SEOUL, South Korea — In 2009, American minister Robert Park crossed into North Korea to protest what he called a “genocide” in the country’s six prison camps. Of course, the regime detained and later released him, making him one of six Americans held in North Korea in recent years.
Korean-American pastor Kenneth Bae is the most recent captive, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and visited this week by his mother.
Recently, Park has continued his ardent anti-regime activism. He is now alleging that the mysterious disappearance of 20,000 or so prisoners from one enormous penal colony, Camp 22, is evidence of a massacre in what he terms North Korea’s “Killing Fields.”
The accusation, if true, would be explosive, coming as the United Nations panel investigates alleged crimes against humanity in North Korea’s penal colonies.
Last year, satellite photographs suggested that the regime had shut down Camp 22, one of North Korea’s worst, which held 30,000 captives in the far northeast. The regime reportedly regarded it as a “maximum security zone,” or an area completely closed off to the outside world.
Thousands of prisoners were apparently quietly transported to two other camps. Thousands of others cannot be accounted for, Park claims.
Unsettling as it is, Park’s conclusion is far from certain. One North Korean defector in Seoul, who asked to remain anonymous, told GlobalPost that he doubts “with huge certainty” that the story is true. He questioned why Park came to such a sensational conclusion without providing evidence.
Either way, Camp 22 has been notorious for its horrific conditions. No prisoners are known to have survived it, since they are all condemned to hard labor for life. They tend to die young, and reports indicate that three generations of captives' families are imprisoned, as well, in an effort to root out dissent.
Two former guards have reported nothing but terror. One, writing under the pseudonym Kwon Hyok, described guards observing Holocaust-style chambers where inmates were gassed. The regime uses the camps to test chemical agents, he claimed.
Other defectors allege regular torture and beatings.
In other words, in spite of the unknowns, there’s no question the camp was a terrible place.