A Chilling Look Inside North Korea's Modern-Day Gulag

Camp 22 North Korea from Google EarthGoogle EarthNorth Korean Prison Camp 22

Controversy is flaring up over North Korea’s human rights record.

Late last month, the UN General Assembly recommended that the Security Council refer the Kim regime to the International Criminal Court over a 372-page UN document released earlier this year detailing the Hermit Kingdom’s human rights abuses.

This sets up a potential showdown at the Security Council, which has the power to actually put North Korea’s system of internal oppression on the ICC’s agenda — something that China and Russia, veto-wielding council members with plenty of human rights issues of their own, will undoubtedly try to prevent.

North Korea claims that the UN’s findings are a “fabrication.”

But the UN controversy is just a reminder that the regime’s brutal system of political and economic repression is all too real.

In reality, North Korea operates a growing network of prison camps containing up to 200,000 prisoners living in unfathomable conditions.

Information about the camps is limited to reports from the few successful escapees, notably Shin Dong-hyuk, who told 60 Minutes about spending 23 years behind the wire in December of 2012.

Although there are no pictures from inside the camps, satellite images plus a set of illustrations supposedly drawn by a defector (the source of these images is unconfirmed) give a hint of the terror inside.

Warning: Some images are disturbing.

Paul Szoldra originally contributed to this report.

There are over 24 million people living inside North Korea.

But there are between 150,000 and 200,000 who have 'disappeared.' They live in brutal concentration camps throughout the country.

Source: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

Former prisoners say conditions are so bad that 20 to 25 per cent of the population dies every year.

Source: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

The North uses guilt by association to lock up entire families, sometimes just for knowing someone convicted of 'wrong thought.'

Source: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

Shin Dong-hyuk was born inside one camp, and lived there 23 years before he was able to escape.

There have been few successful escapes. That's because anyone who tries, plans, or has knowledge of an escape is executed. And prisoners are required to watch.

Starvation is common, as prisoners are usually only fed gruel made of cornmeal and cabbage. 'We were always hungry, and the guards always told us 'through hunger you will repent,'' Shin said. They often eat rats and insects just to stay alive.

Without protein and calcium in their diet prisoners develop hunchbacks from bending over during forced labour in the fields or lose toes and fingers due to frostbite.

The guards are relentless in their brutality.

They often terrorize and torture their captives -- sometimes just for fun, according to escapees.

The tip of one of Shin's fingers was chopped off as punishment for accidentally breaking a machine while working in a factory.

When he was just 13 years old, Shin was sent to an underground torture center when his mother and older brother were accused of attempting an escape. 'They hung me by the ankles and they tortured me with fire.'

All of the methods of torture are appalling -- but some are especially disturbing.

Women aren't afforded any leniency.

Pregnancy is strictly forbidden, except in the case of a 'marriage' arranged by the prison guards.

Prisoners are categorized as their conditions deteriorate ...

... While guards and party officials are well-treated for their dedication to the regime.

Escape is incredibly difficult even for North Koreans living outside the gulag system. But if prisoners can make it past the guards and electrified fences ...

... they still need to get across the border to China, where if discovered, they face the possibility of being sent back.

While North Korea denies that the camps even exist, satellite imagery shows them scattered around the country -- and they are growing.

Source: Amnesty International

And for North Koreans outside the camps, the fear of the gulag ensures their loyalty to a paranoid regime that's highly conscious of its own questionable long-term outlook.

Even so, a combination of militancy, internal oppression, and the apparent support of regime elites mean that Kim Jong-un's government still has complete power over North Korea's people.

North Korean leaders

Watch the entire interview with Shin Dong-hyuk below:

You've seen what it's like inside the North Korean gulag ...

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