hwasong concentration camp

Hwasong concentration camp

Tucked away in a remote valley in North Korea’s North Hamgyong province lies Hwasong concentration camp, officially known as Kwan-li-so No. 16. At 212 square miles, Hwasong is the largest prison camp in North Korea, holding an estimated 20,000 political prisoners.

Location and Size

Hwasong camp sits along the upper Hwasong River, surrounded by mountains and forests that isolate it from the outside world. The entrance gate lies just 8 km from the county seat of Hwasong. With 549 square km of area, Hwasong is by far the biggest of North Korea’s labor camps.

Prisoner Population

Around 20,000 prisoners are believed to be held at Hwasong. They are imprisoned for life without chance of release, classified by the regime as “anti-revolutionary and anti-party elements”. Many are family members of suspected critics, held guilty by association.

Charges and Imprisonment Term

Detainess face imprisonment for life at Hwasong, with no hope of release. Typical charges include opposing Kim Jong Un’s succession, criticizing the regime, or having suspected dissidents as relatives. Even children have been imprisoned there to punish their families.

Origins and History


While details are scarce, Hwasong is generally believed to have been established in the early 1990s under Kim Jong Il. It was likely created to imprison political enemies and families of critics after the fall of the Soviet Union.

See also  Hoeryong concentration camp

Expansion Over Time

Analysis of satellite images shows that Hwasong has continued to grow. While specific dates are unknown, new housing blocks, factories, and administration buildings suggest its prisoner population has increased slightly since 2008. Some prisoners may have been transferred from other closing camps.

Camp Conditions and Treatment of Prisoners

Those imprisoned in Hwasong face horrific conditions and routine abuse. Prisoners face overwork, violence, starvation, and disease.

Forced Labor

One primary purpose of North Korean labor camps is to exploit prisoners for economic gain. In Hwasong, inmates toil for long hours in the mines, forests, and fields.


Prisoners are forced to work in dangerous mining conditions, extracting coal and minerals from primitive tunnels. Accidents are common and deadly.


Hwasong prisoners harvest lumber from the area’s thick forests surrounding the camp. Without proper equipment or safety precautions, logging results in many injuries and fatalities.


To be self-sustaining, prisoners grow crops and raise livestock, toiling in Hwasong’s fields and farms from sunrise to sunset. Malnutrition is common, as food rations are minimal.

Abuse and Executions

Beatings, torture, rape, and murder are routine within the walls of Hwasong camp. While secrecy makes reports rare, horrific stories have filtered out over the years.


Prisoners are subjected to brutal beatings by guards for perceived infractions, mistakes, or simply for sadistic pleasure. Use of wooden sticks or hammer blows to the head are reported.


Female prisoners in particular face sexual assault from guards and officers. Those becoming pregnant face forced abortions or infanticide of their babies.

See also  Oro concentration camp


From firing squads to beatings to strangulation, camp authorities use execution to punish perceived infractions or simply to terrorize. Some prisoners are made to dig their own graves first.

Impact of Nearby Nuclear Testing

Hwasong’s close proximity to North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site has resulted in another layer of misery. Multiple reports indicate prisoners have been forced to dig tunnels and other facilities in contaminated areas, exposing them to radiation.

Secrecy and Security

Hwasong operates under intense security, making verifying or monitoring conditions very difficult. The secluded area, strict regulations, and fear of retaliation scare most former prisoners into silence.

Limited Firsthand Accounts

Only a few direct accounts have ever emerged from former Hwasong prisoners or guards. Most stay silent due to fear of brutal retaliation from North Korean authorities against them or family members.

Fear of Retribution

In the vast majority of cases, those emerging from North Korean prison camps keep quiet about their experiences to protect themselves and loved ones still in the country from regime reprisals. This cloak of secrecy keeps firm details sparse.

Camp Expansion visible via Satellite

While no outsiders access Hwasong, satellite tracking reveals physical changes to the camp over time. Recent images show new housing and administrative buildings, suggesting its population has likely grown.

International Response

Shocking stories of atrocities have lead the international community to increase pressure on North Korea over Hwasong and other labor camps.

Human Rights Groups

Groups like Amnesty International have used former guard testimonies and satellite photos to attempt to monitor conditions in Hwasong and spread awareness globally.

See also  Yodok concentration camp

United Nations

A UN Commission of Inquiry report in 2014 accused North Korea of crimes against humanity for atrocities committed against political prisoners. Still, lack of access prevents intervention directly in Hwasong.

The Future of Hwasong Camp

As long as the current North Korean totalitarian regime retains power, the future unfortunately looks bleak for those interned in Hwasong camp. While shocking stories of rape, torture, and starvation have slowly emerged, the world still knows very little of what takes place inside those walls hidden in the mountains of North Hamgyong province. For the estimated 20,000 prisoners condemned to Hwasong, their tragic fate will remain mostly invisible unless dramatic political changes someday occur in Pyongyang.


Hwasong concentration camp represents one of the most abusive manifestations of the North Korean regime’s political repression and disregard for human life. Until international pressure and human rights norms penetrate the secrecy and security controlling this remote mountain gulag, many questions will likely remain about the extent of the cruelty occurring within its barbed wire fences.


Where is Hwasong concentration camp located?

Hwasong camp sits in a mountain valley in North Korea’s North Hamgyong province near the northern border with China, isolated and remote.

What is daily life like for prisoners of Hwasong camp?

Prisoners face grueling forced labor, starvation rations, overcrowded housing with no sanitation, rampant disease, and high risk of injury, rape, or execution by guards.

How many people are estimated to be held prisoner in Hwasong?

While firm numbers are impossible to confirm, most researchers estimate around 20,000 political prisoners now inhabit North Korea’s largest concentration camp.

What does North Korea do to silence those emerging from Hwasong camp?

The totalitarian regime punishes escapees or releases prisoners by imprisoning or executing any family members left behind as a deterrent to prevent spreading information.

Is there evidence that Hwasong camp is still active and operating?

Yes, satellite images over the past decade reveal new housing blocks, factories, and buildings – suggesting its prisoner population is likely increasing.

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