onsong concentration camp

Onsong concentration camp

Onsong concentration camp was an infamous political prison in North Korea, holding an estimated 15,000 inmates at its height. Though closed in 1989, it remains a symbol of the country’s brutal and secretive network of camps used to suppress dissent. Piecing together defectors’ scattered testimonies, we can shine a light inside this dark corner of North Korea’s history.

Location and Official Designation

Perched near the border with China in North Hamgyong province, Onsong operated from the early 1980s until 1989 as one of North Korea’s infamous “kwanliso” political labor camps. Its official title was “Concentration Camp (Kwan-li-so) No. 12.”

Number and Type of Prisoners

Throughout the 1980s, the camp held around 15,000 prisoners accused of political offenses. The remote location and harsh conditions meant inmates rarely left alive.

Notable Prisoner Testimonies

Two defectors’ accounts expose unrest simmering under the camp’s brutality. Ahn Myong-chol was an Onsong guard in the 1980s. He recalled the uprising of desperate and defiant prisoners that would contribute to the camp’s ultimate demise.

The 1987 Riot

In 1987, Onsong exploded into violence unlike anything seen before in North Korea’s camps.

Origins and Scope

The spark came when a prisoner killed a notoriously cruel guard, incensed at his treatment of a fellow inmate. Around 200 prisoners rallied to his side, their defiance igniting simmering tensions in the camp. Soon nearly 5,000 inmates – a third of the camp’s population – had joined the chaotic resistance. Guards were overwhelmed.

See also  Yodok concentration camp

For the North Korean regime, it was a shocking challenge to their authority – and they aimed to respond with absolute force.

Reports on Casualties

With reinforcements from another camp, guards proceeded to open fire with machine guns and execute the defiant prisoners en masse. Defectors claim that all rioters were killed – from several hundred to up to 5,000 dead in total. With no outside access, verification remains impossible. Regardless of numbers, the incident would come to mark one of the regime’s deadliest suppressions of dissent in the camps.

Reasons for Camp Closure

The proximity to China likely sealed the camp’s demise after the 1987 riot. The regime perhaps feared too much information was making its way over the border.

Prisoner Transferral

When Onsong closed in 1989, its remaining prisoners were transferred to other facilities like the notorious Hoeryong concentration camp. Though gone, Onsong remained a blueprint for the camps that outlived it.

Onsong in Context of North Korea’s Camp System

While North Korea officially denies running any labor camps, experts believe between 80,000 and 120,000 prisoners remain in the system today – a system modeled after camps like Onsong.

Comparisons to Other Camps

Other camps have also seen resistance. The notorious Yodok camp saw a clash in 1990s where about 50 were killed. But Onsong’s riot was unprecedented in scale. Perhaps authorities saw it as evidence that more remote locations were easier to control prisoners in.

Lack of Outside Information

Due to North Korea’s intense secrecy and control, little concrete information exists about conditions, operations and uprisings at facilities like Onsong. Defectors provide droplets that slowly construct a picture of horror, but the wider world still lacks a deluge of evidence.

See also  Hwasong concentration camp

For now, uncertainty prevails.

Conclusion and Lingering Questions

In conclusion, while Onsong concentration camp operated for under a decade, its legacy persists in the network of brutal camps continuing today under the world’s radar. Scraps of defector accounts hint at extreme deprivation and unchecked violence inflicted on its prisoners.

Traces emerge of desperate resistance by prisoners pushed past limits of human endurance. But definitive truth remains elusive under the Kim regime’s secrecy apparatus.

We are left with haunting questions that only those who survived Onsong could answer. Until North Korea’s walls crack further, the full truth of suffering camps like Onsong will continue to struggle towards the light.

Summary of Known Information

In summary, Onsong was a political concentration camp housing thousands of prisoners in North Korea through the 1980s. An unprecedented 1987 riot saw brutal retaliation by guards, likely expediting the remote camp’s closure.

Need for Further Investigation

More defector accounts are required to truly quantify the horrors committed behind Onsong’s fences. Global pressure continues for North Korea’s camps to be opened to outside scrutiny.


When did Onsong concentration camp open?

Onsong is believed to have opened in the early 1980s as part of North Korea’s kwanliso camp system for political prisoners. It operated until its closure in 1989.

How did prisoners end up at Onsong?

Those sent to Onsong were condemned through North Korea’s arbitrary justice system for supposed political offenses. However, many were guilty only of innocuous acts questioning the regime.

What conditions were like at Onsong concentration camp?

See also  Hoeryong concentration camp

Details are scarce. However, accounts of North Korea’s kwanliso camps reveal routine abuse and deprivation, with insufficient food, shelter, hygiene and healthcare. Prisoners endured forced labor and torture.

Why did North Korea close down Onsong concentration camp?

Its proximity to the Chinese border likely concerned authorities after a massive 1987 prisoner riot. The government may have feared too much information was escaping over the border about camp conditions.

What happened to prisoners after Onsong closed?

When Onsong shut in 1989, accounts suggest guards transferred remaining prisoners to other facilities like Hoeryong concentration camp. The closure did not spare prisoners held within the system.

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