Shadows Of Silence: Unveiling North Korea’s Gulag Camps

North Korea’s gulag system lives in a peculiar environment between hidden and open. No one knows for certain how many thousands or millions of people are imprisoned in the camps, which are officially defunct, and knowledge about what happens there is limited. But we can see the camps expand and contract from space, where they’re so obviously and publicly apparent that they’re labeled on Google Maps, and we’re learning more all the time from the trickle of defectors and escapees who make it out of the Hermit Kingdom.

In the shadows of North Korea’s hermetic veil lies a grim reality that stands in stark contrast to its carefully curated public image. Among the most chilling manifestations of this reality are the notorious gulag camps, a sprawling network of brutal detention centers designed to quash dissent and punish those deemed enemies of the state. The purpose of this article is to shine a light on these hidden blights, in the hope of fostering a better understanding and, ultimately, catalyzing change.

History Of North Korean Gulag System

North Korea’s gulag system, a term reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s infamous forced labor camps, dates back to the early years of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Established under the rule of Kim Il-sung, the system was designed as a tool for political repression, aimed at eliminating opposition and enforcing ideological conformity. Unlike the prisons of many other nations, these camps are not just for those who have committed crimes but often for those who simply think differently or are related to someone who does.

Present State Of North Korean Gulag Camps

Credit: Reuters

Recent satellite imagery and intelligence reports suggest the existence of numerous such facilities scattered across the country. These camps, shrouded in secrecy, are believed to house tens of thousands of prisoners. Among them are not only those who have dared to speak against the regime but also their families, imprisoned under the draconian principle of ‘guilt by association.’

North Korea’s gulag camps, shrouded in secrecy and fortified by a regime that denies their very existence, remain one of the most harrowing enigmas of the 21st century. Based on satellite imagery, defector testimonies, and limited intelligence reports, experts estimate the existence of multiple camps, each serving as a microcosm of human rights atrocities. These camps, often situated in remote, mountainous areas to evade external scrutiny, are believed to be scattered across the country, with notable ones like Camp 22 in Hoeryong and Camp 14 in Kaechon.

The estimated number of inmates in these camps varies, but reports suggest figures ranging anywhere from 80,000 to 120,000. The ambiguity in these numbers underscores the hermetic nature of the North Korean regime. The inmates, tragically, encompass a wide range of individuals, often detained not for concrete criminal activities but for nebulous charges of political dissent or guilt by association. This latter category can ensnare entire families under the regime’s ‘three generations of punishment’ rule, where relatives of a person accused of political crimes are also imprisoned, often for life.

Political dissidents form a significant category of these prisoners. These are individuals who have either voiced opposition to the government, tried to defect, or have been accused of espionage. Their ‘crimes’ can be as trivial as listening to South Korean radio broadcasts or as severe as attempting to flee the country. In addition to political prisoners, there are those who are detained for practicing religion, a right severely restricted in North Korea. Christians, in particular, find themselves targeted and sent to these camps for merely possessing a Bible or engaging in religious activities.

The camps are further divided based on the perceived severity of inmates’ ‘crimes’. Some are designated for forced labor, where prisoners toil in mines, farms, or factories under abysmal conditions, with little food, inadequate medical care, and brutal treatment. Others are closer to traditional prison settings, albeit with harsher conditions, where the focus is more on ideological re-education through relentless propaganda and indoctrination sessions.

These camps not only serve as places of punishment but also act as tools for instilling fear among the general populace, a grim reminder of the consequences of dissent. The existence of these camps, despite North Korea’s denials, has been corroborated by numerous defectors who have bravely shared their harrowing experiences, painting a vivid picture of the grim reality that lies hidden within the secretive nation’s borders.

Let’s see the infamous labor camps of North Korea:

Camp 22 – Hoeryong

Hoeryong concentration camp, also known as Camp 22, was a notorious political prison camp in North Korea. Located near the border with China, it was reportedly one of the largest camps, with an estimated 50,000 prisoners. The camp was known for its severe conditions, including forced labor, torture, and human rights abuses. Prisoners, often detained without trial, included political dissidents, people accused of minor offenses, and their families, imprisoned under North Korea’s guilt-by-association policies. Reports suggest the camp was closed around 2012, but its legacy continues to highlight the extreme human rights violations in North Korea.

