Satellite Imagery Shows Captives Inside Camp No. 25 in North Korea

By Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., Robert Collins, and Amanda Mortwedt Oh


This image, taken on November 6, 2017, shows a probable group of prisoners, with probable guards, engaged in harvesting activities inside the prison walls of Camp No. 25 in Chongjin, North Korea.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), a non-governmental organization based in Washington, D.C., in close cooperation with Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., CEO of KPA Associates, LLC, wishes to highlight the release of commercial satellite imagery showing North Korean victims likely engaged in forced labor inside North Korea’s Political Prison Camp No. 25 (Kwan-li-so No. 25). Camp No. 25 is located in Susong-dong, Chongjin-si, North Hamgyong Province, on the northeast coast of North Korea. Camp No. 25 is the northernmost political prison camp known to be in operation inside North Korea.[1] While open-source information on the camp continues to be scarce, the political prisoner population is estimated to be around 5,000 people.[2]

In February 2014, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (UN COI) found North Korea’s political prison camps to be places where the most egregious crimes against humanity are being committed. The UN COI called on North Korea to provide its citizens with basic human rights and acknowledge the existence of the political prison camps.[3]

HRNK published its most recent satellite imagery report on Camp No. 25 in November 2016, finding that the political prison camp’s perimeter “was dramatically expanded” during 2010. That expansion included “two previously separate agriculture fields in the northwest area of the camp” […] 17 additional guard positions were erected, predominately along the new perimeter line.”[4] Efforts to monitor Camp No. 25 as well as the other known kwan-li-so and kyo-hwa-so in North Korea remain ongoing, and recent research using Google Earth has revealed updated imagery of Camp No. 25 from November 6, 2017 showing probable prisoners and guards in the field of the camp.[5]

HRNK Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu stated:

HRNK continues to monitor Kim Jong-un’s political prison camps to document changes in the camps as well as call for accountability for the egregious crimes being committed inside these prison camps. Kim Jong-un is cracking down on North Koreans for any perceived political transgression, and the camps are, at times, an indicator of the extent of his oppression.

Overview of Camp No. 25 in Chongjin, North Korea. The earliest image available to HRNK shows the camp in operation in 1970, though reports indicate that the camp was established to detain prisoners of war during the Korean War.[6]

This commercial imagery shows presumed political prisoners in the field of CampNo. 25.Using pan-sharpened multispectral satellite imagery of Camp No. 25 and its immediate environs collected by DigitalGlobe on November 6, 2017, internationally recognized North Korea expert Joseph Bermudez said,“the image indicates the presence of people and several carts in the field of Camp 25, and shows the field being tended to on November 6, 2017.” 

In January 2017, ten months prior to the satellite image showing people inside CampNo. 25, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned individuals (via the Specially Designated Nationals List) with varying responsibility for human rights abuses inside North Korea’s political prison camps, including Kim Won-hong, the Former Minister of State Security.[7] Kim has since been fired and replaced by Jeong Gyeong-taek (also spelled as Chong Kyong-taek), according to Robert Collins. The U.S. Department of Treasury released a statement at this time, saying, “OFAC designated the MSS pursuant to E.O. 13722 for having engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for an abuse or violation of human rights” in North Korea.[8]

Robert Collins notes, however, “The Ministry of State Security(MSS)is the implementer of the Organization and Guidance Department’s (OGD) directives, which ultimately come down from policies of the Suryong(Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un).” HRNK’s November 2017 report, From Cradle to Grave: The Path of North Korean Innocents, highlighted the following:

Ultimate responsibility for the existence and operation of the political prison camps lies with North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un. There is a direct chain of political control that links the Supreme Leader to the unmarked graves in the political prison camps. That chain runs from the Supreme Leader to the chief of the OGD headquarters, Jo Yon-jun (First Vice-Director of the OGD) [now replaced by director Choi Ryong-hae], to the OGD 7th Section (formerly the OGD Administration Department), to the MSS Prison Bureau (Farm Guidance Bureau) and the Ministry of People’s Security Correctional Management Bureau (Prisons Bureau), and then to the individual camps and their administrative leadership. The operation of political prison camps must be understood through the prism of regime security, which is overseen by the KWP (Korean Workers’ Party) OGD. The OGD ensures that the internal security services accomplish the mission of regime security through rigorous political monitoring and evaluation.[9]

The ensuing graphic is an updated chart as of April 9, 2018, showing the “Control of the Kim Regime’s Political Prison Camps,” by Robert Collins and Amanda Mortwedt Oh, and designed by Rosa Park for HRNK’s From Cradle to Grave:[10]


© Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), 2018. All rights reserved.

