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Ahn Myung Chul on North Korea’s Political Prison Camps

By Matthew McGrath

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On April 9, Mr. Ahn Myung Chul, Secretary General of Free NK Gulag (now “NK Watch”), spoke about his personal experiences working as a prison guard in North Korea’s political prison camp system. Mr. Ahn worked as a guard at camps 11, 13 and 22, and 26 before he was forced to flee North Korea after his entire family was imprisoned as a result of unsavory political remarks made by his father.

Mr. Ahn opened his talk with an explanation of the management structure of North Korea’s political prison camp system. North Korea’s National Security Agency (NSA), which receives directions from the Central Party, is the primary government body that oversees the political prison camp system. The 7th Bureau of the NSA is specifically charged with this task.

Mr. Ahn went on to detail the differences between types of political prison camps. Camps 14, 15, 16, and 22 are described as “total control zone” camps, which are specifically for ‘serious criminals’ and hold no possibility of release for their prisoners. Camp 15 contains a separate “revolutionary zone”, which is designated for ‘light criminals’ who may be released after receiving ideological education. Camp 25 is a re-education camp, which operates more like a standard prison as opposed to a typical North Korean political prison camp.

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According to Mr. Ahn, a political prison camp contains anywhere between 5,000 and 50,000 inmates at a given point in time. There were 12 operational camps when he was working as a prison guard, which sets the estimated number of inmates at roughly 200,000. Despite a recent report from the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) that estimates the current number of North Koreans imprisoned in political prison camps to be somewhere between 80,000 and 120,000, Mr. Ahn stated that he finds it hard to believe that “so few” are currently being detained.

The remainder of Mr. Ahn’s lecture focused on the historical development of North Korea’s prison camp system. Initially, the political prison camp system was created by Kim Il Sung to eliminate political rivals. The camps were used for this purpose up until the 1970s, said Mr. Ahn, pointing to extensive purges during the DPRK’s early years.

In the 1970’s, following the appointment of Kim Jong Il as Kim Il Sung’s successor, the political prison camps became places to house anyone who voiced disapproval of this choice. It was during this period that Kim Jong Il created Songbun and, with the help of Kim Byoung Ha, used the system to imprison anyone who opposed him. During this time, the estimated number of prisoners rose to 300,000, the highest in the history of North Korea’s political prison camps. However, once Kim Il Sung became aware of the rapid and significant expansion of the camps, he chastised Kim Jong Il, who subsequently shifted the blame on to Kim Byoung Ha. Kim Byoung Ha ultimately committed suicide in the fallout from the scandal. After this revelation, Kim Il Sung altered the name of the National Political Security Agency to the National Security Agency due to criticisms that the organization was too involved with political affairs. Kim Jong Il eventually assumed control of the National Security Agency, which included the political prison camp system, after Yi Jin Soo, the prior head, died in 1985.

In the 1980s, the North Korean authorities re-evaluated each prisoner’s Songbun, resulting in the release of a number of “light offenders,” including the notable Kang Chol Hwan and Kim Young Soon, and the transfer of prisoners who had committed “heavy crimes” to the “total control zones,” reducing the overall size of the camps. Mr. Ahn himself began to work as a prison guard in 1987, during which time the number of political prison camps in operation was reduced from twelve to six.

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The final phase of Mr. Ahn’s timeline begins in the 1990s and continues to today. Throughout this period, political prison camps have been used to hold citizens who are believed to be “against North Korea’s principles.” However, due to North Korea’s guilt by association law, which was derived from Kim Il Sung’s directive to “exterminate three generations of prisoners”, many of the current inmates do not even know why they are being held in the camps. Mr. Ahn explained that the camps also serve an important economic role in North Korea, as many of the prisoners provide free labor producing foodstuffs for the rest of the country. Therefore, political prison camps in North Korea serve the dual functions of boosting the economy and perpetuating the regime.

Mr. Ahn wrapped up his speech with details about his prison guard training and the human rights violations he witnessed while working at the camps. He described the destitute living conditions inmates are kept in and some of the abhorrent abuses they endure in their day-to-day lives. After Mr. Ahn became a driver, he was able to meet many different prisoners. It was then that he realized 90 percent of them had no idea why they had been imprisoned, and his sympathy was aroused. When he fled North Korea, he escaped together with two prisoners from camp 22 whom he had formed a special bond with.

In terms of strategies for improving the situation regarding North Korea’s political prison camps or shutting them down, Mr. Ahn stated that it is “important to raise awareness of human rights abuses domestically and internationally, and very important to punish the perpetrators of North Korean human rights abuses.” He pointed to a project Free NK Gulag began last year, in which they submitted petitions on behalf of prisoners to lay the groundwork for future UN investigations.