North Korea prison camps show state struggles with marketization

By Elizabeth Shim
North Korea prison camps show state struggles with marketization
A relatively new satellite image shows Yongdam Kyo-hwa-so in North Korea’s Kangwon Province, a facility not yet confirmed by former prisoners. Image courtesy of Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. and Amanda Mortwedt Oh

Oct. 26 (UPI) -- North Korea continues to use prison camps to detain people for watching South Korean movies or making international phone calls, but marketization could also be helping North Koreans to avoid imprisonment, a U.S. researcher said Thursday.

David Hawk, former executive director of Amnesty International and author of a new report on prison camps run by North Korea's ministry of public security, told UPI the detention facilities were built to imprison people curious about the outside world, along with regular criminals.


"People who were caught watching South Korean movies or videos are imprisoned under the decadent culture prohibition," Hawk said. "People who are caught with cell phones that can make international phone calls are sent to these kinds of prisons."

Hawk said North Korean women who migrate to China, then forcibly repatriated, are also imprisoned in the camps known as Kyo-hwa-so.


Hawk's latest report, published by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea in Washington, D.C., includes new satellite images of additional Kyo-hwa-so prisons and prison camps, with some of the facilities confirmed by North Korean escapees.

The Kyo-hwa-so prison population may have also been growing following an update to the North Korean criminal code in 2012.

The purpose of the provisions of the North Korean criminal code is to enforce North Korea's state ideology and Kim idolization.

A sentence to a Kyo-hwa-so prison camp could await a North Korean citizen if she calls for an unauthorized gathering, expresses dissatisfaction about the state, imports, owns or consumes "decadent" movies and music, or listens to "enemy" broadcasting or propaganda, according to the report written by Hawk and colleague Amanda Mortwedt Oh.

The criminalization of external media consumption could mean the Kim Jong Un regime sees something relatively benign, such as a South Korean romantic comedy, as destabilizing to Kim's rule.

According to a U.N. review of North Korea, the state's "criminal justice system and its prisons serve not merely to punish common crimes. They also form an integral part of the state's systematic and widespread attack against anyone considered a threat to the political system and its leadership."


North Korea's punishment of citizens who come into contact with outside media is strategic, but it is also hurting lives.

"North Koreans are being deprived of their liberties, and facing violations of the freedoms of association, expression, travel," Hawk told UPI. "The regime keeps itself in power through the indoctrination of the citizenry, the surveillance of the citizenry and by the availability of certain punishment."

Collecting data on the prisons

Hawk and other researchers were able to piece together more information about the prison camps because there are now "literally hundreds of North Koreans who have been imprisoned in the camps," and they have been interviewed by organizations in South Korea.

"With new information we were able to get precise locations," Hawk said, referring to the satellite images of 25 Kyo-hwa-so camps in his report.

The U.S. researcher added he and his colleagues have information on about 30 camps in total.

According to Hawk's report, the Kyo-hwa-so camps look like "large penitentiaries, compounds surrounded by high walls with guard towers."

Prisoners are kept busy with work in mining, logging, agricultural labor, crop production, or animal husbandry.

The detainees are allowed visitors, who are also permitted to provide their imprisoned acquaintance or family member with food, owing to low supplies inside the facilities.


What's less clear, however, is to what degree changes in North Korean society are pushing back against the strict enforcement of the 2012 criminal code.

According to Hawk, marketization is helping people of means to circumvent crackdowns, and the population with money is growing.

"There's more people that have more money, so there's more bribery. So while you have a crackdown you have more people with the ability to bribe police and avoid imprisonment," he said.

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