In March, photographers captured pictures of North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, laughing alongside former NBA player Dennis Rodman at a North Korean basketball game, then giving Rodman a big goodbye hug.
Kim has since become less friendly, threatening nuclear war and balking at proposed talks with South Korea to address government and human rights issues.
Now, reports suggest Kim is filling prison camps with would-be defectors. According to researchers who study Pyongyang’s labor camps and prisons, Kim has tightened border security, and is pushing China to deport any North Koreans caught trying to escape the country. South Korea’s government said, “From defector accounts, it appears prison camps are still being operated, and control on society, including the flow of information, is toughening.”
North Koreans who have escaped say that when the government catches defectors, it sends them to brutal facilities. Human rights researcher David Hawk described forced repatriation from China as a “pathway to pain, suffering, and violence. Arbitrary detention, torture and forced labor are inflicted upon many repatriated North Koreans.”
One boy described being caught as a 7-year-old after trying to escape with his family. The North Korean government sent him to a forced labor camp, where he had to clear land or be beaten. He described rations of “five pieces of potato a day, each about the size of a fingernail.” The little boy escaped, but his parents and thousands of other North Koreans still live in high security labor camps and prisons.
The North Korean government labels as guilty of treason anyone leaving the country outside of government plans. The conviction carries with it a sentence of five years of hard labor. If the defector gets help from South Korean or American missionary groups, the crime becomes an “anti-state activity,” and can carry a sentence of life in prison or death.
Human rights groups say Kim’s renewed aggression towards citizens trying to escape is strategic. Defectors are dangerous to his regime—they can tell stories about the conditions in North Korea. They also threaten to send information and money back in, further destabilizing his power.