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Mapping North Korea’s Brutal Labor Camps

North Korean refugee Dong-hyuk Shin was born a prisoner. He lived in the notoriously brutal gulag Camp 14 for more than 20 years, and is the only known escapee of what’s known as one of the regime’s “total control zones.” He told the United Nations’ Geneva Summit For Human Rights and Democracy on Tuesday that he was so brainwashed he even informed authorities of his family members’ escape plans, leading to their death—and then was forced to watch their executions.

The chilling briefing came days after new satellite imagery of North Korea appeared to show an expansion in Shin’s birthplace, Camp 14, and another North Korean labor camp. It also comes as international rhetoric and actions ramp up against the communist country’s nuclear weapons program in the wake of a third nuclear test on February 12th. Japan and the European Union said yesterday that they plan to file a joint UN resolution calling on the Human Rights Council to investigate right abuses in North Korea. The Japanese mission to the UN also told me it is considering submitting a separate resolution to the Human Rights Committee. 

As I listened to diplomats discussing the crisis at the UN headquarters in New York City, I decided to sound out a Virginia-based 30-something blogger, Curtis Melvin, who’s a big player among North Korea watchers. Melvin, a doctoral candidate at George Mason University, has created the most comprehensive and current satellite map of the country that exists (see all of his maps here). Melvin is part of a small but impassioned group of independent, self-appointed monitors who are using Google satellite imagery to shine light into the shadowy corners of the little-known country.

In the last couple of weeks, Melvin has reported that there have been possible expansions of two gulags in North Korea—Camp 14 and Camp 25. Melvin said Google’s new satellite images, released in January, include the first images in six years of the city of Chongjin, near Camp 25. First mapped by the website One Free Korea, Camp 25 is shown in the new satellite imagery, taken in 2012, to have significantly increased in size and scope.

“The reality is that it’s almost impossible to get eyes on the ground in North Korea outside of the places where foreigners are allowed to visit. And satellite imagery is just one of the easiest ways, and in some cases the only way, to see the vast numbers of changes that are happening within the country,” Melvin told me.

Melvin’s website, North Korea Economy Watch, is one of the most exhaustive resources of information on the country. While it focuses on the economic and cultural aspects of the country, it also aggregates documents and reports on human rights and nuclear testing. Using information gleaned from his own two trips to North Korea in 2004 and 2005, a network of contacts in the region, and Google satellite images, Melvin has revealed previously unknown forced-labor and prison camps.

Melvin became fascinated with North Korea after reading a book on the country while backpacking in Asia. He found himself digging through stacks of books and papers on the country, and launched North Korea Economy Watch as both a research tool for himself and others and simply as a way to organize his work. He says aside from occasional reader donations he has never received funding for his blog. Recently appointed a researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ US-Korea Institute, Melvin says that while the human rights abuses in North Korea are heart-wrenching, he approaches his work as an academic—not an advocate.

“I think it’s very sad, the situation the North Korean people are in. I know North Koreans who want to make it better, but it’s just not possible. And I don’t think there are any easy solutions, and I certainly don’t have any. I’ve just taken my role in this as being a person who can generate good information for policy makers,” he said.

While North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are extremely concerning, the 200,000 people living in prison camps, and the millions living in unimaginable poverty, also deserve the immediate attention of the international community. Speaking at the UN on January 14th, UN humanitarian chief Navi Pillay called for an international investigation of what she said may be crimes against humanity in North Korea.

North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, the son of the late strongman Kim Jong-il, has proven with the recent nuclear test that he is following in his father’s footsteps by continuing to ramp up the country’s nuclear program rather than meet the dire needs of the populace he purports to serve, or mend fences with the international community. 

Here’s hoping that this month’s Human Rights Council meeting results in the authorization of a UN-sponsored international investigation into the abuses and possible crimes against humanity being committed in North Korea, so Melvin and his cohorts don’t have to do all the work.

Courtney Brooks is Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s United Nations correspondent in New York City. 

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