North Korea is expanding the brutal prison network its repressive regime views as crucial to staying in power, according to a new report based largely on satellite images.
The report, compiled by the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), offers an unprecedented glimpse into prisons known as "reeducation" camps, which haven't been as extensively documented as its system of political prisons.
Unlike political prisoners, who are held for life, people sent to "reeducation" camps are typically released and actually go through a process that at least attempts to resemble a semblance of a normal judicial process. But they're often incarcerated for activitites that would never be viewed as crimes in most countries and face similar levels of brutality as those in the political prison camps.
"Behavior that is normal anywhere in the world is criminalized in North Korea," Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of HRNK, told Newsweek. If someone was to access foreign information via a radio, for example, they could end up in a "reeducation" camp. "This is one of the primary tools the regime employs to control the people," Scarlatoiu added.
Conditions in these camps, while slightly better than the camps for political prisoners, are still life-threatening.
"The conditions of detention are certainly harsh...In some cases the families are allowed to bring them food. In that regard, yes, perhaps conditions are a bit better. But we have had numerous reports of brutality," Scarlatoiu said. "Induced malnutrition, forced labor, torture -- it’s a vicious cycle."
The abhorrent conditions and lack of access to food lead many to die.
"The brutal and arduous labor, grossly inadequate diet, and lack of medicine lead to a dreadfully large number of deaths in detention. The bodies of deceased prisoners are frequently dumped into unmarked graves near the prison or prison camp without the traditional Korean funeral rites or arrangements," the report said.
According to HRNK's extensive research, which combined satellite images with accounts of people who've defected to South Korea—including former prisoners—far more people end up in the "reeducation" camps than the political prison system. What's more, Kim Jong Un's regime appears to be expanding this system of imprisonment.
Sattelite imagery revealed a restricted area near the center of the country where it's believed a new forced-labor camp is being built. The images revealed a 5.6 square mile enclosed area with "clearly visible security perimeters: double fencing in some areas, single fencing in other areas, guard barracks and positions, entrances, and checkpoints," according to the report.
Kim has been brutally cracking down on dissent since he rose to power in late 2011. He's executed officials, increased the number of prisoners across the board and has successfully reduced the annual number of defectors. In 2014, a United Nations report concluded North Korea's system of prisons constitutes a "crime against humanity."
Meanwhile, even for those who don't end up incarcerated, life can be miserable and feature constant exploitation from the state. Everything belongs to Kim Jong Un and the ruling elites. It's even estimated the North Korean regime has exported roughly 60,000 laborers across at least 20 nations and confiscates around 90 percent of their wages.
"North Korea is really a large prison," Scarlatoiu said. "In a way, everyone, perhaps with a few exceptions, is a prisoner."
"North Korea's nuclear program is often cited as its best hope for maintaining power, and the way in which the suffering of its people sustains the regime is often overlooked. Moving forward, satellite imagery can help us better understand and document the nature of that repression," Scarlatoiu said.
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