Camp 22 Inmates Disappear: Over 22,000 Prisoners Unaccounted for in North Korean Labor Camp

September 6, 2013 4:52 pm Last Updated: September 6, 2013 7:08 pm

Over 22,000 inmates at Camp 22, a labor camp in North Korea, have disappeared, according to a new report.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, based in the U.S., reports that the number of prisoners in the camp dwindled rapidly from 30,000 to between 3,000 and 8,000 amid reports of severe food shortages inside the camp.

Prison camps in North Korea, which has a communist-like regime, hold prisoners that are deemed “wrong-thinkers” or “wrong-doers.” They are mostly punished through forced labor and sometimes through more extreme measures such as strict rationing and torture.

Camp 22, an area that covered about 31 miles by 25 miles, was recently closed–but a number of missing prisoners haven’t been accounted for.

Drawing on several media outlets that have sources inside the closed-off country and several other sources such as a former prison guard, the report outlines that some of the “missing” prisoners were likely transferred to a nearby camp, but about 22,000 are still left unaccounted for.

“One of the news stories on the closing of Camp No. 22, an October 6, 2012 dispatch from RFA [Radio Free Asia], reported that ‘following a food shortage,’ the prisoner population had ‘dwindled rapidly’ from 30,000 to 3,000,” writes David Hawk, a human rights researcher and advocate and author of the report.

The reporter, who is a defector, said that North Korea’s 2009 currency devaluation (which left camp authorities unable to purchase food to supplement the crops grown in the camps) combined with bad harvests resulted in the death of large numbers of prisoners after 2010.

“If even remotely accurate, this is an atrocity requiring much closer investigation,” says Hawk.

Another reporter, from DailyNK, who wrote several stories about the closing of Camp 22 and is also a former North Korean citizen who fled the country, told Hawk he “presumed” that some of the prisoners were transferred to a nearby camp, Camp 16. But the reporter said that number of transferred prisoners only reached 7,000 to 8,000, a “dramatic diminution” from the 30,000 prisoners in the camp. 

The camp was located near Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province, a city well known in North Korea. It is the hometown of Kim Il-sung’s wife and Kim Jong-il’s mother. Since its closure, local residents have been observed moving onto the land to grow crops and mine coal.

Before the closure of the camp, there were observations reported by the DailyNk and Radio Free Asia, including:

-Trucks possibly holding prisoners leaving the camp at night to the train station in Hoeryong

-Potential related movements during the night in March, April, and June 2012

-The possible disappearance and presumed defection of the prison camp commandant and another prison official

The report also outlines the closure of another camp, Camp 14.


There are an estimated 80,000 to 200,000 North Koreans in these prison camps across the country, depending on the sourcing. The North Korean government denies that they exist, calling them kwan-li-so (“managed places”), and much information about them is gleaned from anonymous sources, defectors, and satellite imagery.

There are an extremely high number of deaths in detention, according to Hawk.

“Many of the severe human rights violations in North Korea have taken place behind electrified barbed wire fences in a country whose leaders have gone to great lengths to isolate its citizenry from any and all contact with the outside world,” he writes.

“The reported numbers of deaths in detention from executions, the combination of severe malnutrition and concomitant disease, and work accidents (mining and logging/timber cutting are dangerous occupations even for well nourished and healthy workers) are staggering.”

See the full report below.