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PRESS RELEASE: Hidden Gulag Second Edition
April 10, 2012


April 10, 2012 Embargo Date

Committee for Human Rights in North Korea releases 200 page report on North Korea’s vast political prison system and calls for its dismantlement

At a conference to be held in Washington D.C. on April 10, the Washington, D.C.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) will issue a 200 page report, Hidden Gulag: Second Edition, The Lives and Voices of “Those Who are Sent to the Mountains.” Authored by human rights specialist David Hawk, the report calls for the dismantlement of the vast North Korean political prisoner camp system in which 150,000 to 200,000 are incarcerated. 

It is being issued while North Korea celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the Kim dynasty. The prison camp system has been in existence in North Korea for some 50 years, a stark challenge to North Korea’s denials to the United Nations that political prisoners can be found in the country. 

Hidden Gulag: Second Edition is based on the testimony of sixty former North Korean prisoners and former guards, provided through interviews conducted for many hours, sometimes days. It contains hand drawings and 41 satellite photographic images of numerous North Korean prison labor camps and penitentiaries holding North Koreans for essentially political offenses. The locations have been confirmed by former prisoners in these facilities who have identified their former barracks and houses, work sites, execution grounds and other landmarks, in the camps. 

Initially modeled on the Soviet gulag in the 1950s, North Korea’s gulag system has turned into a vast network of detention facilities intended to punish those perceived as being ‘wrong thinkers,’ ‘wrong-doers’ or with ‘wrong associations’ or belonging to the ‘wrong political class’ or religious persuasion. The report documents how whole families can be incarcerated, including children and grandparents, for the “political crimes” of other family members. It also documents how forced abortion is regularly practiced on women prisoners who illegally cross into China, become pregnant by Chinese men and are forcibly repatriated to North Korea and how infanticide is practiced when the pregnancy is advanced. 

The report describes the incarceration of North Koreans in political penal labor colonies known as kwan-li-so to which they are banished, deported, imprisoned without judicial process, and subjected to forced labor for mostly lifetime sentences in mining, logging or agricultural enterprises. Enclosed behind barbed wires and electrified fences, mainly in the north and north central mountains of the country, there are “exorbitant rates of deaths in detention” as a result of “systemic and severe mistreatment,” torture, executions and “induced malnutrition.” 

Hidden Gulag: Second Edition further documents the prison conditions in North Korea’s kyo-hwa-so long term felony level penitentiaries from which persons can be released but where deaths in detention are also high. And it provides in-depth coverage of the “brutal interrogation, severe punishment and forced labor” directed at North Koreans who have been forcibly repatriated from China and are held in police interrogation and detention facilities and mobile labor brigades. 

Although the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) told the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2009 that there are no political prisoner camps, Committee Chair Roberta Cohen points out that “more than 120 states in the United Nations General Assembly expressed ‘serious concern’ in 2011 about the existence of a large number of prison camps and the extensive use of forced labor’ ” in North Korea. “It is not just nuclear weapons that have to be dismantled,” Cohen said, “but an entire system of political repression.” 

With over 30,000 North Korean defectors (23,000 in South Korea) now free to tell their stories, “the North Korean regime’s hiding and distorting the harsh reality of North Korea’s unforgiving political prisoner camp system is no longer an option,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of the Committee.

The report concludes with a “a blue-print” for disabling and dismantling the prison labor camp system. It recommends immediate access to the prison camps by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the World Food Program. It recommends the creation of an international commission of inquiry to investigate North Korea’s breaches of international human rights law and international criminal law, concluding that massive crimes against humanity are being perpetrated in North Korea. It calls on China to allow access by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to all North Koreans seeking refuge in China, and calls on the United States, the Republic of Korea and Japan to integrate human rights concerns into any future normalization of political and economic relations with North Korea. 

The April 10 conference on North Korea’s gulag will bring together former North Korean prisoners, human rights experts, representatives of governments, UN agencies, Korea specialists, the private sector, and NGOs. It is co-sponsored by the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, established in 2001 by a distinguished group of foreign policy and human rights specialists, seeks to draw attention to human rights conditions in North Korea by publishing well-documented reports and papers, convening conferences, testifying at national and international fora, and seeking creative ways to end the isolation of the North Korean people. 

The report, embargoed until 12:00 am Tuesday, April 10 is now available on HRNK’s website: www.hrnk.org

Contact: Greg Scarlatoiu, [email protected]; 202-499-7973 

David Hawk, at [email protected] 

Roberta Cohen, at [email protected]

North Korea’s Long-term Prison-Labor Facility Kyo-hwa-so No. 1, Kaech’ŏn
Joseph S. Bermudez, Greg Scarlatoiu, Amanda M. Oh, & Rosa Park
Mar 25, 2020

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), a non-governmental organization based in Washington, D.C., has launched a report titled North Korea’s Long-term Prison-labor Facility Kyo-hwa-so No. 1, Kaech’on. This report is part of a comprehensive long-term project undergone by HRNK to use satellite imagery and survivor testimony to shed light on human suffering in North Korea. This study combines former prisoner testimony collected in 2019 with declassified satellite imagery


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