North Korea Prison Deaths Reduced by Family Visits

2014-01-19
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A South Korean soldier walks along a military fence on the road leading to North Korea at a military checkpoint in the border city of Paju, April 10, 2013.
AFP

The death rate in a notorious North Korean prison camp has dropped following a policy change allowing daily visits by inmates’ families, which have improved conditions among the normally badly clothed and underfed prisoners, North Korean sources say.

Rules at Jongori prison, also called Reeducation Camp No. 12, now permit relatives to bring in formerly banned items such as underwear, socks, and footwear, along with food and drink, a resident of North Hamgyeong Province told RFA’s Korean Service.

“After daily visits were allowed, the number of deaths has dropped in Camp. No. 12,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Jongori, which is located in Hoeryung City, North Hamgyeong Province near the border with China, has long been known for severe infringements of human rights, including forced labor in harsh conditions, beatings, torture, and summary executions for attempted escape, according to sources.

Many of those held are violent criminals, violators of the country’s drug laws, and ordinary citizens captured while trying to flee the country.

“North Korean authorities had to allow family visits, as the prisoners’ environment had become really bad,” a former Jongori inmate told RFA, also on condition of anonymity.

Forced to work in mines

Formerly, only Jongori convicts with sentences of at least seven years had been forced to work mining copper, the source said.

“But beginning last year, most inmates have been forced to do mining work because the prison now collects molybdenum and obsidian as well as copper ore.”

Expanded work requirements had then cost a number of prisoners their lives due to poor living conditions, so prison officials had “no choice but to keep them alive with help from their families,” the source said.

“The prison can now keep prisoners alive with food and drinks brought in by their families in frequent visits,” he said.

'Unspeakable atrocities'

In September 2013, the head of a U.N. team investigating human rights abuses in North Korea cited “unspeakable atrocities” in the secretive state, saying the international community must take action against Kim Jong Un’s regime and hold it accountable.

Michael Kirby, chairman of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, told the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council that testimonies heard so far by his panel indicate that North Korean authorities are responsible for violations in every area it had been tasked with investigating.

“We heard from ordinary people who faced torture and imprisonment for doing nothing more than watching foreign soap operas or holding a religious belief,” said Kirby, a former Australian judge.

Kirby’s commission also heard testimony from a former prisoner driven by hunger to eat rodents, lizards, and grass.

North Korea’s mission to the U.N. Human Rights Council in a Sept. 17 statement called the commission’s interim findings “fabricated by hostile forces aimed at sabotaging the socialist system of the [North] and defaming it.”
Pyongyang has also refused to allow U.N. investigators to enter North Korea, describing defectors offering testimony to the commission as “human scum.”

Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Doeun Han. Written in English by Richard Finney.