The gulags of North Korea exist in a strange world between secret and unsecret. No one knows for sure how many thousands or millions are locked away in the camps, which officially do not exist, and information about what goes on there can be sparse. But we can watch the camps grow and contract from satellites, where they’re so plainly and publicly visible they’re labeled on Google Maps, and we are learning more all the time from the trickle of defectors and escapees who make it out of the Hermit Kingdom.
Here is a guide to the basics of North Korea’s infamous labor camps: how they work, who is sent away, and why these monstrous abuses of human rights continue.
North Korea operates four enormous labor camps for political prisoners — sprawling, city-sized facilities in the country’s frigid and mountainous north. Most inmates are sent for life as punishment for minor slights, or because a relative committed some offense. They are subjected to backbreaking labor, routine torture and starvation, constant fear of arbitrary execution, and conditions so squalid most do not survive past age 45.
These gulags — which are separate from the country’s more conventional prison systems — are thought to house 100,000 or more people, including many women and children. Often, entire families are sent away for one member’s offense, through two or three generations. Sometimes inmates will have no idea why they’re there, or will have never met the relative for whom they are punished with a life of torture and malnutrition.