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'Tightening the noose': Crackdown on defectors fills North Korea prison camps

Kyodo News via AP, file

Chinese security officers and officials at the South Korean Embassy in Beijing scuffle with a North Korea asylum seeker near the building's main gate in this 2002 photo.

SEOUL, South Korea - North Korea's prison population has swelled in recent years with those caught fleeing the country under a crackdown on defections by young leader Kim Jong Un, according to defectors living in South Korea and researchers who study Pyongyang's notorious network of labor camps and detention centers.

Soon after he succeeded his father as North Korean leader, Kim is believed to have tightened security on the country's borders and pressured Pyongyang's neighbor and main ally, China, to repatriate anyone caught on its side of the frontier.

"They are tightening the noose," said Insung Kim, a researcher from the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights.

"Forced repatriation from China is a pathway to pain, suffering, and violence," according to "Hidden Gulags," an exhaustive 2012 study on the prison camps by veteran human rights researcher and author David Hawk. "Arbitrary detention, torture and forced labor are inflicted upon many repatriated North Koreans."

In 2003, Park Seong-hyeok, then 7, and his parents were arrested trying to reach Mongolia from China and sent back to North Korea. He ended up at a prison in the northern city of Chongjin, where he was packed in with other kids, some of them homeless children rounded up off the streets.

"I couldn't even tell whether I was alive," Park said. "We were provided five pieces of potato a day, each about the size of a fingernail."

After a few months, he managed to escape after his uncle bribed the guards. With the help of relatives, he made it to South Korea, but he assumes his parents, who he has not seen in 10 years, remain imprisoned in the North.

Lee Jin-Man / AP

Park Seong-hyeok, 18, says he spent years in a North Korea prison as a child.

In the 18 months since Kim took power, any hopes the 20-something ruler would usher in a new era of human rights reforms have been squelched.

North Korea considers those who leave the country to be guilty of treason and subject to up to five years of manual labor. In addition, the penal code states if the nature of the defection is "serious" — taken by most researchers to mean if the defector gets the help of South Korean or American Christian missionary groups as opposed to trying to reach China for work purposes — the defector risks an additional charge of anti-state activities that could mean life in prison or even death.

North Koreans considered hostile to the government can spend the rest of their lives, along with their families, in one of at least five sprawling labor camps or colonies that encompass fields, factories, mines and housing blocks.

Defectors may end up in those camps, but are typically held first in other detention facilities close to the border, just as brutal but more resembling traditional penitentiaries, according to human rights groups. Still, at least one labor camp, Yodok, now has a special section for those repatriated from China that houses thousands of inmates, according to Kang Cheol-hwan, a former inmate there.

Kang, who recounted his experiences at the camp in the book "The Aquariums of Pyongyang," said his information came from contacts in the North. He currently heads a foreign-funded campaigning and advocacy group aimed at spreading democracy in North Korea.

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As chief Asia photographer for the Associated Press, David Guttenfelder has had unprecedented access to communist North Korea. Here's a rare look at daily life in the secretive country.

Estimates of the current prison population range from 100,000 to 200,000, and activists say would-be defectors account for up to 5 percent of the total. Insung Kim of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights cites a "five-fold rise" in the number of detained defectors over the last 10 years.

Figures provided by the South Korean government appear to support numerous accounts by smugglers, defectors and people living along the border that security has been tightened. In 2009, 2,929 defectors made it to South Korea. Last year, 1,509 did, the lowest number since 2005.

Despite ever more detailed and consistent testimony by defectors and sharper satellite images of the prison camps, there is still little the international community can do to press for change. The government refuses to allow outsiders access to detention facilities to check conditions, and denies the existence of political prison camps altogether.

The main source of information about the prison camps and the conditions inside is the nearly 25,000 defectors living in South Korea, the majority of whom arrived over the last five years. Researchers admit their picture is incomplete at best, and there is reason for some caution when assessing defector accounts.

Jung Gwang-il, who fled the North in 2004 after spending three years at Yodok for alleged espionage, said prisoners were forced to grow corn, peppers and barley, and those who didn't work hard enough had their rations cut. Hunger was so intense that prisoners ate undigested seeds from the feces of other inmates, he said.

In April, they would collect the corpses of those who died over the winter, because they were unable to bury them in the frozen earth.

"To this day I still remember the smell," he said. "Death was a fact of life there." 

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