The gulags of North Korea exist in a strange world between secret and unsecret. No one knows for sure how many thousands or millions are locked away in the camps, which officially do not exist, and information about what goes on there can be sparse. But we can watch the camps grow and contract from satellites, where they’re so plainly and publicly visible they’re labeled on Google Maps, and we are learning more all the time from the trickle of defectors and escapees who make it out of the Hermit Kingdom.
A United Nations report called the camps a human rights abuse “without any parallel in the contemporary world.”
North Korea operates four enormous labor camps for political prisoners — sprawling, city-sized facilities in the country’s frigid and mountainous north. Most inmates are sent for life as punishment for minor slights, or because a relative committed some offense. They are subjected to backbreaking labor, routine torture and starvation, constant fear of arbitrary execution, and conditions so squalid most do not survive past age 45.
These gulags — which are separate from the country’s more conventional prison systems — are thought to house 100,000 or more people, including many women and children. Often, entire families are sent away for one member’s offense, through two or three generations. Sometimes inmates will have no idea why they’re there, or will have never met the relative for whom they are punished with a life of torture and malnutrition.
Inmates are given not quite enough food to survive, forcing them to turn against one another — or curry favor somehow with the guards — to secure enough to eat. They are assigned brutally punishing work, such as coal mining without proper equipment or ventilation. Women and girls are subject to rape and molestation by guards.
Because the generations-long sentences mean that something to akin to families often form in the camps, inmates live with the fear that they will be tortured or killed for a family member’s crime — and are often forced to betray their own family to survive.