Google Earth exposes North Korea’s secret prison camps

By Julian Ryall

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Rights groups are pushing the United Nations high commissioner for human rights to open an international investigation into Pyongyang’s “deplorable” record on its citizens’ rights, including a system of political prisons that has operated for more than 50 years.

Pyongyang insists that the camps do not exist and are merely foreign propaganda, but the advent of high-resolution, free images from outer space has disproved that claim.

On January 18, the North Korean Economy Watch website announced that a new camp had been identified alongside an existing detention facility in Kaechon, South Pyongan Province.

Using newly provided Google Earth images, analyst Curtis Melvin was able to conclude that the new camp sits alongside Camp 14 and has a perimeter fence that stretches nearly 13 miles.

The facility was built since the last images of the site were released, in December 2006.

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The fence has two checkpoints and six guard posts, while a number of accommodation units and office buildings are also clearly visible. A coal mine within the fence does not appear to be operational, Melvin concluded.

Very few North Koreans have managed to escape from prison camps and to freedom outside the country’s borders, but those who have tell of terrible suffering.

Inmates – who can be imprisoned for life, along with three generations of their families, for anything deemed to be critical of the regime – are forced to survive by eating rats and picking corn kernels out of animal waste.

Activists say that as many as 40 per cent of inmates die of malnutrition, while others succumb to disease, sexual violence, torture, abuse by the guards or are worked to death.

Men, women and children are required to work for up to 16 hours a day in dangerous conditions, often in mines or logging camps.

Anyone sent to a North Korean labour camp is unlikely to ever leave again, analysts say, while a failed attempt to escape brings execution.

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