From Prison Camp to Coal Hub

North Korea is trying to step up coal production at a former notorious political prison camp.
2012-11-06
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Satellite imagery shows the detention and interrogation facility (marked by dotted lines) that has been razed at Camp 22's main headquarters area.
Photo courtesy of DigitalGlobe and HRNK.

North Korea is planning to convert a notorious political prison camp into a coal mining hub after transferring the remaining prisoners to another facility, according to sources.

The sources insist that Camp 22 in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province, was shut down as a detention facility between March and June after the prisoner population dwindled rapidly from 30,000 to 3,000 following a food shortage, despite an analysis of satellite images indicating that the facility may be continuing to operate.

The remaining inmates from Camp 22 were moved south to another political prison—Camp 16—in Hwasong county in the same province, the sources said.

North Korean authorities meanwhile plan to exploit a large copper mine at the former prison camp following the closure of the nearby Kungsim coal mine.

They plan to transfer more than 3,000 miners and their families relying on jobs at the Kungsim mine to the Chungbong coal mine at Camp 22, the sources said. Miners elsewhere may also be deployed to develop the mine.

The idea is to use the facilities of the former camp and step up production at the Chungbong mine, one source told RFA's Korean service.

“The North Korean government closed the Kungsim coal mine and forced miners to move to the Chungbong coal mine. Most workers and their families have moved to Chungbong coal mine already, but a few of them are still remaining there, refusing to leave,” the source in Hoeryong city said.

According to the source, the Kungsim coal stocks have been depleting since early 2000.

Heoryong city authorities were trying to "maintain the status quo" by keeping the miners in Kungsim, even if there is no coal left, because they do not know how to deal with the residents and existing facilities, the source said.

'Trouble'

Another source in Heoryong city said, “The city has decided to close the [Kungsim] mine already but it has trouble in dealing with the miners and their families.”

“It was a relief for Heoryong city that the No. 22 political prison has been closed,” the source added.

Heoryong city is trying to gather workers from mines in other cities as well to work at the Chungbong coal mine, "which is so huge that it needs more than 6,000 miners."

But miners and their families in Kungsim who had to abandon their food crops and move to the Chungbong coal mine are complaining about the forced relocation, saying they have to find their own food in their new location, the source said.

One resident who lives in Heoryong city said, “There is no distribution of food even to miners, so the families of miners should cultivate their own fields to feed themselves.”

“They have their cultivated fields, but the government is forcing them to leave their fields and move to another mine. So, there are a lot of people who want to stay,” the resident added.

RFA's Korean service was among the first to report that North Korean authorities have moved to close Camp 22.

In a recent report, one source from North Hamgyong Province told RFA that some guards from Camp 22 were left behind until the end of August to destroy all traces of monitoring and detention facilities.

'Family houses'

North Korean authorities, meanwhile, have organized a new cooperative farm at the site with newly transferred people and are busy building regular "family houses,” the source had said.

But the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), a Washington-based nongovernmental organization, and Colorado-based DigitalGlobe said after studying satellite images of Camp 22 that they doubt the notorious political penal labor facility has been shut down or abandoned.

An analysis by DigitalGlobe, a global commercial satellite photography company, of images over the last two years, "does not support reports that Camp 22 was shut down or abandoned during 2012," the two groups said in a report last month.

Continued reporting on the issue "helps us look for the right signs and helps us go in the right direction," said HRNK executive director Greg Scarlatoiu.

"The great thing about this reporting is that we continue to follow Camp 22," he said, citing the joint report which pointed to continuing harvesting of crops and coal production at the camp that raised the possibility of the North Korean authorities transferring small sections of prisoners out of the area and replacing them with a regular workforce from other locations.

"We are also aware, as stated in the report, of North Korea's full understanding of the importance of implementing camouflage, concealment, and deception procedures," Scarlatoiu said.

"So we will remain appraised on the matter, and keep a close eye on developments at Camp 22, based on our unique and very effective collaboration with DigitalGlobe."

Written by Sung Hui Moon of RFA's Korean service. Translated by Juhyeon Park. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.