Camp No. 25 and Camp No. 15, two of the regime’s most infamous prison camps, or “kwanliso,” have both undergone extensions and renovations since early 2014, according to an analysis of recent satellite imagery by the human rights group.
Authorities added guard posts, renovated buildings, and extended roads at Camp No. 25, located in the north of the country, and maintained key infrastructure at centrally-located Camp No. 15, also known as Yodok concentration camp.
Survivor Kang Chol-Hwan, in his firsthand account The Aquariums of Pyongyang, described the latter camp as a “spectacle of horrors.”
Amnesty said its analysis showed that the camps, which are believed to contain up to 120,000 people, remained a “cornerstone” of North Korea’s political repression and social control.
“Taken together, the imagery we’ve analyzed is consistent with our prior findings of forced labor and detention in North Korea’s kwanliso, and the physical infrastructure the government uses to commit atrocities are in working order,” said Micah Farfour, the rights group’s imagery analyst.
In a report released in February 2014, a UN Commission of Inquiry detailed testimony describing executions, torture, starvation, forced abortions, and rape inside the country’s penal colonies.
“North Korea used to be seen as a bizarre remanent of the Cold War,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, the head of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. “Post UN COI report, we now see it for what it is, as a country where crimes against humanity are being committed pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the state. That is a true paradigm shift.”
Scarlatoiu said the latest analysis from Amnesty was in line with the trend of the regime reallocating resources to camps away from the sensitive border with China.
“The last thing the North Korean government wants is for more former political prisoners escaping the camps, finding their way across the border to China, finding their way to the free world, giving testimony on these unlawful detention facilities,” he said.
Camp No. 22, one of the closest camps to the Chinese border, was closed in 2012, shortly after third-generation leader Kim Jong-un came to power. Subsequent reports claimed that the camp was closed in response to prisoner escapes.