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Defectors and death camps: a glimpse into North Korea

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Recently, a high-ranking North Korean intelligence official defected to South Korea. He is the second highest-ranking official to have defected in the country’s history. Since Kim Jong-Un came to power, North Korea has seen more defectors than ever. The consequences for defecting are gruesome. The defectors’ family members will be imprisoned and put into one of many work camps in the country. The most infamous of these is Hoeryong concentration camp, a maximum-security concentration camp in which all prisoners are kept for life.

Hoeryong is located in one of the northernmost parts of North Korea, it is surrounded by mountains and valleys and is completely isolated. Prison guard Ahn Myong-chol described the conditions at the camp as horrendous and said the prisoners were like walking skeletons. Many prisoners have crippling deformities, such as missing limbs, eyes and other body parts. This, however, does not alleviate the prisoners from their daily work.

Their daily food allotment is roughly 180 grams of corn, the only protein they are allowed are the rats, frogs, snakes and other vermin they can catch with their bare hands. The elderly are required to work just as much as the rest of the camp, and those who fall ill or are unable to work are quarantined and left for death. Work begins at 5 a.m. sharp and ends at 8 p.m., the prisoners are given almost no breaks, except for lunch.

The punishment for unsatisfactory work is death or torture. The guards are allowed to execute prisoners at their will. A prison guard once testified that he ordered the execution of 31 family members because one tried to escape. Ahn estimated that roughly 2,000 people die per year. The camp maintains a consistent population, bringing on between 1,500 to 2,000 prisoners per year.

The conditions at these camps are likened to those of Auschwitz. Prisoners are often subjected to various experiments. Kwon Hyok, a security guard who defected after six years of service, reported seeing an entire family put into a glass box that was filled with asphyxiant gas to test its effectiveness. He also reported that doctors will often visit the camps and perform surgery on prisoners who are not in need of said surgery. Prisoners have had limbs removed and been crippled through various surgeries simply for practice. Many prisoners are killed by the surgeries.

On March 14, 2016, the United Nations called for prosecution of North Korea for crimes against humanity. The UN cited various crimes including the actions at the camps and the mass starvation sweeping the country. North Korea has, in recent years, been devoting mass sums of money to developing a nuclear weapons program and other weapons of mass destruction. North Korea was not cooperative with the UN sanction however. North Korea Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong said the state would boycott any hearings it was called for. Progress has not been made in bringing North Korea before an international criminal court.

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