The Hidden Tragedy of North Korea’s Camp 16

The Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, which is located near the notorious Camp 16 for political prisoners. There are strong suspicions that the prisoners have been forced to do dangerous and deadly work at the nuclear test site. (Image via Wikipedia)

The persistence of the Kim dynasty’s human rights abuses in North Korea for over 70 years is appalling, and the international community must continue to make efforts to end this multi-generational savagery. Tragically, Kim Jong-un continues to perpetuate these crimes with impunity.

When North Korean defectors finally start learning about the real history of the world by reading history books instead of North Korean propaganda, we are horrified by historical atrocities like Nazi concentration and extermination camps, but we are also hopeful because these dark periods eventually came to an end. How long must we wait until North Koreans can awaken from our nightmare? 

One of the North Korean regime’s most ignominious crimes is the decades-long operation of political prison camps, where anyone who dares to defy the regime can be imprisoned indefinitely with their families.

I was detained in the Yodok political prison camp in South Hamgyong Province for approximately ten years between 1977 and 1987. The Yodok camp was the only special zone among the 12 political prison camps in North Korea at the time where release was possible.

Due to my atrocious experiences there, I decided to dedicate the remainder of my life to shedding light on North Korea’s human rights abuses.

Satellite imagery revealed that the dismantling of the Yodok camp began in 2018, and it is now reported to be in the final stages of demolition. Its notoriety for human rights abuses likely made it difficult for Kim Jong-un to withstand international condemnation and pressure, ultimately leading to its closure.

However, it’s deeply unsettling that the political prisoners from Yodok were merely relocated to another veritable hell, “Camp 16” in Hwaseong, North Gyeongsang Province. 

Camp 16 is a massive 560 km2 prison camp, making it North Korea’s largest. Thousands of prisoners are forced to work constantly under harsh conditions, and some have suffered unspeakable atrocities including digging their own graves, being beaten to death by guards, rapes, and public executions.

To make matters worse, Camp 16 is also located near the Punggye-ri nuclear testing area, where numerous nuclear tests have exposed those in the area to dangerous levels of radiation.

Due to the North Korean regime’s opacity, it’s often quite difficult to verify information about what’s happening inside the country, but two North Korean sources have alleged that prisoners from Camp 16 have been forcibly mobilized to carry out dangerous work.

One source living in North Korea alleged in a 2016 Daily NK article that Camp 16 prisoners were forced to excavate tunnels and do construction work. Prisoners were chosen for this work due to the need for secrecy and control before a nuclear test, and they were considered expendable.

“These prisoners are forced to endure relentless, excruciatingly arduous labor only to eventually die from exposure to radiation, their bodies dumped in a restricted area as part of nuclear waste disposal,” the source added.

The other source was former political prison camp guard Ahn Myeong-cheol, who escaped to South Korea and testified in 1994 that from the early 1990s, young political prisoners from camps in Hoeryong, Jongsong, and Hwasong were taken to an underground construction site at Mt. Mantap, just south of Camp 16. At that time, no one knew that this place was going to be a nuclear test site, or why they were taken there and did not return. 

It’s no coincidence that the regime built Camp 16 right near the nuclear test site. To this day, there’s no evidence that ordinary North Korean residents were ever mobilized for underground tunnel construction at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, so it’s highly likely that untold numbers of political prisoners have suffered and died as disposable slaves for North Korea’s nuclear program. For all of his heinous crimes, Kim Jong-un must be brought to justice by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Kang Chol-hwan
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