Senior Correspondent for ASSIST News Service
TOKYO (ANS) -- There are fears that as many as 20,000 people may have died of disease or starvation in the run-up to the closure of North Korea Prison Camp No 22,at the end of last year.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un walking arm in arm with soldiers of the Wolnae islet defense detachment.(Photo: EPA/KCNA)
According to a story by Julian Ryall of Britain's Telegraph newspaper, the suspicion has emerged from a newly-released report by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).
It details the situation in penal colonies as Kim Jong-un consolidated his power after taking over as leader from his father, Kim Jong-il who died in 2011. Now the group is demanding an inquiry into their fate.
The Washington-based organization gleans information from defectors from the North, including former guards and the occasional survivor of a prison camp, as well as examining satellite imagery.
It focused much of its attention on Camp 22, a vast compound that sprawled across more than 770 square miles, making it larger than London.
The report, "North Korea's Hidden Gulag: Interpreting Reports of Changes in the Prison Camps," reveals that two camps have been shut down in the last year but that 130,000 individuals are still being held in penal labor colonies across the country.
"Through this vast system of unlawful imprisonment, the North Korean regime isolates, banishes, punishes and executes those suspected of being disloyal to the regime," The Telegraph says the report states. "They are deemed 'wrong-thinkers,' 'wrong-doers,' or those who have acquired 'wrong-knowledge' or have engaged in 'wrong-associations.'"
Detainees are "relentlessly subjected to malnutrition, forced labor, and to other cruel and unusual punishment," the report says, with thousands more forcibly held in other detention facilities.
"North Korea denies access to the camps to outsiders, whether human rights investigators, scholars, or international media and severely restricts the circulation of information across its borders," the study adds.
At Camp No. 22, in North Hamyong Province, in the far north-east of the country, the prison population shrank dramatically in the months before its closure.
The Telegraph said reports suggest a severe food shortage meant that little was passed on to inmates and numbers dwindled rapidly from 30,0 00 to 3,000.
Defectors told investigators that as many as 8,000 prisoners may have been transferred to other camps in North Korea's network of gulags, but there are no suggestions that any inmates were released - implying that they may have succumbed to a harsher than usual prison regime.
"North Korea's 2009 currency devaluation (whereby camp authorities were reportedly unable to purchase food in markets to supplement the crops grown in the camps), combined with bad harvests, resulted in the death of large numbers of prisoners after 2010," the report states.
"If even remotely accurate, this is an atrocity requiring much closer investigation."
The Telegraph said a United Nations commission of inquiry held hearings in Seoul and Tokyo late last month to examine reports of human rights abuses in the North, including the abduction of foreign nationals. Pyongyang insists that it respects the human rights of its citizens and refused to allow members of the commission to visit specified sites.
Roberta Cohen, c o-chairman of HRNK, called for the International Red Cross to be granted access to the camps as soon as possible.
"An accounting of the fate and whereabouts of all of North Korea's political prisoners, including those missing and those who have died in detention, should be of highest priority to the UN commission of inquiry and the entire international community," The Telegraph reported she said.
The organization has said it fears the North Korean regime will attempt to erase evidence of atrocities or eliminate surviving prisoners.
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.
The Telegraph said inmates - who can be imprisoned for life for anything considered critical of the regime - are forced to survive by eating frogs, rats and picking corn kernels out of animal waste.
Activists say that as many as 40 percent 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 labor camp is unlikely to ever leave again, The Telegraph reported analysts say, while a failed attempt to escape brings execution.
A recent report by South Korea's National Human Rights Commission suggests that the majority of inmates were caught attempting to flee the country in search of food or work, instead of being incarcerated for their political beliefs. Others were imprisoned after being overheard praising South Korea.