N. Korea continues to “normalize” villages within closed prison camps

Former prison camps now being converted to "ordinary collective farms and mines"
March 5th, 2014

In recent months there has been much speculation surrounding the closure of North Korean prison Camps 22 and 18. However, questions still remain unresolved: Why were the camps closed – and what happened to the prisoners?

But while researchers continue work on answering these questions, North Korea is wasting no time at erasing existing evidence of the camps, just as it did with others it closed in the past – such at Camps 12 and 13 (which were located just north of Camp 22).

Now that the walls at Camp 22 have come down, it appears that specific efforts are being made to convert the prison’s former villages into what appear to be ordinary collective farms and mines:


Villages inside the former border of Camp 22 | Google Earth / 38 North Digital Atlas

For the most part, villages inside the prison camps do not look like ordinary North Korean villages on satellite imagery. They tend to lack the typical form and specific structures that can bee seen throughout other villages in the country, though there are exceptions –– some appear quite modern.

However, now that prison Camps 18 and 22 have closed, new construction projects are under-way to bring the residential areas up to the standard of normal collective farms and mines located in other parts of the country.

In Saul-ri (사을리) we can see that North Korea has begun to build a Kim Il Sung “immortality tower” and a Kim Il Sung Revolutionary Ideology Study Hall (깅일성혁명사상연구실) –– two structures that are visible in nearly every village in the country.


Saul-ri, prior to erection of towers | Picture: Google Earth


Construction of a Kim Il Sung immortality tower and a Kim Il Sung study hall. Construction has taken place between May and October of 2013. | Picture: Google Earth / 38 North Digital Atlas

Construction of this type can be seen in all of the Camp 22 villages mentioned on the map at the top of this post, and these images offer further proof that the residential areas have now been converted into normal collective farms and mines. With the addition of Kim Il Sung revolutionary ideology study halls, citizens can now attend regular political meetings and hold criticism sessions.

Below we can see construction of a new immortality tower in the Haengyong-ri, administrative center of the former Camp 22:


Haengyong-ri, prior to construction | Picture: Google Earth


Haengyong-ri, post tower construction | Picture: Google Earth

As is the case in other villages, the surrounding buildings will come to be used for village management and party committees as well as a shop, reading room, and clinic.

“Normalization” of residential areas is not just taking place in former Camp 22 but also in the former Camp 18 in Pukchang, South Phyongan Province. At the Pongchang Coal Mine, formerly located inside the camp perimeter, the construction of a new marketplace is visible:


Pongchang Coal Mine, prior to market construction | Picture: Google Earth


Pongchang Coal Mine, post-market construction | Picture: Google Earth

The appearance of a market in a former North Korean prison camp is a welcome development, though there is still a long way to go. While the closure of Camps 22 and 18 is a welcome development, Camp 14 and Camp 25 have been expanded – and Camp 16 has also taken on new capacities.

You can learn more about the camps in the UN COI’s report here.

Main picture: NK News

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About the Author

Curtis Melvin

Curtis Melvin a researcher at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS and contributor to NK News Pro. He is also editor of North Korean Economy Watch,  one of the longest running DPRK blogs, as well as creator and manager of a database of the most extensive Google Earth imagery work on North Korea.