Grim fate for N. Korean prisoners
Centers of torture, deprivation and death
From CNN's Mike Chinoy
TOKYO, Japan (CNN) -- Hidden in the valleys between high mountains in the northern provinces of North Korea lies one of the country's darkest secrets -- political penal labor prisons.
Known as Kwan-li-so, these massive, sprawling encampments are where people who dare to speak out against the government of Kim Jong ll are sent to pay for their perceived wrongdoings.
According to a report by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, about 150,000 to 200,000 North Koreans are locked away in political prisons.
Behind the walls of a Kwan-li-so conditions and treatment are brutal.
"People are starved to death, worked to death, frozen to death over a period of time, and it's just absolutely horrific, reminiscent of what we've read coming out of the old Gulags under Stalin," says Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback.
Along with political prisoners, up to three generations of their families also are banished without trial -- usually for lifetime sentences in a system of "guilt by association," the report finds.
North Korean authorities have consistently denied these prison camps exist.
But rare pictures -- grainy and unsteady -- that were smuggled out of a camp near North Korea's border with China and acquired by a Japanese TV network provide compelling evidence of their existence.
The prisoners shown in the video are said to be North Koreans who tried to flee to China, or who were forcibly returned after escaping there. Satellite imagery offers further clues on the conditions in the prisons.
Former inmates recount a bleak existence under the eyes of ferocious guards.
"They beat people regardless of their sex or age," says a one-time prisoner. "My lip was split and I had such severe internal bleeding my excrement turned black with blood."
Escapees say dozens of prisoners are jammed into rudimentary huts.
"You couldn't even lie down," a former inmate says. "The back of the person in front of me touched my chest. There was no room to move."
The report describes hard labor at the camps involving mining for coal, iron deposits, gold and other ores, or logging and wood-cutting in nearby mountains. Inmates often work 12 or more hours a day, seven days a week, with time off only for national holidays.
Prisoners are provided only enough food to be kept on the verge of starvation.
Hunger yields large numbers of informants among the prisoners, leading to a prison culture of distrust and hostility. Prisoners fight each other over scraps of food or over the clothing of deceased inmates.
The fate for those caught stealing food or attempting escape are quickly sealed.
One camp survivor recalls a public killing of an attempted escapee, who was tied and dragged behind a car in front of assembled prisoners until dead, after which time the other prisoners were required to pass by and place their hands on his bloodied corpse.
Another prisoner shouted out against this atrocity, and he was immediately shot to death.
There are growing calls to put Pyongyang's human rights record on the international agenda.
"We really have to push on this or we will create yet another episode of humanity's knowing something terrible is taking place and not reacting," says Brownback.
This week, the highest ranking official ever to flee North Korea is providing more ammunition on the inner workings of the North Korean system.
Hwang Jang Yop, a close advisor to Kim until he defected to South Korea in 1997, is making an unprecedented visit to the U.S. capital where he's been meeting with key members of Congress and Bush administration officials.
Hwang has warned against any nuclear deal that helps Kim's regime to survive. He argues pressure on human rights will contribute to the regime's collapse.
He has paid a price for such views. His wife and one daughter reportedly committed suicide after his defection. And three other children are said to be prisoners in labor camps.