BEIJING // Amnesty International yesterday called on North Korea to close "inhuman" prison camps where starving inmates are said to resort to eating rats, amid concern that growing numbers of dissidents and their families are being sent to the secretive facilities.
The organisation released satellite images that it said show the camps expanding as the communist regime launches what is described by Amnesty as a crackdown on political opponents in a period of uncertainty over the leadership.
As many as 200,000 people are kept at the camps, the group said, with many held simply because a relative also had been detained. North Korea has refused to acknowledge the existence of the facilities.
In a chilling echo of life in the notorious Soviet gulags under Stalin, inmates at a camp in Yodok, in South Hamkyong province, work in conditions "approaching slavery" and are often tortured, while former inmates have reported viewing public executions, Amnesty said.
Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International Asia Pacific director, said: "These are places out of sight of the rest of the world, where almost the entire range of human-rights protections that international law has tried to set up for past 60 years are ignored."
The camps, which produce everything from soybean paste to cement, sweets and coal, are believed to date from the 1950s, when North Korea was run by Kim Il-sung, father of the present leader, Kim Jong-il.
According to campaigners, the camp is split into "revolutionary zones", which hold people who could eventually be released, and "total control zones", containing those who will never be freed. Many detainees are said to be unaware why they are being held.
Just three people, Amnesty said, have ever escaped from total control zones and left North Korea. About 30 are said by the group to have been released from Yodok's revolutionary zone before leaving the country.
Amnesty said a former Yodok detainee claimed that between 1999 and 2001 about 40 per cent of inmates died of malnutrition.
One former inmate told Amnesty the working day lasted from 4am to 8pm, with two one-hour breaks for meals, typically of corn gruel, and was followed by "ideology education". Some prisoners are said to have been so hungry that they collected corn kernels from animal waste to eat.
"Hundreds of thousands of people exist with virtually no rights, treated essentially as slaves, in some of the worst circumstances we've documented in the past 50 years," Mr Zarifi said.
"Conditions in these camps are inhuman and Kim Jong-il must close them immediately."
Tensions over whether the leadership will pass from Kim Jong-il, believed to be in poor health, to his son Kim Jong-un are thought to have led to a crackdown and more people being sent to the camps, Rajiv Narayan, a researcher in Amnesty International's East Asia division, said. Last year Kim Jong-il appointed his son to a senior military position in an apparent attempt to ensure he secures the leadership.
"We've been hearing testimonies when we spoke to North Koreans outside North Korea that there's a crackdown at the moment because of the political uncertainty," Mr Narayan said.
He said that satellite images taken last month, when compared with photographs from a decade earlier, show an increase in the number of guard posts and that the camps are becoming busier agriculturally, with evidence of logging and the building of terraces.
"We feel a lot of this is not for the people in the camp, but for use by the local leadership or population," Mr Narayan said.
The satellite images show four camps said by Amnesty to exist in remote areas of South Pyongan, South Hamkyong and North Hamkyong provinces. There are believed to be at least six camps in total.
There are people within North Korea unhappy about the likely passing of the leadership to Kim Jong-un, and this could have led to more political prisoners being detained, Joseph Cheng, a regional political analyst and professor at City University of Hong Kong, said.
However, he said the camps were not created in response to a genuine political threat, despite the likely "low-level discontent" most citizens were probably feel.
"I tend to think it's paranoia and a deliberate attempt to generate fear, rather than a response to genuine, real opposition," he said.