Pukchang concentration camp
Pukchang concentration camp, officially known as Kwan-li-so No. 18, is one of North Korea’s most notorious and brutal political prison labor camps. First established in the late 1950s in Pukchang County, South Pyongan province, the sprawling camp was intended to isolate those deemed politically unreliable and exploit them through forced hard labor. Over six decades later, Pukchang continues to represent some of the worst of North Korea’s systemic human rights abuses.
Camp Operations and Layout
Covering over 28 square miles along the Taedong River, Pukchang concentration camp is surrounded by guard towers and fences up to 13 feet high. The camp is divided into several prison labor colonies and factories, with primitive barracks for prisoners.
An estimated 50,000 prisoners live inside the camp, from children to the elderly. Many are family members sent to the camp through guilt by association. The camp’s purpose is to isolate dissidents from society and profit off their slave labor.
Forced Labor and Production
Inside Pukchang are at least five coal mines, a cement factory, and other production facilities built to exploit prisoner labor. Prisoners are forced to work 16-18 hour shifts under extremely hazardous conditions, without any protective equipment, rest breaks, or adequate food.
Accidents and injuries are commonplace, leading to high rates of amputations, blindness, and death. The mines and factories produce resources that help fund North Korea’s regime.
Deprivation and Abuse
Conditions within Pukchang concentration camp are characterized by systematic deprivation, torture, and humiliation.
Food rations are meager, with prisoners subsisting on around 15 pounds of corn per month. Malnutrition is rampant, leading prisoners to scavenge for seeds, insects, and even resort to cannibalism to try to survive. Prisoners have no access to healthcare and most work themselves to death.
Guards brutally beat and execute prisoners for perceived infractions. Public executions by firing squad or hanging occur frequently, carried out before captive audiences of hundreds of prisoners as warnings against noncompliance.
Very few prisoners have managed to escape and report on life inside Pukchang’s walls. One is Kim Yong, imprisoned in the late 1990s for his family’s political ties. He describes backbreaking labor in the mines, frequent public executions, and prisoners dying from accidents, starvation, and illness in large numbers daily.
Kim Hye Sook is one of the best-known survivors, imprisoned for 28 years starting from age 13 based on her grandfather’s alleged crimes. She recounts 18-hour work days in coal mines, endless hunger, rampant disease, routine torture and abuse from guards, and forced confessions extracted under unbearable pain. Her testimony has brought international attention to the camp.
Changes Over Time
While some areas of Pukchang camp closed after 2006, recent satellite images show mining and production have continued. There are indications that Pukchang has reopened certain areas or even merged with the neighboring political prison camp, Kaechon or Camp 14, across the river.
This suggests that while certain smaller camps may have closed, the erosion of human rights continues unabated within North Korea’s repressive state.
Conclusion and Legacy
For over 60 years, Pukchang concentration camp has destroyed countless lives through its system of fear, violence, and denial of the prisoners’ basic humanity.
The accounts of survivors remind the outside world that places like Pukchang still operate with impunity within North Korea. As calls persist for national reforms and accountability, Pukchang remains a harrowing reminder of the human capacity for cruelty – as well as resilience in the face of unimaginable injustice. The legacy of the camp must spur the international community to keep pushing for the basic rights and dignity of the North Korean people.
Where is Pukchang concentration camp located?
Pukchang is located in Pukchang county, South Pyongan province, North Korea. It lies along the Taedong River, across from Kaechon internment camp.
When was Pukchang concentration camp established?
It was established around 1958 as one of North Korea’s first political prison facilities.
Who runs Pukchang?
Unlike most camps, Pukchang is administered by the Ministry of People’s Security rather than the State Security Department.
How many prisoners are/were held at Pukchang?
Estimates indicate around 50,000 prisoners are/were held there in primitive conditions.
What happens to the products of forced labor?
Goods like coal, cement and textiles are used domestically to prop up North Korea’s regime and economy.