Thursday, November 01, 2012

North Korean Labor Camp no. 22

According to the Washington Post the North Korean government has shut down camp no. 22. It is speculated that the reason is because the mines in the camp were running out of coal. North Korea has closed labor camps before including camps no. 11 an no. 13. Camp no. 22 was the largest labor camp in North Korea. It is estimated that camp no. 22 held 50,000 prisoners of which 30,000 worked in coal mining. The total camp population of North Korea is estimated by Amnesty International at 200,000 or more than 8 per a thousand people in the entire population. Camp no. 22 thus held about a quarter of North Korea's prison population. Getting information on North Korea's labor camp system is not easy. It is an even more closed society than was the USSR and most of what we know is from defectors and refugees. But, I am struck by the casual use of lots of large round numbers in the article. There really is no way to verify the number of prisoners in even individual camps yet alone in the entire system. The number is undoubtedly very large, but eyewitness accounts while very important for providing information not available in archives are not a good source for estimates of large populations. In fact population and statistical data is one of the areas where archival sources tend to be better than oral sources. In the case of the USSR the actual size of the Gulag system turned out to be considerably smaller than had been originally estimated using the same type of sources now used with regards to North Korea. This is not to suggest that the North Korean labor camp population is likely to be significantly smaller than 200,000. But, rather to note that the real population could be either much greater or much smaller than our current estimates. The magnitude of the prison population in North Korea is still an historical black hole.

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