In an historic development on Monday, the UN Security Council voted via a rare procedural motion to put North Korean human rights on the Council's agenda; Russia and China openly opposed the move, Chad and Nigeria abstained, but the motion carried on support from the United States, France, Britain and the eight other non-permanent members of the Council. In a subsequent post, we will detail this next phase of UN action. But today we follow up on what is likely to be a major focus of the UN spotlight: the North Korean penal system and the abuses to which prisoners in it are subjected.
As the human rights debate at the UN was heating up in late October, South Korea's National Intelligence Service reported to the National Assembly that North Korea was transferring prisoners out of Yodok (Camp 15), the most notorious of the country’s political concentration camps. Chosun Ilbo picked up the story and on November 8, DailyNK ran an account based on interviews with a North Korean military officer in the region to the effect that Yodok was being dismantled. However, the informant claimed the effort was simply a consolidation if not a shell game, as prisoners were being redistributed to camps 14 and 16.
Robert Park reminded us that testimony before the Commission of Inquiry by Ahn Myung-chul, a guard at Camp 22, suggested a more gruesome possibility. Ahn claimed that the guards had instructions in case of war to “wipe out the prisoners, so that no evidence of inmates remains,” using tunnels beneath the facilities that were dug explicitly for that purpose. Could the external scrutiny of North Korea’s human rights record trigger a similar response? Park subsequently went on to issue an appeal on YouTube on the issue.
These stories follow on a host of others about changes in the camps that have drawn on the mix of satellite imagery and defector testimony used by David Hawk in his pioneering report on the issue, subsequently updated. Last year, Hawk summarized ongoing work for the Committee on Human Rights in collaboration with Digital Globe (.pdf here). NKNews reported earlier in the year that camps 18 and 22 were being converted into ordinary villages and coal mines. Curtis Melvin at North Korea Economy was the first to catch the expansion of Camp 14 and Camp 25, drawing on Google Earth imagery.
While I was in Seoul, however, I talked to an analyst who had purchased satellite imagery of Yodok and had been unable to confirm the stories about fundamental changes at Yodok. Melvin has now collated all of his satellite work on this issue into a highly readable post. The bottom line: while it is hard to know what is going on, comparison of earlier imagery with images taken in October 2014 does not suggest wholesale changes at the camp. Mines have been closed, but other activities such as logging have opened, new structures suggest expanded guard presence and possibly even a new factory, there does not appear to be any change in the perimeter nor signs of the conversion of the camp to a village, such as the construction of obligatory Kim regime statuary.
The satellite work on North Korea constitutes an important effort at documentation, particularly given the fact that the North Koreans have yet to really acknowledge the camps. However, it is important not to over-interpret small changes that could be routine or even large scale movements of prisoners that could leave the total prison population intact. As the CoI process moves forward, Red Cross visits to identified penal sites should be high on the UN’s “to do” list. But if the North Koreans are engaged in a shell-game in anticipation of allowing camp visits, scrutiny of the camps will merely repeat attempted scrutiny of the nuclear program: an ongoing cat-and-mouse game even when IAEA inspectors were on the ground. An important development at the UN Security Council was the announcement that the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is moving ahead with its plans for a field office in Seoul. One important task of this office will be further documentation. We will ultimately have to wait for leads from defectors to fully understand what is going on in the camps. This is just one of the many reasons why defector testimony is key to establishing accountability and why it is so important to get them out.