When North Korea sentenced American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee to 12 years of hard labor Monday, they were condemned to a brutal gulag where inmates are expected to perform heavy work like logging trees or quarrying stones.
The prisons are vast and gloomy work camps in which inmates are routinely beaten, starved, executed – or forced to watch family members executed, according to eyewitness accounts.
The deeply secretive dictatorship does not release any information about the size of its labor camps or the conditions inside, but reports from former inmates and human rights organizations reveal a stark portrait of inhumanity in which inmates are forced to work as slaves, routinely tortured, humiliated and starved.
The total number of political prisoners is unknown, but the U.S. State Department estimates there are some 150,000 to 200,000 political prisoners toiling under hellish conditions in dozens of camps.
Satellite images depict some camps as large as 200 square miles in the country's mountainous northern and central regions.
Any dissent or political criticism is grounds for imprisonment and forced labor in North Korea. According to the State Department, North Koreans have been sent to work camps for watching DVDs of South Korean soap operas and sitting on a newspaper that contained photographs of President Kim Jong-Il.
"The situation is extremely difficult and painful," said T. Kumar, advocacy director for Asia at the human-rights group Amnesty International. "People work for 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week without a break."
"They work logging in the mountains, quarrying stone and at farms. The work is extremely difficult and prisoners are beaten by guards for not working fast enough or forgetting to sing patriotic songs as they work," he said.
According to the independent Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the communist regime's penal system includes tactics unheard of anywhere else in the world including guilt by association, life sentences for three generations of family members related to a suspect, forced abortions for women caught trying to escape to China and the murder of their newborn children.
In addition, inmates live on meager rations.
Shin Dong Hyok, now 25, was an inmate from the day of his birth in the dreaded Yodok prison and is believed to be the only person to ever escape from there.
In a 2007 New York Times interview he described receiving the same meal of steamed corn and vegetable broth, three times a day for 14 years. Prisoners scavenged for frogs, mice, dragon flies and locusts. He told the Times he once ate corn kernels found in cow dung.
He says he was forced to watch his mother executed by hanging and brother shot by a firing squad.
Shin now lives in South Korea.
"The food shortage is rampant throughout the country," said Han S. Park, a political scientist at the University of Georgia and a North Korea expert. "Inmates in labor camps fare even worse than most people. Conditions are horrible."
In the memoir about his 10-year imprisonment in a gulag with his parents and grandparents, ''The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag," Kang Chol Hwan, who defected to South Korea after his 1987 release, writes of abject conditions in which he and his family lived.
'The way to eat a salamander is to grab it by the tail and swallow it in one quick gulp before it can discharge a foul tasting liquid,'' he wrote in the memoir released in 2000.