Houses of Horror: North Korea's Secret Prison Camps

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SEOUL, South Korea-- North Korea is one of the world's worst violators of human rights.  Those who speak out against the regime are routinely tortured, killed or sent to harsh labor camps. 

Now there's new evidence exposing just how bad the conditions are in these prison camps.

With the help of the human rights group Amnesty International, CBN News got a rare glimpse inside one of the world's most secret prison camps. 

Yodok Prison Camp

Officials call it Kwanliso or Re-education Center No. 15.  But those who languish in here know it as Yodok.

"The notion that hundreds of thousands of people can exist with almost any rights in some of the worst circumstances that we've documented in the last 50 years is simply intolerable," Sam Zarifi, a human rights advocate with Amnesty International, told CBN News.

"The idea that a country can treat its own citizens this poorly on such a systematic level is simply just unacceptable" said Zarifi.

Yodok is located some 70 miles from the North Korean capital Pyongyang.

"The outside world certainly doesn't know what's going on and very little from the inside comes out," Zarifi said. "The very little that has come out paints a very disturbing picture."

Very little is known about Yodok because very few people have left. Yodok is thought to hold an estimated 50,000 North Korean prisoners.

"The camp is really isolated in terms of the mountains," said Susan Wolfinbarger, a satellite imagery expert with The American Association for the Advancement of Science

Wolfinbarger says the Yodok camp is "basically… in the middle of a wilderness."

New satellite images obtained by Amnesty International show that Yodok is growing.

Amnesty compared the latest pictures with satellite imagery taken 10 years ago.  There are more prisoner housing facilities, more guard units and additional agricultural farming areas.

"There's also a fish farm that has actually grown slightly in size since 2001. And finally up at the very top of our image is a mining camp and there's actually a gold mine that's located there," Wolfinbarger said.

House of Horrors

The North Korean regime has repeatedly denied the existence of Yodok. 

"The fact that we would have to rely on satellite imagery just to dispel the government's assertion that these camps don't exist is testament really to the scale of the human travesty that might be going on inside," said Scott Edwards, director of the science and human rights program at Amnesty International.

And Amnesty says what is going on inside Yodok is nothing short of hellish.

"These are places where based on what we understand 2 out of 5 prisoners die often due to malnutrition," said Zarifi.  "Food is very scarce, they work at least 10 hours a day, seven days a week."

Yodok is divided into two areas: the Total Control Zone-- where prisoners are never released without any proper trials, and the Revolutionary Zone -- where conditions are more lenient.

"But in both areas you are treated like a slave, even animals are treated better," said Kang Chol-Hwan, a former prisoner from Yodok.

Kang was only 9 years old when he and his family were sent to Yodok prison camp for political crimes.

"We had no food.  We eat anything we could get our hands on -- rats, snakes, frogs, insects," he recalled.  "We just had to find a way to survive."

CBN News showed him the images of the camp he once lived in.

"Even though it happened a long time ago when I look at the satellite pictures I can still remember everything I saw and endured," he said.

Kang says he's concerned about what he sees in the new pictures.

"The camp definitely looks bigger," he observed. "For example, these new buildings for prison guards weren't there before.  I can only assume that means there are more prisoners being held and therefore more security is needed."

Kang's Escape

Kang spent 10 years in Yodok before escaping to China in 1992. 

He wrote about his experiences in the book The Aquariums of Pyongyang. He was the first person to reveal to the world the existence of the Yodok prison camp.

"The thing I remember the most about in the camp is how the prison guards would kill people for no reason," he told CBN News. "I witnessed many people being executed."

Kang now lives in South Korea.  He's a journalist for one of the country's largest newspapers.

Tales of Torture, Starvation

Reports from inside Yodok are hard to come by.  In 2004, a Japanese television station aired what it claimed was footage from inside the camp.

But Kang and others who've managed to escape testify to stories of torture, starvation and routine executions. 

"On July 22, 1999, I was arrested on suspicion of spying by the national security agency," said Jeong Kyoung-il, another Yodok prisoner.  He was one of the few prisoners released, but only after being severely tortured.

While he was in the Yodok labor camp, Jeong says the prison guards performed a particular form of torture on him called the Pigeon Torture.  In essence, the prisoner is hanged from the wall with his hands tied behind his back like this and he was in this position for several days.

"This happened repeatedly,' said Jeong. "It's like you are hanging upside down.  Your muscles tense up and your chest sticks out like a bird.  I thought I was going to die."

Other Prison Camps?

Amnesty International believes several other labor camps in addition to Yodok are operating in remote parts of the country.

"We understand that there are at least six political prisoner camps and these are vast areas," Zarifi. Informed CBN News. "We think there is a total population around 200,000 people in these six camps."

Jung Sung-san, a North Korean film director, has spent the past few years highlighting the plight of his countrymen.  Jung escaped from North Korea in 1995.  He also did time in a labor camp. 

In 2006, he directed the Yodok Story, a musical drama about life in North Korea's labor camps.

"My father was stoned to death in a labor camp. "To honor his life I decided to show people what life is like in these camps," he explained.

"The world has to realize that there is a country today that tortures its people, kills its people," he said.  "Something has to be done to put an end to this regime."

That may not happen anytime soon.  North Korea's dictator has reportedly tapped his 27-year-old son to take over next year.  And reports are that human rights conditions are only getting worse as the regime makes the leadership transition.

-- Published Aug. 15, 2011.

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