As the chart above shows, the political prisoners inside Camp No. 25 are ultimately controlled by Kim Jong-un and his leadership under the KWP, OGD, the MSS Prison Bureau, and those in charge of administering Camp No. 25, including the party committee.

At the camp level, there are sound legal arguments that the prisoners seen in the satellite imagery from November 6, 2017 are either forced laborers, victims of human trafficking (which may be an umbrella term for forced labor), or “modern-day” slaves. The International Labour Organization’s (ILO’s) Forced Labour Convention defines forced labor as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”[11] The U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Office’s 2018 TIP Report on North Korea states, in part, that “the government continued state-sponsored human trafficking through its use of forced labor in prison camps, as part of an established system of political repression, and in labor training centers, facilitation of forced labor of students, and its exportation of forced labor to foreign companies.”[12] The report further concludes:

As reported over the past five years, the DPRK is a source country for men, women, and children who are subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Within North Korea, forced labor is part of an established system of political repression and a pillar of the economic system. The government subjects its nationals to forced labor through mass mobilizations, assigned work based on social class, and in North Korean prison camps. The DPRK holds an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners in political prison camps and an unknown number of persons in other forms of detention facilities, including re-education through labor camps. In many cases, these prisoners have not been charged with a crime or prosecuted, convicted, or sentenced in a fair judicial hearing. In prison camps, all prisoners, including children, are subject to forced labor, including logging, mining, or farming for long hours under harsh conditions. Political prisoners are subjected to unhygienic living conditions, beatings, torture, rape, a lack of medical care, and insufficient food. Many prisoners do not survive.[13]

While North Korea is not a member of the ILO or a state party to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking In Persons, Especially Women and Children,[14] in 1981, it ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that states in Art. 8(3)(a), “No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.” However, that article does not preclude hard labor as a punishment for a crime. Therein lies the problem, though, as prisoners in Camp No. 25 are imprisoned for alleged “crimes” against the Kim regime and are subject to unlawful and arbitrary detentions under international law and customs. “Regardless of how careful one is to demonstrate loyalty to the regime, many end up in political prison camps only because they are related to someone who violated the Kim regime’s rule of political behavior,” Robert Collins stated.

In 2010, the adjacent agricultural fields, shown above, were incorporated into Camp. No. 25 in Chongjin, North Korea. The yellow box shows the area where people can be seen working in the field on November 6, 2017. 

Furthermore, there are compelling reasons to view North Korean political prisoners as “modern-day” slaves. The ICCPR states at Art. 8(1), “No one shall be held in slavery; slavery and the slavery-trade in all their forms shall be prohibited.”[15] The United Nations Slavery Convention at Art. 1(1) defines “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.”[16] In July, the Walk Free Foundation, in collaboration with the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) and the Leiden Asia Centre, released a 2018 Global Slavery Index finding that North Korea has an estimated 2,640,000 million people living in modern slavery.[17] As Adam Taylor notes for TheWashington Post, “North Korea has the highest prevalence of modern slavery in the world, with 1 out of every 10 citizens considered victims.” The report defines modern-day slavery to include more than forced labor; it also includes human trafficking, debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, and the sale and exploitation of children as well as slavery itself.[18] Given the Kim regime’s uniquely oppressive and controlling rule, the argument that political prisoners are slaves is compelling.

Even if the regime’s imprisonment and hard labor sentences of these innocents were to be condoned, its treatment of the prisoners, based on former prisoner testimony, is undoubtedly illegal, immoral, and likely constitutes crimes against humanity.

In many cases, these prisoners have not been charged with a crime or prosecuted, convicted, or sentenced in a fair judicial hearing. In prison camps, all prisoners, including children, are subject to forced labor, including logging, mining, or farming for long hours under harsh conditions. Political prisoners are subjected to unhygienic living conditions, beatings, torture, rape, a lack of medical care, and insufficient food. Many prisoners do not survive. Furnaces and mass graves are used to dispose the bodies of those who die in these prison camps.[19]

Those responsible in North Korea violate Article 7 of the ICCPR when its political prisoners are subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.[20] There is also a legal argument that this constitutes acrime against humanity (based on Art. 7(1)(f) of the Rome Statute).[21]

While commercially available satellite imagery resolution (50 centimeters per pixel in this image) allows the public to see people in the political prison camp, the full extent of Kim Jong-un’s atrocities in the camps remains uncovered. Nevertheless, this image is one step closer to shedding light on the abuses endured by North Korea’s most vulnerable—its political prisoners who are mercilessly oppressed through unlawful arrest, detention, torture, inhospitable prison conditions, sexual violence, and public and private executions.

