Yeo-sang Yoon, General Director of North Korean Human Rights Archives
I. Political Prison Camps; Overview
1. Definition of Political Prison Camps
Political prison camps in North Korea (PPCs) are special areas that have been isolated from the mainstream society for the purpose of imprisoning and cruelly punishing those involved in political incidents as well as their families without due process. Under North Korean law and the law enforcement guidelines, there is, formally, no legal basis for the establishment and operation of political prison camps. As such, information about the concept, operation and current status of the political prison camps is based on the testimony from North Koreans who have experienced political prison camps themselves. In addition, the term ‘political prisoner’ is not clearly defined by the North Korean authorities so we choose to define a political prisoner in this book by considering their arrests, related charges, the arresting organization, and the term and location of imprisonment.
Usually, the State Security Agency (SSA) is responsible for the investigation and punishment of prisoners as well as the operation of the facilities. The SSA is the official state security organ mandated to handle anti‐state and anti‐people crimes. Therefore, cases dealt with by the SSA are considered political crimes, and the suspects and their families are labelled political prisoners. In this context, political prisoners in North Korea are distinct from ordinary prisoners, and it is this alternate criterion that will be employed for the study of political prisoners until such time that the internal criteria, if any, are disclosed by the North Korean authorities.
2. Impact of Political Prison Camps on North Korean Society
It is no exaggeration to say that political prison camps are at the core of state terrorism in North Korea. Political prison camps are dreaded by North Korean residents who are well aware that if they are arrested by the SSA and designated political prisoners then not only the offenders but their family will all be sent to PPCs. The existence of political prison camps is already such a strong deterrent to all North Koreans that they restrain themselves from expressing personal political views or taking political actions, such as criticizing the policies of the party and their leaders. The North Korean authorities, taking advantage of those fears, completely control people’s lives and ideologies in order to maintain the status quo in North Korea.
Of the total of 322 North Koreans who arrived in South Korea in 2009 and were interviewed by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), only 11.9% gave direct eyewitness accounts of political prison camps. However, 75% were aware of their existence in North Korea, which is considerably higher than the 12.8% who had no knowledge of political prison camps while in North Korea. The interview results reveal that knowledge of political prison camps is widespread and common in North Korea. When asked about their understanding of the possibility of release from political prison camps, only 7.1% of the respondents replied that prisoners in political prison camps can be released when their imprisonment term expires; 72.8% replied that political prisoners are imprisoned there for life and 5.9% replied that all the prisoners are killed there. It indicates that, for most North Koreans, a political prison camp is a place of imprisonment for life or a place where death is highly likely. Above all it shows that the SSA and the existence of political prison camps control the political ideology and actions of North Korean residents. Thus, political prison camps play a key role in maintaining unconditional loyalty to Kim Il‐sung, Kim Jong‐il and Kim Jong‐wun, not only from ordinary people, but also from senior officials in the party, government and army. When political prison camps were first established in the 1950s‐60s, prisoners were mainly those opposed to the dictatorship of Kim Il‐sung. Later, prisoners came to include anti‐state criminals, those working against the power transfer from Kim Il‐sung to Kim Jong‐il and potential opponents. Thus, political prison camps have effectively functioned to eliminate leading members of the party, government and army in order to strengthen the hereditary dictatorship. Political prison camps were self‐supporting based on their own industrial production but have little economic significance for the NK economy as a whole, unlike the Gulag in the USSR that contributed to state construction programs.
However, it appears that political prison camps gradually began to play a more important role as bases of economic production since the late 1990s, amid deteriorating North Korean economy and the food crisis. The North Korean authorities, facing serious economic problems, inevitably paid attention to the production capacity of political prison camps and the products obtainable from the hard labor of thousands of prisoners. As the proportion of the products from political prison camps increased in the domestic market, political prison camps appear to have gradually begun to assume an economic role in addition to their original political objectives. Nevertheless, the economic role played by the political prison camps is much less important than the political role for which they were originally intended.