Sunghori concentration camp
Sunghori was one of North Korea’s most notorious and secretive concentration camps, gaining a reputation as an extremely brutal labor camp from which prisoners were rarely released. Located in North Hwanghae Province, about 70km from Pyongyang, Sunghori housed thousands of political prisoners under terrible conditions and forced them to carry out hard labor such as coal mining. Very little concrete information escaped from behind its barbed-wire fences, but accounts from defectors painted a picture of a harsh camp where inmates were starved, beaten and worked to their limits. After exposure in a report by Amnesty International, Sunghori was allegedly closed down, but details around its operation and closure remain hazy. Its name continues to symbolize the North Korean regime’s brutal suppression of political dissent.
Location and Description
Sunghori concentration camp was situated in North Hwanghae Province in North Korea, approximately 70 kilometers from the capital city of Pyongyang. It occupied a remote spot nestled between mountains, far from any major population centers. Like other North Korean political prison camps, it was likely surrounded by electrified barbed wire fences and patrolled by armed guards, completely shut off from the outside world. Very little imagery or footage of the camp made its way across North Korea’s closed borders over the years. But accounts from defectors described a cluster of primitive cement buildings which housed prisoners in overcrowded bunkhouses and unsanitary conditions. Sunghori’s isolated location meant prisoners had little chance of escape.
Number and Type of Prisoners
According to most reports, Sunghori prison camp contained around 20,000 inmates when it was operational. The prisoners were all political detainees, many of them high-ranking officials and elites whom the regime considered potential threats. Kang Chol-hwan, a former prisoner in North Korea’s prison camp system, described Sunghori as a “camp of no return” where inmates were considered irredeemable and never released. Transfer to Sunghori was essentially a death sentence. The reason so little is known about Sunghori is likely that no prisoners ever made it out to describe conditions until after the camp closed down and defectors could report retrospectively on it.
Like North Korea’s other political prison camps, living conditions in Sunghori were extremely harsh. Former prisoners reported being housed over a dozen per room in crude bunkhouses with no plumbing or electricity and fed starvation-level rations of mostly corn and salt. Disease ran rampant due to the lack of medicine or sanitation. Collective punishment was utilized, meaning if one prisoner broke a rule, all inmates would be beaten, deprived of food or forced to attend self-criticism sessions which lasted for hours. The unsanitary conditions and brutality led to high rates of inmate deaths. Bodies were allegedly disposed of in mass graves.
The main form of forced labor Sunghori prisoners were subjected to was coal mining. Conditions in the coal mines were described as brutal – long hours hunched in dark tunnels under constant threat of gas explosions and collapses. Prisoners were forced to work without safety equipment and faced harsh punishments including beatings if they did not meet quotas. Extracting coal under such conditions often led to serious industrial injuries but prisoners received no medical treatment.
Brutality and Restrictions
In addition to terrible living and working environments, Sunghori inmates faced relentless brutality and restrictions designed to break them physically and mentally. Communication with the outside world was virtually non-existent. Letters and visitors were strictly prohibited, meaning prisoners were completely isolated. Harsh corporal punishments were utilized for even minor infractions. Solitary confinement cells were employed to psychologically torment perceived troublemakers. The operation of Sunghori concentration camp was hidden behind a veil of secrecy maintained by the North Korean authorities’ tight control of information and borders.
Little Communication with Outside World
Prisoners in Sunghori were isolated from the outside world, with no means to send or receive information beyond the fences. Contact with relatives was impossible since most were also imprisoned or executed. Letters and visits were out of the question. No photographs or footage ever emerged. This total information lockdown added psychological torment to the already abusive conditions in Sunghori and was a key means of keeping detainees cut off and helpless.
Inside the camp itself, Sunghori inmates lived under the constant threat of the harshest forms of punishment for perceived infractions. These included beatings by guards, long periods locked in tiny concrete boxes unable to move, deprivation of food to the point of starvation and torture by waterboarding or electric shocks. Collective punishment meant entire bunkhouses of prisoners could be punished for weeks if one person was deemed to break a rule. The severity and arbitrariness of punishments added to inmates’ terror.
Secrecy Around Sunghori
Sunghori remained shrouded in secrecy for most of its operation. The North Korean government maintained an iron grip on information leakage about any of its political prison camps, fearful of international condemnation. Only after the camp’s reported closure in the 1990s did more concrete reports start emerging via the accounts of defectors. But the secrecy and isolation meant few verifiable details were known about Sunghori while it was active.
