Life Inside North Korea's Vast Labor Prisons

The two U.S. journalists sentenced to hard labor may face torture, starvation.

ByABC News
June 8, 2009, 2:49 PM

June 8, 2009— -- 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.