Camp 14 – Kaechon

Kaechon Internment Camp, also known as Camp 14, is a labor camp in North Korea. It houses political prisoners and descendants of alleged criminals. The official name for the camp is Kwan-li-so (Penal-labor colony) No. 14. Established around 1959, it is situated in central North Korea near Kae’chŏn county, South Pyongan Province. The camp covers approximately 155 square kilometers and includes overcrowded barracks, factories, and mines. It is distinct from the Kaechon concentration camp, which is located 20 kilometers northwest. The grim reality of Kaechon Internment Camp underscores the urgent need for human rights advocacy in North Korea.

One of the prominent former prisoner is Shin Dong Hyuk. He stated in his official biography Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden that he was born in the camp and lived there until he escaped in his early twenties. Shin recanted some of this story in 2015.

Shin admitted to Harden that he had modified some dates and locations and added some “fictive elements” to his story. Harden explained these improvements in a new foreword but did not completely rework the book.

Shin stated that he did not spend his entire life in North Korea at Camp 14. Despite insisting that he was born there, he indicated that when he was a child, his family was transported to the less severe Camp 18, where he spent several years. He claimed he was tortured at Camp 14 in 2002 as punishment for fleeing Camp 18.

Check out his story Escape From Camp 14 to learn more about his experience there

Life Inside The Gulags

Living Conditions

North Korea’s gulag camps, notorious for their inhumanity, are characterized by abhorrent living conditions. Inmates face extreme overcrowding, inadequate shelter, and harsh climates without proper clothing or heating. Nutrition is severely lacking, with prisoners often surviving on meager portions of corn and soup, leading to widespread malnutrition and disease. Sanitation is almost non-existent, exacerbating the spread of illnesses.

Testimonies of Survivors and Defectors

Survivors’ accounts reveal a world of unrelenting brutality. Defectors speak of routine torture, public executions, and arbitrary violence by guards. One defector recounted witnessing deaths from starvation, overwork, and abuse. Another spoke of the psychological torment of constant surveillance and indoctrination. These testimonies paint a harrowing picture of life in the camps, marked by fear, suffering, and despair.

International Perspective

Global Awareness and Reactions

The international community has grown increasingly aware of the atrocities within North Korea’s gulags, primarily through defector testimonies and satellite imagery. This awareness has led to global condemnation, with many nations and human rights organizations calling for immediate action to address these violations.

UN and Other International Body Interventions

The United Nations has repeatedly denounced North Korea’s human rights record. Various UN reports have detailed the systemic abuse in the camps, urging international intervention. However, tangible action has been limited, partly due to North Korea’s isolation and resistance to external scrutiny.

Human Rights Violations

Types of Human Rights Abuses within the Camps

The camps are sites of egregious human rights abuses, including torture, sexual violence, forced labor, and executions. Prisoners are denied basic rights like fair trial, healthcare, and freedom of expression. The conditions and treatment in these camps constitute a blatant disregard for human dignity and international human rights laws.

Impact on Families and Communities

The impact extends beyond the camps, affecting families and communities. The policy of guilt by association results in the imprisonment of entire families, including children, for one member’s perceived offenses. This practice not only destroys families but also instills a pervasive fear throughout North Korean society, stifling any potential dissent.

Political Implications

Role of the Camps in Maintaining the Regime’s Power

The gulag system is a critical tool for the North Korean regime to maintain control. By instilling fear and punishing dissent, these camps serve as a stark warning to the populace, reinforcing the regime’s power and suppressing any challenge to its authority.

International Political Ramifications

The existence of these camps and the associated human rights violations have strained North Korea’s relationships with the international community, impacting diplomatic negotiations and contributing to the country’s isolation.

Action To Take

What Can Be Done by the International Community

The international community, including governments and international bodies, must intensify diplomatic pressure on North Korea to end these human rights abuses. Sanctions, human rights dialogues, and support for defector testimonies are vital. Additionally, global organizations should continue to document and publicize the conditions in these camps to maintain international attention.

Role of Individuals and Organizations in Advocating for Change

Individuals and non-governmental organizations play a crucial role in raising awareness and advocating for change. Support for North Korean defectors, public campaigns, and lobbying efforts can help keep the issue at the forefront of international discourse.


The situation in North Korea’s gulag camps is a dire human rights crisis that demands urgent global attention and action. The international community, along with individual advocates, must work tirelessly to expose these atrocities and pressure the North Korean regime to cease its brutal treatment of prisoners. Only through sustained and concerted efforts can there be hope for change and justice for the victims of this oppressive system.

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