North Koreans considered hostile to the government can spend the rest of their life, along with their families, in one of at least five sprawling labor camps or colonies that encompass fields, factories, mines and housing blocks. Modeled on the Soviet Gulag system, the areas are chosen for their natural barriers, such as mountains and rivers, their remoteness and their access to natural resources like wood and coal, according to human rights groups.
Defectors may end up in those camps, but are typically held first in other detention facilities close to the border, just as brutal, but more resembling traditional penitentiaries, according to human rights groups. Still, at least one labor camp, Yodok, now has a special section for those repatriated from China that houses thousands of inmates, said Kang Cheol-hwan, a former inmate there.
Kang, who recounted his experiences at the camp in the book The Aquariums of Pyongyang, said his information came from contacts in the North.
He currently heads a foreign-funded campaigning and advocacy group aimed at spreading democracy in North Korea. Estimates of the current prison population range between 100,000 and 200,000.
One human-rights activist said that based on his interviews, would-be defectors now account for about 5 percent of the total inmate population. He did not give his name because the estimate was based on his own research and is not the official data of his organization.
Insung Kim cites a “five-fold rise” in the number of detained defectors over the past 10 years.
“When people get caught, a car comes to their house in the middle of the night and takes them away,” said a recent defector, a 17-year-old who asked his name not to be used out of fear relatives in the North might be targeted. “And they don’t come back.”
The boy, also a student at the defector school in South Korea, worked as a street lookout for his father, who organized the smuggling of money and people across the Chinese border. He fled with his family last year after word got out about the nature of the family business.
“The monitoring has got more intense, there are more patrols,” he said of security along the border.
Figures provided by the South Korean government appear to support numerous accounts by smugglers, defectors and people living along the border that security has been tightened. In 2009, 2,929 defectors made it to South Korea. Last year, 1,509 did, the lowest number since 2005.
The government said there had been no sign of positive change in human rights inside North Korea since Kim Jong-un came to power.
“From defector accounts, it appears prison camps are still being operated, and control on society, including the flow of information, is toughening,” it said in a statement.
Despite ever more detailed and consistent testimony by defectors and sharper satellite images of the prison camps, there is still little the international community can do to press for change inside a country that has consistently shown no willingness to engage on human rights issues. The government refuses to allow outsiders access to detention facilities to check conditions, and denies the existence of political prison camps altogether.