North Korean Government Tight Control of Information
The North Korean regime utilized every means at its disposal to prevent any documented reports or concrete data about conditions inside Sunghori concentration camp from reaching global audiences. Allowing international human rights groups inside to inspect was out of the question. Borders were sealed to prevent escapes. State propaganda omitted mention of camps like Sunghori entirely. Even acknowledging existence of political prisons remained strictly taboo within North Korea in official channels. This comprehensive official secrecy around Sunghori helped keep abuses out of sight.
Accounts from Defectors
In later years once prisoner releases stopped completely, more information gradually trickled out from North Korean defectors who managed to escape the country illegally. These defectors gave ominous descriptions of Sunghori involving starvation, forced labor, disease and executions. But verifying details has remained difficult and mostly relies on piecing together accounts rather than documentation.
International Attention and Pressure
Despite North Korea’s secrecy, some foreign entities did attempt to turn global attention toward human rights violations being perpetrated in Sunghori and pressure Pyongyang for change during the camp’s operation. While it remains unclear if these initiatives impacted Sunghori directly, they did represent some of the only external forces for accountability regarding abuses there at the time.
Amnesty International Report
A key moment came in the 1990s when global human rights watchdog Amnesty International published a report exposing and condemning human rights violations taking place secretly in North Korea’s concentration camps, with survivors’ accounts from inmates at Sunghori. This represented the first time such a high profile organization had directly taken Pyongyang to task for political prison abuses. The report brought Sunghori into global headlines.
Calls for North Korea to be Held Accountable
Around this time, calls also began emerging at the United Nations and from various governments for North Korea to answer for its human rights violations including operation of brutal camps like Sunghori. While no international inspections took place, the pressure added to condemnations coming from Amnesty and other rights groups. This likely impacted Pyongyang’s calculus about maintaining certain camps.
Closure of the Camp
Following the publishing of Amnesty International’s report exposing abuses and forced disappearances at Sunghori and other camps, accounts have indicated Sunghori was shut down by North Korean authorities in the 1990s. However details around the camp’s closure remain somewhat unclear and speculative even today due to the regime’s secrecy.
Timing and Details Unclear
While most reports point to Sunghori being closed around 1997, it is difficult to piece together exact details of events around the closure both in terms of timing and the government’s motivation. Some point to international pressure forcing Pyongyang’s hand while others argue the regime may have wanted to destroy evidence of abuses as scrutiny increased. The lack of transparency means determining a clear chain of events is likely impossible even now. We may never know exact dates, reasons and procedures around closure.
Legacy of Sunghori
Even after its reported closure, Sunghori concentration camp remains a potent symbol of North Korean totalitarianism and just how far Pyongyang was willing to go to break dissenters and maintain power during the later decades under Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. While it no longer houses thousands of inmates, its name still conjures images of forced starvation, brutal slave labor conditions and ideological coercion. For North Korean defectors and human rights advocates, Sunghori represents one of the regime’s greatest institutional human rights failures.
Sunghori concentration camp stood for over 20 years as one of Kim Jong Il’s most closely guarded secrets – an isolated prison colony tucked away in North Korea’s mountains housing over 20,000 doomed political prisoners under the harshest conditions. Tales eventually emerged from defectors telling of forced coal mining, torture, starvation and disease behind its fences. But the government resisted scrutiny and kept the camp shrouded from view for decades. Only after growing international condemnation was Sunghori finally exposed and reportedly shut down. Its name now symbolizes the atrocities North Korea perpetrated against its people for so long hidden away from global criticism. Calls persist from human rights groups to hold Pyongyang accountable for these abuses as pressure continues for openness and justice regarding prison camps like Sunghori.
What was Sunghori concentration camp?
Sunghori was one of North Korea’s most notorious political prison camps, gaining notoriety as an extremely harsh labor camp housing thousands of political detainees under abusive conditions. It operated secretly for decades.
Where was Sunghori located?
Sunghori was located in a remote mountainous area of North Hwanghae Province, around 70 kilometers from Pyongyang. Its isolated position added to secrecy around the camp.
What were conditions like in Sunghori?
Conditions were extremely poor, with prisoners facing forced labor, starvation, overcrowded and unsanitary bunkhouses, disease, harsh punishments and executions. Inmates worked dangerously under brutal conditions mining coal.
Why was it called a “camp of no return?”
Sunghori had a reputation as a camp where prisoners were given essentially death sentences and never released even if they survived their sentence term. It held “irredeemables” with no chance of leaving alive.
When did Sunghori close down?
While exact details are unclear, most accounts indicate Sunghori was shut down in the 1990s sometime after the publishing of an Amnesty International report condemning abuses there. International pressure likely impacted the closure.