SEOUL, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- North Korea may be bowing to international condemnation of its network of political prison camps, an expert told UPI, but even as some gulags close, others seem to be expanding.
Some 80,000 to 120,000 North Koreans are estimated to be detained in the camps -- many of them caught trying to leave the country, engaging in illicit border trade or coming into contact with South Korean missionaries.
Some prisoners are anti-state activists little known to the outside world, including those charged with plotting to overthrow the Kim Jong Il regime between 1997 and 2000 and a group of North Korean students who plotted a coup in 1989 while studying in Germany.
Two years after a U.N. Commission of Inquiry detailed harrowing human rights abuses of repatriated North Korean defectors, the reclusive country has issued counterattacks, calling the dissidents liars whose "testimonies cannot be corroborated."
Pressure on North Korea began building in 2014 after the U.N. General Assembly recommended the Security Council send the cases to the International Criminal Court for prosecution as crimes against humanity, said David Hawk, former executive director of Amnesty International and author of the "Hidden Gulag" reports on North Korean prison camps.
"That caused a huge upsurge in diplomatic pressure in [North Korea]. There has been for a dozen years previously a resolution at the [U.N.] General Assembly, and other reports, but for literally a decade North Korea ignored these resolutions and these reports," Hawk said.
"But the fact that the General Assembly was recommending that the Security Council consider this caught North Korea's attention, and they responded in a variety of ways."
In addition to calling defectors liars, North Korea has taken extensive measures to tout its own progress in defending human rights.
In 2015, Pyongyang denounced a United Nations human rights resolution that was backed by the U.N. General Assembly and said it guarantees "true freedom and rights" to its people. State media, too, has recently claimed it is improving the lives of marginalized groups, including the disabled.
These responses may indicate Pyongyang is no longer detached from the concerns that ultimately call into question the legitimacy of the Kim Jong Un regime, the third generation of dynastic rule.
One prison camp closes, one expands
Hawk confirmed that Prison Camp 22, which held 50,000 prisoners in the 1990s, has been closed for more than three years.
The facility, also known as Hoeryong concentration camp, is a lifelong detention center for political prisoners and their families, a maximum-security area that at its peak was under the control of 1,000 guards.
The closing of Hoeryong camp, however, has been followed by a more recent development: the expansion of one of the largest remaining prison camps – Camp 16, also known as Hwasong.
The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a Washington, D.C.-based non-government organization, and AllSource Analysis, an earth imagery solutions provider, issued a report in December stating the camp not only remains active in winter, with an emphasis on logging, farming and mining, but it has also added housing units, according to defector testimony.
The report says the closing of Camp 22 in Hoeryong could have resulted in the transfer of prisoners.
Defense expert Joseph Bermudez said in the report there is evidence that prisoners who were at Camp 16 were also being deployed at Punggye-ri nuclear site, where Pyongyang tested its fourth nuclear bomb on Jan. 6.
Pyongyang has consistently denied the existence of the camps despite evidence to the contrary, taking the human rights reports as a front to destabilize the Kim regime.
But Hawk said he sees things differently.
"I don't believe it's necessarily the case the regime would collapse if they did not have the prison camps," Hawk said.
"If North Korea moved in the direction of observing and respecting the modern standards of human rights, it would certainly improve the situation of the North Korean people, society," Hawk said.
"It would also improve its ability to normalize its relations with a lot of countries around the world."
Still, Hawk said, it is hard to tell whether international efforts have produced actual human rights improvements on the ground. In fact, the prison population may be growing – albeit for other reasons.
"Kim Jong Un is still in the middle of a process to purge his father's strongest supporters within the military and government," he said.
"He's still solidifying his rule by getting rid of the high officials who were loyal to his father so he can replace them with people who are loyal to him."
Hawk said positive results from increased international pressure won't "happen overnight."
"It will take a couple of years for this to play out," he said.
Since fully assuming power in 2012, Kim Jong Un has either purged or executed some of North Korea's most powerful officials, including his uncle Jang Song Thaek in 2013, and Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol in 2015. Choe Ryong Hae, a top aide, was missing for two months before reappearing again in January.
Defector haunted by captivity
Jung Kwang-il, a North Korean defector and activist in Seoul who endured three years of hard labor in a North Korean prison camp for a crime he said he did not commit, told UPI his captivity still haunts him.
Jung, who was arrested in July 1999, said he was tortured after he was detained for conducting trade at the China border and for coming into contact with South Koreans. The experience nearly killed him, with his weight dropping from 165 to 68 pounds.
Yodok, the political prison camp where he was detained, required hard labor from all captives – many of whom were being held on false charges, Jung said.
Jung, like others, was forced to slave away in corn fields in the summer and chop down trees during the cold North Korean winter, while suffering from malnutrition.
Prisoners died or were left to die from their injuries in subzero weather, and Jung, who survived, was responsible for piling the dead in a warehouse, where their bodies would thaw then freeze again.
Their bloated faces were often disfigured beyond recognition, he recalled.
Yodok, like the Hoeryong camp, has since been dismantled, and Jung is seeking information on the whereabouts of 180 former inmates who were alive when he was released in 2003.
Last June, he submitted the first report to a newly opened U.N. human rights office in Seoul, identifying the missing captives by name. In total, 400 people have gone missing since Yodok shuttered in October 2014.
"It was so hard. Many people died," Jung said.