Prisoner Escape Led to Dismantling of Notorious North Korean Camp

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’s decision to board up one of the country’s most notorious political prison camps was prompted by the escape of two people to China, according to sources inside the hermit kingdom.

The duo escaped from the now-dismantled Camp 22 near the border with China in North Hamgyong province’s Hoeryong county, the sources said, shortly after regime leader Kim Jong Un assumed power following his father Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011.

The younger Kim had Camp 22—which former guards who have defected say carried out biological and chemical weapon experiments on prisoners—torn down as one of his first orders of business, drawing praise from North Koreans who saw the move as a sign of possible reform.

But a North Korean law official told RFA’s Korean Service that Kim’s decision to shutter the camp in mid-2012 was directly related to the escape of a female political prisoner and her accomplice—the driver of the facility’s director of operations.

“It must have been shocking to Kim Jong Un, who had just reached the peak of power,” the official said.

Lacking political experience, Kim hurriedly eliminated the camp, he said, judging that if news of the escape became known to prisoners, it would lead to a disturbance inside the facility.

A trade official in North Hamgyong province confirmed that the prisoner had escaped to China with the help of the camp driver.

“It was in mid-February 2012 that a political prisoner fled from Camp 22,” the trade official said.

He told RFA that the driver hid the female prisoner in the director of operations’ car, knowing soldiers at the camp’s guard post would not inspect the vehicle, and drove about 60 kilometers (37 miles) north to Onsung on the border, where the two crossed the frozen Tumen River into China.

He said that after Camp 22 was closed months later, rumors initially spread among North Korean security officials in China that the fugitives had “already made their way to South Korea or were arrested by Chinese authorities and sent back home.”

But later, he said, the officials confirmed that the two escapees had yet to make their way to any third country and are currently “wandering around northeastern China.”

“Teams of Chinese police and North Korean security agents have swooped in on their suspected hideouts several times, only to fail to nab them,” the trade official said.

“The two sides are cooperating in a ramping-up of efforts to arrest them.”

Camp closure

The closure of Camp 22 has been extensively documented by a number of sources, as well as through the analysis of satellite imagery.

In 2012, sources inside North Korea told RFA that the camp’s population had plummeted from an estimated 30,000 to 3,000, likely as a result of starvation, before being moved to another facility.

They said some guards had been left behind until the end of August that year to destroy all traces of monitoring and detention facilities while the camp was converted into a coal-mining hub.

In August 2013, Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) called for an inquiry into the fate of some 20,000 former prisoners of Camp 22 after signs showed the facility had been destroyed.

And in September that year, the Washington Post editorial board noted that “thousands of prisoners seem to have evaporated into thin air—perhaps via Camp 22’s crematoria.”

Reported by Jieyun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Yunju Kim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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