Are North Korea’s Gulags Bolstering the National Economy?

Are North Korea’s Gulags Bolstering the National Economy?

As many as 200,000 men, women, and children reportedly languish in North Korea’s vast prison camp system, jailed for defying the state’s strict edicts on anything from possession of foreign media to petty theft. Even being associated with someone who has broken the law can be grounds for imprisonment. Now, new satellite imagery of two of North Korea’s infamous gulags suggest that the prison population is growing.

Satellite imagery analysis commissioned by Amnesty International and released Thursday reveal new housing blocks and an expanded industrial zone in kwanliso 16, a camp three times the size of Washington, D.C. In 2011, the organization estimated that 20,000 people were imprisoned in kwanliso 16. Another camp, kwanliso 15, is believed to have 50,000 prisoners; satellite images show that within the camp, housing blocks have been recently demolished and replaced. Both camps appear to exhibit significant economic activity, such as mining, logging, and the processing of timber in what appears to be a furniture factory.

The grave human rights conditions inside the camps — forced labor, torture, rape, executions — have been documented by eyewitnesses and former prisoners. Less well known is the extent to which activity within the camps benefits the national economy.

Putting aside the moral issues, the economic advantages of forced labor seem obvious — read: free labor — but North Korean prison camps didn’t start out as an engine of industrial production. When they were first established in the 1950s and 1960s, forced labor ensured that the camps were self-sufficient and not a drain on national resources. It wasn’t until the 1990s, amid a food crisis and a declining economy, that the camps assumed a broader economic role, according to the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights. The country’s traditional agricultural sector, as well as a general lack of machinery and mining technology, renders human labor particularly valuable. But very little is known about the scope of industrial production in these camps. Former prisoners have asserted that camps produce agricultural and leather goods, as well as manufacture bicycles. Most of the camps are remotely situated near mining areas and, as the satellite imagery illustrates, at least two of them seem actively engaged in mining and logging activities. 

Below are satellite images of what Amnesty International believes is a factory that processes raw lumber, as well as evidence of a logging operation:

The North Korean government, for its part, has never admitted that prison camps exist within the country, so any economic output derived from forced labor obviously isn’t acknowledged as such.

With 200,000 forced laborers, industrial production in these camps may be a significant contributor to the national economy. But those benefits may be limited in the long run, simply because harsh labor conditions suppress productivity. That’s what happened in the Soviet Union: While the gulag system allowed for high value economic projects, it wasn’t sustainable in the long term. By the 1950s, revenues from forced labor weren’t sufficient to support the cost of running the camps, and managers — noting that productivity among forced laborers had decreased by 60 percent — found themselves in need of government subsidies just to stay in business. The system’s inefficiency was a major driver of its demise. 

How long before North Korea’s prison camp system meets the same fate?