Exposed - Kim's Slave Camps

John Larkin
The Far Eastern Economic Review

AHN MYONG CHOL traces his finger along the dirt road he took to escape from one of North Korea's most notorious slave camps. He has no trouble picking it out on the photograph, even though it was taken by a satellite far above the camp where he served as a guard for four years. "This is definitely it," says Ahn. "I finished my shift at 2 a.m. Then I drove my truck along this road to the railway station you see there, and followed the road to the Chinese border."
The solidly-built 33-year-old has spent much of the eight years since his defection to South Korea exposing the horrors of North Korea's forced labour camps for political prisoners. But his testimonies, including one with former inmates at a United States congressional committee hearing in 1998, have suffered from a key failing: No foreigners have ever seen the North Korean camps. They're hidden away in rugged mountains, camouflaged from prying eyes on the ground and in the air.
Satellite imagery of the camps that intelligence services in South Korea and the United States are believed to possess has not been released. With no physical evidence to refute North Korea's denials that these camps exist, the testimony of defectors has largely failed to lift the veil of mystery enveloping them. "These places don't officially exist," says another former guard, Choi Dong Chul, who worked at several labour camps before defecting to South Korea in 1995. "They're North Korea's biggest secret."
Until now. The REVIEW has obtained satellite photos of one of the biggest slave camps, nestled in the mountains of North Korea's rugged far northeastern frontier with China. The photos were purchased from DigitalGlobe, a U.S.-based commercial provider of satellite imagery, after the REVIEW handed over geographic coordinates for some of the camp's key facilities. The images were then corroborated on four separate occasions by Ahn, the only person known to have escaped from No. 22 Camp, where he worked from 1990-94. South Korea's Unification Ministry said in its annual White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea this year that the camp is still operating. Neither the ministry nor South Korea's National Intelligence Service would comment on the photos.
Taken in April and May this year, the satellite shots are the first images of a North Korean labour camp to be made public. They show a vast complex headquartered at the town of Haengyong with administrative buildings, farms, factories and prisoner quarters connected by dirt roads.
Encircling it all, according to Ahn, is a three-metre-high barbed-wire fence accompanied by minefields and mantraps. Inmates are crammed into clusters of huts. Each houses around 30 people, who provide slave labour for the farms and factories.
Some inmates are sent to the Chungbong coal mine, several kilometres away. Miners squeeze into narrow shafts to fill their daily coal quota. Many die of exhaustion, their energy sapped by pitifully small rations, or by vicious beatings from guards. The hospital south of the pithead rarely has qualified staff or medicines. Patients are often left to die, says Ahn.
Almost 210,000 prisoners were interned in 10 such camps in 1999, according to South Korea's intelligence agency, but five have since been closed after news of some of their locations leaked out. Ahn believes some 50,000 are held at No. 22 Camp, which is also sometimes referred to as Hoeryong camp after the county in which it lies.
The camp's horrors are well documented, thanks almost entirely to Ahn's 1998 testimony to a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has also relayed this information to South Korean government agencies and the international and local press. In 1995, he published a book about his experiences as a guard at four slave camps. "The most reliable testimony [about the camps] comes from Ahn Myong Chol," says Christine Lee, an activist at the Seoul-based Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.
For most camp inmates, their only crime seems to lie in being related to someone who got on the wrong side of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il or his late father, the country's founder, Kim Il Sung. The elder Kim decreed that three generations of a class enemy's family be wiped out to cleanse his socialist paradise. That directive still holds.
An offence can be as trifling as tearing up a newspaper photo of Kim Jong Il. But it's nonetheless a life sentence in the truest sense. Inmates transferred to or born in these camps will never leave. Even after death, they are buried within the camp's electrified perimeter.
As one of the biggest camps, Haengyong is a target of human-rights campaigners. "There's a fair amount of literature available now on camps like this written by defectors," says former U.S. Congressman Stephen Solarz, a member of the independent U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. "The existence of these camps and their conditions constitute a terrible indictment of the regime in North Korea."
The opacity of Kim Jong Il's North Korea has shielded him from much of the damage from international condemnation of his gulag system. But even if that condemnation came, Kim would be loath to dismantle the camps. They embody the reasons why it is so difficult for Kim to open up his country in a meaningful way.
A pillar of Kim's regime, the camps are also its Achilles heel. Forced labour accounts for a large amount of what remains of the national economy. The camps allow Kim to dispose of potential leadership threats and cow his people into fawning obedience. Releasing prisoners would pave the way for open dissent. Moreover, it would pollute his realm with enemies who would spread tales of barbarity at the camps.
"The labour camps are crucial to Kim's hold on power," says Kim Dok Hong, a top North Korean defector who has called for the toppling of the Kim regime since he fled to South Korea in 1997. "If he opens them up everyone will see that he has killed so many of his own people. He knows he can't do that."
The satellite photos transport Ahn back in time to a place he describes as his second home town. His job was to drive supplies around the camp's seven main zones. "It feels like I'm right back inside the camp," says Ahn. "I went back and forth every day with supplies, so I knew every inch of the camp. It hasn't changed at all."
His job took him to virtually every building except the prisoners' huts. For six months he guarded an explosives depot at Chungbong. "It's that building there," he says, pointing to a small walled facility. "One day our platoon officer got bored, so he called over some prisoners for us to beat up."
Ahn picks out the theatre at Haengyong where he watched James Bond movies. Across a courtyard is the building the inmates feared most, a detention centre for those discovered breaking camp rules. Here, inmates are tortured and sometimes executed, though Ahn admits he never set foot inside.
"There's a little hill near the detention centre and I was standing there once when I saw 50 prisoners. Once I saw a Japanese woman," he says, adding that she was being beaten at the time. He heard the woman, aged about 50, cry out in accented Korean and was told that she was Japanese. The incident occurred in 1993.
Ahn says he watched prisoners work on a tunnel a few hundred metres away, next to camouflaged anti-aircraft guns. He says heavy artillery was moved into the tunnel after the 1991 Gulf War, when the North Koreans were horrified by what America's precision bombing did to Iraq's defences. Not far from the cinema is the obligatory memorial hall to Kim Il Sung, fronted by a spacious garden. Across the river that divides Haengyong, Ahn identifies buses used to ferry guards to their posts.
From above, Haengyong looks like nothing more than a quiet small town. There's a reason for that, says Ahn. Even when he worked there, camp authorities were wary of satellites and took pains to camouflage the facility. "Anyone who doesn't know better would think this is just another village," says the defector.
Clearly this is no ordinary village. Ahn defected in 1994 after his father was jailed for criticizing Kim Jong Il. Less than a week later he was in South Korea after eluding a massive manhunt in northeast China. He has never tired of telling what he knows, partly to salve his own guilt. The photos bring some of those feelings back, but they'll help him to continue exposing North Korea's greatest shame. "From now on," Ahn promises, "there'll be no secrets."