Leaving North Korea: the story of Camp 55

North Korean labour camp

North Korea’s “Kkobbakku” (hard labor camp) are places where prisoners are detained without trial for a minimum of 2-3 months and a maximum of 6 months. They differ from a “re-education camp”, which houses prisoners who have undergone a trial and received a sentence.

Camp No. 55 in Younggwan County of South Hamgyong Province is a hard labor camp – its prisoners have not received a trial and all paper work has been processed by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), which is North Korea’s secret police. Prisoners at Camp 55 are known to have longer sentences than those at normal hard labor camps, but their sentences are shorter than those at re-education camps.

Hard Labour Camp No. 55: Conditions for Release

All of the camp’s prisoners suffer from malnourishment, and many suffer from fevers, scabies or paratyphoid. To be released from the camp, the only condition for the prisoners is to survive their sentence. North Korea’s labour camps are infamously referred to as places where you ‘enter standing on your own two feet, and leave on all fours.’ Even after release, the prisoners’ physical conditions are in a terrible state.

It is believed that approximately 20-30% of prisoners are in critical state of health. Sanitation in the camp is non-existent and the water is unsanitary too, so all kinds of skin disease and contagious illness plague the prisoners.

This is especially true because the rooms are tightly packed: in a room that is just 140m2 in size, more than 120 people are confined.

Besides disease, there is another “condition” for release: to overcome hunger. What is said to be more difficult to prevent than attempted escapes for the camp’s guards is the prisoners’ attempts to eat weeds pulled from the land. Instances abound where prisoners, while pulling weeds from the field, eat what they uproot and are killed by ingesting poisonous plants (e.g. aconitum) that are mixed in with the weeds.

As prisoners deaths increased in this way, the guards were held responsible for the behaviour and the so-called “shared accountability” system came into being. Although guards cracked down on weed-eating, it was not effective in the face of the prisoners’ hunger.

Around 4-5 people die every month in Camp 55. Of those, around 90% die of malnutrition. The other 10% die of liver seroperitoneu – but this is also related to malnutrition.

What crimes send a prisoner to Camp 55?

Of the 120 prisoners at Camp 55, 88% are classified as ‘defectors’ – those who have tried to leave their country, which ordinary North Koreans are forbidden from doing. The remaining 12% are ‘regular criminals’. Even if it may be considered appropriate for these 12% to be punished, however, the majority or Camp 55 prisoners are driven to near-death conditions for the sole reason of attempting to set foot outside of their country.

Many ‘defectors’ are in fact refugees who are fleeing from starvation and poverty. Should they be classified as criminals? Camp 55 provides an example of the extent to which the North Korean state goes to disenfranchising ordinary citizens: it even forbids them from leaving the country.

North Korean labour camp

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