Reporters Without Borders has learned from a former North Korean political prisoner that two North Korean journalists died in 2001 in Yoduk “Kwan-Li-So” N°15 (Reeducation Centre), a prison camp located in the east of the country.
“Yes, there were several journalists in this camp because, as intellectuals with access to information from the outside world, they were the first to criticise the regime,” said Jung Gwang-il, a former Yoduk detainee. “I am convinced that many journalists are still being held in harsh conditions in North Korea’s camps.”
Reporters Without Borders would like to pay homage to Kim Kyungcheon, a cameraman with the state propaganda TV station Chosun Jungang, who died aged 60 as a result of the injuries received during a forced labour accident in Yoduk in May 2001. He had been arrested in March 2000 for criticising Kim Jong-il’s personality cult. Most Yoduk detainees have to fell trees and chop wood in difficult and dangerous conditions in winter.
“Kim Kyungcheon continued to criticise the regime, although that was dangerous,” Jung told Reporters Without Borders. “He would often say: ‘Why aren’t images of the people dying of hunger shown on TV?’ or ‘Our constitution gives us press freedom but nothing is respected in practice.’ He paid dearly for his criticism. The camp director often shouted him out, saying, ‘We ought to kill you right now.’ After breaking his leg, he was taken to the camp infirmary. He died of his injuries a few days later. We had to dig his grave with our bare hands. His family was not told he had died.”
We also pay homage to Chosun Jungang reporter Cha Gwangho, who died in the same camp in December 2001, at the age of 65, as a result of malnutrition. He had been held since January 1999 for criticising the Kim Jong-il regime. After being injured while doing forced labour, his rations were reduced on the grounds that he was no longer productive. Prisoners are rationed to just one bowl of soup a day and have to supplement their diet by eating plants, rats or frogs in order to survive.
“For lack of information, the fate of tens of thousands of North Korean prisoners of conscience is largely neglected by the international community,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The revelation that two journalists died at the start of the last decade, as so many others have done, should stimulate the United Nations to press harder for the closure of North Korea’s concentration camps.”
Jung gave us a detailed description of Yoduk. It consists of huts housing thousands of prisoners, men and women, who are subjected to forced labour. It is surrounded by barbed-wire fencing and guarded by about 1,000 armed men. The camp is divided into two areas, the “total-control zone” for those who have been given life sentences, and the “revolutionizing zone” for those who have a chance of being released.
Jung and his colleagues in an NGO called Free the North Korean Gulag have identified 250 people who are being held in this camp for political crimes. They include civil servants, workers, soldiers, writers, businessmen, students and for example a diplomat who was arrested for meeting with South Koreans while assigned to Paris in the late 1990s. It is estimated that, in all, at least 200,000 people are currently being held in North Korea’s concentration camps and “reeducation centres.”
The North Korean constitution defines political prisoners as people who have committed crimes against the state, including those who have conspired to overthrow the government or to incite subversive revolts.