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Outside World Turns Blind Eye to N. Korea's Hard-Labor Camps

Prisoners older than 16 are required to attend, and they are forced to stand as close as 15 feet to the condemned, according to the interviews. A prison official usually gives a lecture, explaining how the Dear Leader, as Kim Jong Il is known, had offered a "chance at redemption" through hard labor.

The condemned are hooded, and their mouths are stuffed with pebbles. Three guards fire three times each, as onlookers see blood spray and bodies crumple, those interviewed said.

"We almost experience the executions ourselves," said Jung Gwang Il, 47, adding that he witnessed two executions as an inmate at Camp 15. After three years there, Jung said, he was allowed to leave in 2003. He fled to China and now lives in Seoul.

Like several former prisoners, Jung said the most arduous part of his imprisonment was his pre-camp interrogation at the hands of the Bowibu, the National Security Agency. After eight years in a government office that handled trade with China, a fellow worker accused him of being a South Korean agent.

"They wanted me to admit to being a spy," Jung said. "They knocked out my front teeth with a baseball bat. They fractured my skull a couple of times. I was not a spy, but I admitted to being a spy after nine months of torture."

When he was arrested, Jung said, he weighed 167 pounds. When his interrogation was finished, he said, he weighed 80 pounds. "When I finally got to the camp, I actually gained weight," said Jung, who worked summers in cornfields and spent winters in the mountains felling trees.

"Most people die of malnutrition, accidents at work, and during interrogation," said Jung, who has become a human rights advocate in Seoul. "It is people with perseverance who survive. The ones who think about food all the time go crazy. I worked hard, so guards selected me to be a leader in my barracks. Then I didn't have to expend so much energy, and I could get by on corn."

Defectors' Accounts

Human rights groups, lawyers committees and South Korean-funded think tanks have detailed what goes on in the camps based on in-depth interviews with survivors and former guards who trickle out of North Korea into China and find their way to South Korea.

The motives and credibility of North Korean defectors in the South are not without question. They are desperate to make a living. Many refuse to talk unless they are paid. South Korean psychologists who debrief defectors describe them as angry, distrustful and confused. But in hundreds of separate interviews conducted over two decades, defectors have told similar stories that paint a consistent portrait of life, work, torment and death in the camps.

The number of camps has been consolidated from 14 to about five large sites, according to former officials who worked in the camps. Camp 22, near the Chinese border, is 31 miles long and 25 miles wide, an area larger than the city of Los Angeles. As many as 50,000 prisoners are held there, a former guard said.

There is a broad consensus among researchers about how the camps are run: Most North Koreans are sent there without any judicial process. Many inmates die in the camps unaware of the charges against them. Guilt by association is legal under North Korean law, and up to three generations of a wrongdoer's family are sometimes imprisoned, following a rule from North Korea's founding dictator, Kim Il Sung: "Enemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations."

Crimes that warrant punishment in political prison camps include real or suspected opposition to the government. "The camp system in its entirety can be perceived as a massive and elaborate system of persecution on political grounds," writes human rights investigator David Hawk, who has studied the camps extensively. Common criminals serve time elsewhere.

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