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    Korea
     Jan 26, 2013


Hopes spike on North Korean camp 'closure'
By Christopher Green

Perhaps few things better indicate the parlous state of human rights in the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea) than the country's network of political prison camps. Hidden in some of the least accessible, mountainous parts of the country, this network of camps, amply documented by refugees and satellite imagery analysts alike, is used to arbitrarily detain an estimated 0.5% to 1% of the entire population.

Given the gravity of the situation, it was natural that excitement would greet reports last summer that the DPRK government had

 
closed one of six camps believed to remain in existence: Camp 22, which lay near the border city of Hoeryong.

Accounts published at the time revealed details of the movement process, which took the three months from March 2012, when the harsh winter weather eased off, until June the same year.

Prisoners were moved over two nights in Spring, sources reported; first, agents from the Ministry of State Security locked down the small border city, and then prisoners were locked in sealed trucks and taken to Hoeryong's main train station. From there they were transferred to freight cars and transported south toward the port city of Chongjin. Residents of two nearby counties, Saebyeol and Eundeok, were brought in to maintain the site, continuing with the farming and mining activities that have long sustained the area.

Many of the 1,500 plus refugees who escaped across the Tumen River during 2012 were from the region, and most said they had heard about the closure of Camp 22. The final decision to abandon the camp was apparently taken shortly after Kim Jong-eun came to power at the end of 2011. Some, though by no means all, said that it was inspired by the defection of the camp warden, which would have been a catastrophic security breach if true.

Though the reason behind the closure has still not yet been compellingly established, subsequent analysis of satellite imagery by the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea did uncover further evidence of the closure itself. In particular, it showed that a building said by former inmates to be the camp's infamous detention and interrogation facility had been razed to the ground. Given that the building will have been the scene of many of the most egregious human-rights abuses that went on in the camp, this represents first class evidence of an essential step in efforts to cover up what went on there.

Irrespective of the rationale, a number of experts are predisposed to view the closure as a positive step forward. Just last week, former Soviet diplomat Dr Alexandre Mansourov went on record at analysis website 38 North to say that the closure may be evidence of a more developmental North Korean approach, commenting in an op-ed piece that it "could have been initiated to erase the evidence of past injustices and atrocities, or may be [an early sign] of political decompression set in motion by the new regime".

However, optimism is fraught with danger where North Korea's ethno-nationalist dictatorship is concerned, and alternative explanations abound. Sadly, the greater likelihood is that the Ministry of State Security, the state entity that operates the political prison camp system, concluded that it is no longer capable of guaranteeing the security of border areas of North Hamkyung Province.

In this scenario, the question of whether or not the warden of Camp 22 defected matters little: that the camp lay just 8 kilometers from the outskirts of Hoeryong City and a stone's throw from the Chinese border will have been concern enough, and the battle was surely lost once the ruling Korean Workers' Party decided in 2010 that the downtown core of the city should be remodeled into a tourist destination, one in keeping with the municipality's impeccable revolutionary heritage as the hometown of none other than Kim Jong-il's mother, Kim Jong-suk.

Interestingly, there may now be another, even more disastrous situation for optimists to contend with, as evidence has emerged that another of the network of camps, the more readily defended Camp 14 at Kaechon, has recently been enlarged.

Building on an already formidable reputation for squeezing information from satellite images that others simply cannot see, Curtis Melvin, the steward of North Korea Economy Watch, has seemingly discovered an additional detention facility to the west of the original, which opened in 1960 but has been rendered infamous in recent years by Escape from Camp 14 hero Shin Dong-hyuk,.

As Melvin himself has noted, it is too soon to be absolutely sure what this mysterious outgrowth of Camp 14 really is. It may, in fact, be nothing at all. However, if it turns out to be a new section of Camp 14, then it may yet take us one step closer to knowing what happened to the prisoners formerly interned in Camp 22. Alas, it will also take us one almighty step further away from finding cause for optimism about the future under KWP First-Secretary Kim Jong-un.

Chris Green is the Manager of International Affairs for Daily NK, an online publication covering internal North Korean affairs based in Seoul, Assistant Editor of the online web journal SinoNK, and a PhD candidate at Cambridge University.

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