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.
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.
Families, Kang wrote, subsisted on salt-cured rat meat and used rat skins to patch the lone set of clothing each person was issued each year.
When he was just 7 years old, Kang's family was accused of treason because of a former business relationship with Japanese partners. Along with his parents and grandparents, he was sent to Yodok prison.
In the memoir he writes children attended school in the morning and in the afternoon worked farming corn, excavating clay and carrying timber. Kang wrote of walking 12 miles carrying a log on his shoulder.
Prisoners, including children, were forced to watch public executions and throw stones at the hanging corpses, shouting: ''Down with the traitors of the people!''
Satellite images of the camps depict mass graves, barracks, work areas and public execution sites.
There are two main types of camps: one for political prisoners and felons and another exclusively for prisoners repatriated from China after trying to escape North Korea's brutal regime and famine, according to a 2003 report published by the Committee called "The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea's Prison Camps."
The camps not set aside for inmates accused of fleeing to China are run by two different police agencies, the People's Safety Agency and the more political National Security Agency.
Observers in South Korea speculate that the American journalists Ling and Lee sentenced Monday, after a four day trial in which they had no lawyers or due process, would likely be sent to a camp run by the PSA.
The journalists were found guilty of committing a "grave crime" against North Korea and of illegally entering the country, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency. North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency said the South Korea-based NK Daily, an online newspaper that monitors news from North Korea, suggested the women might be sent to one of two "special" camps reserved for women and Communist Party members, where conditions are marginally better.
"These camps are better-equipped than other general camps. They serve relatively better food," the paper reported.
The journalists were arrested March 14. They were working near the border on a story about women fleeing North Korea to China for Current TV, a San Francisco-based cable station founded by former Vice President Al Gore.
There are fears Pyongyang is using the women as bargaining chips as the U.N. debates a new resolution to punish the country for its May 25 nuclear tests.
Gore has not commented about the arrest or sentencing, leading some to speculate that he is trying to negotiate with Pyongyang for their release.