Yodok concentration camp
The Yodok concentration camp, officially known as Kwan-li-so No. 15, was perhaps the most notorious of North Korea’s vast network of political prison facilities. First opened in the 1970s, it held over 50,000 people at its peak before its closure around 2014. This article will examine the horrific conditions and human rights abuses that occurred behind Yodok’s barbed wire fences.
Location and Geography
Yodok was located about 70 miles northeast of Pyongyang in South Hamgyong province. The camp sprawled across 146 square miles of river valleys and mountains, surrounded by guard towers and electrified fencing. It was divided into two zones: a “total control zone” for political prisoners and criminals, and a “revolutionary zone” for those charged with lesser offenses.
Living conditions within Yodok were deplorable. Prisoners were crammed into small huts with leaking straw roofs and dirt floors.
Up to 40 people slept crowded together on wooden boards covered only by a single blanket. Housing was not insulated, leaving inmates exposed to North Korea’s frigid winters.
Clothing and Hygiene
Inmates wore tattered hand-me-down clothing full of holes and dirt. Most had no socks, gloves, or spare garments. With no opportunity to bathe or wash clothes, prisoners were covered in filth and infested with lice and fleas. They used dry leaves instead of toilet paper in the camp’s unsanitary shared latrines.
Food and Malnutrition
Daily food rations consisted of around half a pound of corn boiled into a thin gruel and served three times a day. This provided only a fraction of the calories needed for hard labor. As punishment, rations were often reduced or withheld entirely if work quotas were not met.
Disease and Lack of Healthcare
Without medicine or doctors, diseases like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and pellagra ran rampant. Prisoners attempted to supplement their diet by catching and eating snakes, rats, and insects in order to survive. Many fell ill or died from combinations of malnutrition and infectious diseases.
Inmates of all ages were subjected to long hours of grueling forced labor, from mining and logging to textile factory work and field agriculture.
The workday lasted from 4 am to 8 pm in summer, with ideological indoctrination sessions mandatory before sleep. During other seasons, shifts extended even longer to meet stringent quotas.
Dangerous Working Conditions
Logging and mining especially were very hazardous. Work accidents leading to disability and death were commonplace and unpreventable.
Quotas and Punishments
Prisoners who failed to fulfill unrealistic quotas had their meager rations further reduced. Children as young as six years old had to meet adult production targets, with extreme physical punishment for those who faltered.
Torture and Abuse
A wide range of barbaric torture methods were routinely utilized on Yodok prisoners. Public executions by firing squad or starvation also took place frequently to intimidate captives.
Common Torture Methods
Former prisoners have reported torture by waterboarding, beatings, forced painful stress positions for days on end until death, and more. Camp guards exercised complete domination over inmates.
Those accused of infractions like stealing food or attempting escape were executed publicly as a warning to other prisoners. These occurred multiple times per year, with thousands of witnesses forced to watch.
Female inmates were left completely vulnerable to rape and other sexual violence by guards and officers. Forced abortions were also commonplace.
Demands for Closure
Human rights organizations around the world decried the atrocious conditions and demanded Yodok be shut down immediately.
Human Rights Groups
Amnesty International, the UN Commission of Inquiry, and many other watchdog groups published reports exposing Yodok’s systemic inmate abuse. They urgently pressed for its closure as well as all North Korean prison camps.
Testimonies of Injustice
The accounts of Yodok survivors who risked their lives by speaking out played a major role in revealing the camp’s shocking evils. Kang Chol-hwan’s memoir of his childhood imprisonment sparked particular outrage.
It appears Yodok was finally shut down around 2014, possibly due to this international pressure. However, the full truth remains unclear.
Satellite images showed the removal of guard posts and certain facilities by 2014. North Korea has never acknowledged the camp or its closure. Reports indicate prisoners may have been transferred to other sites.
Yodok leaves behind a horrific legacy of lives destroyed and families torn apart. North Korea continues denying the existence of its estimated 16 prison facilities still holding 80,000-120,000 people.
There are grave, valid fears that the regime has simply relocated Yodok’s inmates and camp model elsewhere. Complete transparency and accountability for decades of atrocities remain lacking.
The Yodok concentration camp represents the very worst of North Korea’s vast apparatus aimed at silencing political dissent through fear. Even with its closure, the wider gulag system it exemplified remains alive. Yodok’s decades of untold suffering demonstrate an urgent need to defend human dignity and shine light wherever it is threatened.
Where was the Yodok camp located?
Yodok was located about 70 miles northeast of Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, in a valley region of the South Hamgyong province.
How many people were imprisoned in Yodok?
Estimates indicate Yodok held somewhere between 50,000-200,000 prisoners over its lifespan from the 1970s until around 2014. Population counts likely fluctuated over time.
What were conditions like in Yodok?
Prisoners endured horrific conditions including forced hard labor, chronic starvation, infectious disease, subzero winters without heating, torture, rape, and arbitrary public executions.
Why was Yodok shut down?
It appears international pressure played a major role. Groups like Amnesty International urged North Korea for years to close Yodok over its systemic human rights violations, backed by survivor testimonies.
Do prison camps still operate in North Korea?
Yes. While North Korea officially denies it, reports estimate around 16 kwalliso political prison facilities remain active holding 80,000-120,000 people in similarly abusive conditions to Yodok. Concerns persist over inmates being relocated from Yodok to other camps. Complete transparency remains lacking.