The US’ main focus is on getting Pyongyang to resume international talks about giving up its nuclear weapons program. Most other governments believe increased contact with the regime and its people — not sanctions or threats — is the best way to improve conditions. The UN will next month begin a high-level commission of inquiry into human rights in North Korea, but few expect Pyongyang will allow UN researchers access to the country, let alone the camps.
“The US government can’t do much of anything,” said David Hawk, a veteran human-rights researcher and author of the Hidden Gulag report. “If North Korea wants to maintain its self-imposed isolation, there is very little that the outside world can do except record the grotesqueness of the violations and condemn them.”
The main source of information about the prison camps and the conditions inside is the nearly 25,000 defectors living in South Korea, the majority of whom have arrived over the past five years. Researchers say their picture is incomplete at best, and there is reason for some caution when assessing defector accounts.
Only a tiny percentage of the defectors were themselves imprisoned or worked as guards in the camps. On their arrival in the country, all spend three months at a center run by South Korea’s intelligence agency, where they are pumped for information, in part to establish whether they might be spies. It often takes several years for defectors to reach South Korea, so their information is rarely current. Some ask for money to be interviewed.
Jung Gwang-il, who fled the North in 2004 after spending three years at Yodok for alleged espionage, said prisoners were forced to grow corn, peppers and barley, and those who did not work hard enough had their rations cut. Hunger was so intense that prisoners ate undigested seeds from the feces of other inmates, he said.
In April, they would collect the corpses of those who died over the winter, because they were unable to bury them in the frozen earth.
“To this day, I still remember the smell,” he said. “Death was a fact of life there.”