's political prisoners is growing, whether from a crackdown on defectors and the like, or via a purge of the old guard (and their families) that reportedly began a couple years before Kim Jong-il's death.

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    Camp 25 is located far in the northeast corner of North Korea.

    On the other hand, only Camp 25 is imaged and shown to be growing (never mind what the Telegraph implies with its headline), which could mean prisoners are being consolidated there. The HRNK specifically notes Camp 22, which became well-known after Dong-Hyuk's escape, as being a possible option for closing down or shrinking operations as it's simply too infamous.

    According to HRNK, Camp 25's perimeter grew by 37 percent between 2009 and 2010, reaching about five kilometers around, while its total area grew from 139 acres to over 240. A total of 23 new guard posts were added to the perimeter of the camp by 2010, on top of the 20 it had in 2003. But work that started in 2010 looks to be continuing into a rather large expansion, including infrastructure, agricultural, and road developments, which is worrisome.

    “If a dismantling of some of North Korea’s political prisoner camps and prisoner transfers to expanded facilities are in progress, it is essential to ensure that the North Korean regime does not attempt to erase evidence of atrocities committed at the camps, including the surviving prisoners," HRNK executive director Greg Scarlatoiu said.

    For the full spread of satellite photos, check out the DigitalGlobe report, but I've pulled out some selected crops to show how the camp has evolved in the last decade.

    This shot shows Camp 25 as imaged in 2003, when its total perimeter was estimated to be about 3.6 kilometers. The solid blue lines are walls, the dashed are fences, and the red squares are the site of guard towers. Note that criminal prisons in the Western world generally don't come with air defense systems and crematories.

    Flash forward to this photo from 2010, and you can see the results of the camp's big expansion. 

    A closer shot of the central buildings in 2010. Agricultural terraces are clearly visible, and new buildings have appears. The new roofs are over what are believed to be military barracks. Perhaps the most incongruous aspect is the new statue or reflecting pool noted by DigitalGlobe. 

    Now a full view in 2011. Little changed that year, aside from the construction of new buildings, showing an intent to expand the camp within its new, larger borders.

    In 2012, following Jong-il's passing, the camp expanded further. New roads were added, walls surrounding the main camp were expanded, and more area within the larger perimeter was put to use.

    Closer view of the main camp in 2012. Outside the wood mill there's a big white-orange pile that looks like sawdust.

    Here we are with a slightly different perspective in 2013. Already there's more construction in the valley in the center of the image, which has seen expansion for a couple years. Directly to the left of that in the image, you can see further agricultural terracing, which would be required for a larger population.

    Again, it's important to note that what Camp 25's expansion might say about the North Korean prison system at large. But it does serve to show that North Korean gulags aren't a relic of the past. They're still in use, and this one is actually growing. Considering the horrors relayed by former prisoners, that expansion is a sad thing to see.