SEOUL — North Korea’s prison population has swelled with those caught fleeing the country under a crackdown on defections by young leader Kim Jong Un, according to defectors in South Korea and researchers who study Pyongyang’s notorious network of labor camps and detention centers.
Soon after he succeeded his father as North Korea’s leader, Kim is believed to have tightened security on the borders and pressured Pyongyang’s neighbor and main ally, China, to repatriate anyone caught on its side. In interviews and accounts collected by human rights groups, North Koreans able to leave the country say those who are caught are sent to brutal facilities where they number in the thousands.
“They are tightening the noose,” said Insung Kim, at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights. He interviews most defectors soon after they arrive in South Korea. “This is to set an example to the North Korean people.”
The plight of those caught fleeing the North was highlighted last month when nine young North Koreans were detained in Laos, a key stop along a clandestine escape route through Southeast Asia that had previously been thought safe. Instead, the Lao government turned them over to Pyongyang. While the high-profile nature of their repatriation might offer some protection, human rights group fear for them.
“Forced repatriation from China is a pathway to pain, suffering, and violence,” according to “Hidden Gulags,” an exhaustive 2012 study on the prison camps by veteran human rights researcher and author David Hawk. “Arbitrary detention, torture, and forced labor are inflicted upon many repatriated North Koreans.”