In addition to acknowledging the existence of its political prison camps as the first step towards their dismantlement, HRNK calls on the Kim regime to immediately improve the nutritional status of prisoners, many of whom suffer from severe malnutrition; improve health and safety standards at worksites where prison labor is present; allow the ICRC immediate, full, and genuine access to this and all other detention facilities in North Korea; and comply with the Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners.

North Korea’s human rights practices will be reviewed for the third time in May 2019 in a process called the Universal Periodic Review before the Human Rights Council. The Kim regime's practice of state-sponsored forced labor and egregious human rights violations, constituting crimes against humanity in both the kwan-li-so and kyo-hwa-so, must be highlighted by UN member states when issuing recommendations to North Korea.


Media Inquiries

Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu at executive.director@hrnk.org or +1 202-499-7973.

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[1]According to David Hawk, Joshua Stanton of the One Free Koreablog, first located Camp No. 25’s geographic coordinates. See David Hawk, “The Hidden Gulag Second Edition: The Lives and Voices of ‘Those Who are Sent to the Mountains,’” (Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012), 80, 223-24, https://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/HRNK_HiddenGulag2_Web_5-18.pdf.
[2] David Hawk notes that this estimate is based on a 2009 National Human Rights Commission Survey Report. “Parallel Gulag Second Edition,” 79.
[3] UN Human Rights Council, “Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry,” para. 1220(b).
[4] Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., Andy Dinville, and Mike Eley, “North Korea Camp No. 25 Update 2,” (Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2016), 3-4, https://www.hrnk.org/publications/hrnk-publications.php.
[5]HRNK’s reports, including a November 2016 report on CampNo. 25, are available at hhttps://www.hrnk.org/publications/hrnk-publications.php.
[6]Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., Andy Dinville, and Mike Eley, “North Korea Camp No. 25 Update 2,” (Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2016), 3-4, https://www.hrnk.org/publications/hrnk-publications.php.
[7]“KIM, Won Hong (a.k.a. KIM, Wo'n-hong), Korea, North; DOB 17 Jul 1945; Gender Male; Minister of State Security (individual) [DPRK2].” Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) Specially Designated Nationals List Update, “Treasury Sanctions Additional North Korean Officials and Entities In Response To The North Korean Regime’s Serious Human Rights Abuses and Censorship Activities,” January 11, 2017, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/OFAC-Enforcement/Pages/20170111.aspx.
[8]U.S. Department of the Treasury Press Center, “Treasury Sanctions Additional North Korean Officials and Entities In Response To The North Korean Regime’s Serious Human Rights Abuses and Censorship Activities,” January 11, 2017, https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl0699.aspx.
[9]Robert Collins and Amanda Mortwedt Oh, “Pyongyang Republic: North Korea’s Capital of Human Rights Denial,” (Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2017), 41, https://www.hrnk.org/publications/hrnk-publications.php.
[10]Ibid., 42.
[11]International Labour Organization,Forced Labour Convention,Art. 2(1), June 28, 1930, http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO:12100:P12100_INSTRUMENT_ID:312174:NO.
[12]U.S. Department of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP Office), “2018 Trafficking in Persons Report,” 255, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/282802.pdf.
[13]Ibid. at 235.
[14]TIP Office, “Countries That Are Not States Parties to the Protocol,” https://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2017/271109.htm.
[15]ICCPR, supra note 9.
[16]United Nations Slavery Convention, Art. 1(1), Sep. 25, 1926, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/SlaveryConvention.aspx.
[17]The Global Slavery Index, “Korea, Democratic People’s Republic of,” Walk Free Foundation, 2018, https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/data/country-data/north-korea/.
[18]Adam Taylor,“North Korea has 2.6 million ‘modern slaves,’ new report estimates,” Washington Post, July 19, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/07/19/north-korea-has-2-6-million-modern-slaves-new-report-estimates/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c8efc58e0a9d.
[19]TIP Report, supranote 12.
[20]International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), New York, December 16, 1966, Art. 7, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CCPR.aspx.
[21]Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, July 17, 1998, https://www.icc-cpi.int/nr/rdonlyres/ea9aeff7-5752-4f84-be94-0a655eb30e16/0/rome_statute_english.pdf.

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