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Interviewed June 2010 and April 2014

Kang Chol-Hwan escaped from North Korea in 1992 and has dedicated his life to bringing attention to the horrifying conditions in North Korea.

When Kang was 9 years old, the North Korean government accused his grandfather of treason and sent the family to one of its most notorious concentration camps, Yodok. Kang lived in the camp for 10 years, surviving on meager corn rations along with rats and earthworms. He and his family were forced to work in fields and mines and to witness public executions of their fellow prisoners.

Following his release from the camp, Kang bought an illegal radio receiver and began listening secretly to broadcasts from South Korea. These broadcasts allowed Kang to understand the differences between totalitarian societies, like North Korea, and free societies. Kang and a friend escaped North Korea by sneaking across the border to China and went from there to South Korea, where he lives today.

Kang described his experiences in his powerful memoir, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.” President Bush welcomed Kang to the White House in 2005 .

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.

North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a country of 23 million people in northeast Asia, ruled by Communist dictator Kim Jong-Un. His deceased predecessors—father, Kim Jong-Il, and grandfather, Kim Il-Sung – respectively retain the titles of “Eternal President” and “The Great Leader.”

The Korean War began in 1950, when Kim Il-Sung, backed by the Soviet Union and China, attacked South Korea. The conflict ended in a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty, and the border between the two Koreas remains tense and heavily militarized.

Kim Il-Sung employed harsh tactics to consolidate his power and propagated an extreme personality cult that has been continued by his successors. A blend of communist doctrine, state terror, xenophobia and hyper-nationalism has given North Korea its unique ideology. Despite some recent openings, North Korea remains largely isolated from the rest of the world.

With the end of Soviet communism and withdrawal of economic support, North Korea’s economy collapsed in the 1990s. A massive famine, aggravated by the regime’s indifference, killed as many as 2 million people between 1994 and 1998. While conditions have improved, even today, North Korea faces problems of malnutrition and insufficient access to food.

Tensions between North and South Korea remain high. In 2010, North Korea sank a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors and attacked a South Korean island, killing four civilians. North Korea has developed and tested nuclear weapons in contravention of several international agreements. The country withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 in order to test ballistic missiles and eventually a nuclear device. Multilateral negotiations have so far failed to constrain North Korea’s arms buildup and nuclear program.

North Korea is among the world’s most repressive states, engaging in widespread and systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, torture, forced abortion, arbitrary detention, and denial of the rights of expression, association, assembly, and religion. The government pervasively regulates all aspects of the lives of its citizens, each of whom is categorized as “core,” “wavering,” or “hostile,” according to the history of his or her family’s relationship with the regime. Access to housing, employment, education, and other social and economic goods depend heavily on these security classifications. The government determines where each citizen will live, and travel within the country is strictly limited.

Emigration is prohibited. Refugees who have escaped to China have frequently been forcibly returned to North Korea where they are imprisoned, subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, and sometimes executed. The government operates a network of forced labor camps for an estimated 120,000 political prisoners. While persons convicted of ordinary crimes serve fixed sentences, those convicted of political crimes are confined indefinitely. Punishment is extended to three generations – the offender’s parents, siblings, and children are also incarcerated, as a way to pressure North Koreans to conform. Political offenders are often denied food, clothing, and medical care, and many die in prison.

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report classifies North Korea as “not free” and as one of nine nations whose lack of political rights and civil liberties are considered the “worst of the worst.”

More on this theme from Kang Chol-hwan

Kang Chol-hwan: The Gulags Kang Chol Hwan describes North Korea’s system of political prison camps. Kang Chol-hwan: Child Labor “Children are tortured even more than the adults.” Kang Chol-hwan: The Aquariums of Pyongyang “My connection with the outside world was completely severed.” More + Kang Chol-hwan: Life Before the Gulag “We were part of the upper class.”

Other videos from Kang Chol-hwan

Kang Chol-hwan: Escaping to Freedom Kang Chol Hwan describes how he made his way to China and South Korea. Kang Chol-hwan: Class Disparity On the suffering of ordinary North Koreans and the emergence of a wealthy privileged class. Kang Chol-hwan: Media Control Describing the efforts of the North Korean government to tightly control information in the country and the covert efforts of North Koreans to access news from the outside. More + Kang Chol-hwan: What is Freedom Kang Chol-hwan discusses his concept of freedom. More +