Before the late 1980s, there were a total of 12 prison camps, but about half of them have been shut down. This does not mean that the number of prisoners has decreased, but rather that the number of prison camps has gone down.
I think this is because China used to be a close ally of North Korea. But after China started trying to open up, North Korea began to perceive China as a threat, which is why it shut down several prison camps near the Chinese border area and relocated them to more inland areas.
One of the largest prison camps had been located in Hoeryong of the North Hamgyong Province, but again, since it was near the border area with China, North Korea did not want any of its secrets to be revealed. This is why they decided to shut it down.
[The Hoeryong prison camp, officially known as Penal Labor Colony No. 22, was located in northeastern North Korea.]
As of today, from what I understand, there are 5 prison camps in North Korea, with a total of around 200,000 prisoners.
[The 200,000] is a combination of criminals and their family members. I would say that the number of criminals themselves would stand at around 30,000 to 50,000 out of the 200,000.
[Estimates of the current total number of political prisoners in North Korea range from 80,000 to 200,000.]
If you look at the criminal system or the criminal law of North Korea, you would find that it is quite different from even those of other socialist countries.
When North Korea talks about managing and operating the nation, everything is focused on the Kim family, rather than enacting laws for the public good.
[Three generations of the Kim family have ruled North Korea since 1948. Kim Il Sung (1912 – 1994) was the founder and leader of the North Korean state from 1948 until his death in 1994. Kim Jong Il (1941 – 2011) succeeded his father and led North Korea from 1994 until his death in 2011. Kim Jong Un (1983 - ) assumed power on his father’s death in 2011.]
It is very much like the loyalty system that you would find in the past where the level of punishment can be quite severe, and in this sense, again, the criminal system from North Korea is different from those of even other socialist nations.
You have to understand that under the North Korean criminal system, political criminals and economic criminals are treated separately. This means political criminals fall under the National Security Bureau, and economic criminals would be dealt with by the North Korean police so the facilities or the prisons where these criminals go to are also separated according to whether you are a political or economic criminal.
It could be either way. If your crime is very severe, then you can be separated from your family.
For instance, there is a type of prison camp that is not a camp with families, but rather a prison just for political criminals in Chongjin of the North Hamgyong Province. There the criminals are separated from their families and housed alone.
In other situations, you could live with your family within the prison camp area, so it really just depends on the severity of your crime.
North Koreans are forced to say there are no prison camps, because that is what the regime orders them to do. North Korea has never openly admitted to having prison camps, so saying there are no camps is quite a cliché response that you would hear from the North Korean regime.
I don’t think that the international community buys that at all, because satellite photos have already proven the existence of these camps and so many people have provided their testimonies about life there.