To most Americans, North Korea sounds like a terrifying place. People who live there often don’t have enough food. Women endure terrible treatment under Kim Jong Un’s government. Plus, citizens have to follow numerous rules and laws — or else go to prison. That brings us to one of the most terrifying aspects of the regime: the prison camps where North Korea holds both its citizens and any American hostages, like the three Americans whom it recently released.
Below, learn the terrifying truth of what’s like to be an American hostage in North Korea.
1. The conditions are just as bad as those in Nazi concentration camps
The International Bar Association War Crimes Committee interviewed former North Korean prisoners and guards to learn about the conditions in the regime’s prisons. One of the authors of the report survived Auschwitz. And he concluded that “the conditions in the [North] Korean prison camps are as terrible, or even worse, than those I saw and experienced in my youth in these Nazi camps.” The report found enough evidence to charge the Kim regime with 10 of the 11 internationally recognized war crimes — including murder, enslavement, torture, and sexual violence — because of its use of prison camps.
Next: North Korea will take someone hostage for a variety of reasons.
2. North Korea takes Americans hostage for a variety of ‘crimes’
CNN reports that an American visiting North Korea can be taken hostage for a variety of reasons — most of which we wouldn’t usually consider a crime. “The latest travel warning from the US State Department lists acts that have been treated as crimes in North Korea, whether or not they were done knowingly. They include taking unauthorized photographs, shopping at stores not designated for foreigners, and carrying out religious activities,” the network explains.
Next: The government seizes a hostage at one of these locations.
3. The government typically seizes a hostage at the airport
If North Korea wants to take you hostage, it will typically take you into custody at one of several different locations, according to CNN. The regime often seizes visitors to take hostage at the Pyongyang airport, as they prepare to board their flights to leave North Korea. Then, the government accuses the hostage of committing a crime during their stay in the country. Other times, the government will take someone hostage at the border with China. In those cases, it typically accuses the hostage of entering North Korea illegally.
Next: The regime keeps a hostage here until a trial.
4. A hostage will typically stay in a hotel until their trial
CNN reports that the regime typically interrogates a hostage in the conference room of a hotel. Interrogations can go on for hours, days, or even longer. But typically, a hostage will stay at the hotel at least until they’re charged. International detainees often have access to local newspapers and television during that time. What they don’t get is access to a fair trial. The government often forces a hostage to make a confession. And as CNN reports, “By the time a trial is scheduled, guilt is often admitted, which makes the only unknown the sentence that will be handed out.” A hostage who gets a sentence of hard labor will then go to one of North Korea’s prison camps.
Next: Photographs have revealed this about North Korea’s prison camps.
5. Prison camps have high walls and barbed wire fences
The Washington Post reports that satellite photography has given us a lot of insight into the camps where North Korea holds its hostages and prisoners. The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea characterizes the regime’s camps as places with “gated high walls and barbed wire fences, guard towers, dormitories, and workshops or mines.” There, the government holds people whom the regime fears could challenge its rule or ideology. People can get life sentence to labor in the political prison camps. In a separate chain of punishment camps, prisoners usually serve fixed terms for “regular” crimes. But prisoners endure equally inhumane conditions at either type of camp.
Next: Prisoners have to do this for days on end.
6. Each prisoner has to do hard labor, often in mines
The Washington Post reports that when someone — American hostage or North Korean citizen — goes to one of the regime’s prison camps, they have to endure hard labor. Experts estimate that Kim Jong Un’s regime is holding between 130,000 and 200,000 North Koreans in four large camps. (In satellite images of the nation, the camps remain clearly visible.) In these camps, guards force prisoner to do hard labor, often coal mining or cement making. The regime forces them to work for up to 20 hours a day. According to Business Insider, the UN estimates that as many as 400,000 people have died in these camps.
Next: A prisoner or hostage endures this.
7. Prisoners and hostages endure brutal conditions
As the Post reports, prisoners — hostages or otherwise — typically receive little in the way of food, clothing, or even heating. But the human rights abuses don’t end there. Starving prisoners go scavenging for food. But if guards catch them, the starving prisoners get executed. Many prisoners have died of malnutrition and overwork. The IBA War Crimes Committee also heard about rapes and forced abortions. These sometimes lead to women’s deaths. The government also subjects prisoners to torture. As Vox explains, these aren’t isolated incidents. “Atrocities like mass rape and indiscriminate killings are the point of North Korea’s prison camps.”
Next: Prisoners die because of this.
8. Guards often beat prisoners to death
Fox News reports that a U.S. State Department fact sheet revealed more about the conditions that a prisoner or hostage would endure at a North Korean prison camp. The regime reportedly encourages guards to beat prisoners to death and to induce starvation. The State Department reports that prisoners look like “walking skeletons,” “dwarfs” and “cripples” in rags. And guards don’t just dole out beatings to prisoners. One defector said that the “secret police” arrive at midnight to take women to be raped.
Next: Guards also execute prisoners for this reason.
9. The regime executes anybody who tries to escape the camp
Business Insider reports that, according to a report by the UN, few people have ever escaped prison camps in North Korea. “That’s because anyone who tries, plans, or has knowledge of an escape is executed, and all prisoners are required to watch.” A set of unconfirmed illustrations reportedly made by a North Korean defector says that “the only way to end the agony is through death.” If escapees do make it past the guards and the electrified fences, they still have to cross the border to China.
Next: This has to happen for North Korea to release an American hostage.
10. It takes a lot to get North Korea to release an American hostage
North Korea typically takes an American hostage to use as a bargaining chip. So as CNN explains, “it is often some grand gesture that precedes a release.” In the past, former presidents including Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have visited North Korea to get the regime to release a hostage. Alternately, other U.S. officials have negotiated a release. In the most recent instance, North Korea likely released three Americans it had held hostage as a precondition of a face-to-face meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.
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