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Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights - North Korea's Prison Camps Case Study Summary

Study conducted by David Hawk for the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2003.


In 2003 the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) published a study titled, “The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps”. The report provides an in-depth and well-researched look at a number of penal institutions in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) that have been reported to exhibit extreme examples of human rights violations. This includes the internment of political prisoners and their families for forced labor in mining, logging, farming and industrial enterprises. Abuse, starvation, and forced abortions are among other crimes reportedly associated with such camps.

For over fifty years, research suggests that North Korea has been unlawfully retaining many of its citizens (men, women and children) in government-run prison camps known as gulags . These gulags are thought to be directly inspired by similar forms of repression in the former Soviet Union and in China. These prison camps have been home to scores of thousands of prisoners- some political, some convicted felons- who are worked, many to their deaths, in mining, logging, farming, and industrial enterprises, often in remote valleys located in the mountainous areas of North Korea. This report also documents a system of smaller, shorter-term detention facilities along the North Korea-China border used to brutally punish North Koreans who flee to China- usually in search of food during the North Korean famine crisis of the middle to late 1990s- but are arrested by Chinese police and forcibly repatriated to the DPRK.

Annotated satellite images are included as part of the HRNK report allowing for a wide audience to potentially view the HRNK interpretation of the prison camps. The report concludes by making a number of recommendations to the DRPK, its neighbors and other U.N. member states including a call for discussions to improve human rights conditions in North Korea.

Methods and Technologies

As part of this study, the U.S. Committee for Human Rights worked with the Natural Resource Defense Council to obtain commercially available satellite imagery of the area over seven of the prison camps in North Korea. Imagery used in this study consisted of high-resolution commercial scenes obtained from 2 satellites: Digital Globe’s QuickBird and Space Imagine Corporation’s IKONOS. The scenes were imaged from 2001 to 2003 and include areas over seven of North Korea’s prison camps.

The satellite images were shown to ex-prisoners interviewed in Seoul, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Researchers provided large print versions of the images to aid the ex-prisoners to identify elements of the prison camps. The ex-prisoners identified buildings and structures in the images, helping to build a more robust interpretation and clearer picture of the structure, setup and happenings at the prisons and surrounding camps. This is a notable example of what is called, “Participatory-GIS” (PGIS): a well-respected approach to collaborative mapping. The first-hand information gathered in such interviews could then be digitized and used within a GIS, and for creating annotated images for use in reports and elsewhere.


Commerical, high-resolution satellite imagery, coupled with the testimonies of North Korean defectors who were held in the prison camps provides a revealing window into this closed society. The annotated satellite images produced from this study provide insight into the specifics of day-to-day life at the camps, including which form of labor was prevalent at each camp (e.g., mining, agriculture). Some sites are large and consist of several small villages spread over more than a hundred square kilometers. Smaller sites typically have factories or workshops where prison laborers are forced to produce bricks, clothing, shoes, or other goods.

An example of the annotated satellite images is below.

Figure 1: HRNK Map of Prison Camps in North Korea

© Copyright GeoEye 2007. All rights reserved

Figure 2: (Image Subset) Camp No. 15–Yodok, S. Hamgyong Province

© Copyright GeoEye 2007. All rights reserved.
Above image is an annotated subset of the Yodok prison camp satellite image recreated for this case study; the entire annotated subset of Yodok prison camp can be found in the full HRNK report. The annotations mark buildings identified from released prisoner Kang Chol Hwan who lived at Yodok with his family for nearly ten years.