Netherlands-based Open Doors International, a respected rights group investigating reports of persecution of Christians, told BosNewsLife that the concentration camps include eight punishment camps for political prisoners and 30 forced labor camps.
"It’s possible that the number of prisoners are well over one million," said the Open Doors’ North Korea director who identified himself only as ‘Brother Simon’ amid security concerns. "Many camps are so huge that they can’t be spotted on satellite images," he explained. "The camps are complete villages."
He refused to say how the Open Doors investigation had been conducted in the isolated nation, citing concerns about the safety of those involved in the research. "Many lives could be lost," he said. The Open Doors revelations come after previous reports of alleged atrocities in the camps, including in a remote north-eastern corner of North Korea, close to the border of Russia and China.
LARGEST "CONCENTRATION CAMP"
In the remote town of Haengyong, hidden away in the mountains, is Camp 22 – North Korea’s largest concentration camp, where thousands die each year and prison guards stamp on the necks of babies born to prisoners to kill them, North Korean defectors have said.
Witnesses told British media, including the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and The Observer news paper, that they were "watching entire families being put in glass chambers and gassed." They are left to an agonizing death while scientists take notes, the defectors said.
Other experiments in these and other camps allegedly include chemical experiments. "An officer ordered me to select 50 healthy female prisoners," said Soon Ok-lee, who was imprisoned for seven years. "One of the guards handed me a basket full of soaked cabbage and told me not to eat it but to give it to the 50 women. I gave them out and heard a scream from those who had eaten them. They were all screaming and vomiting blood. All who ate the cabbage leaves started violently vomiting blood and screaming with pain. It was hell. In less than 20 minutes they were quite dead," The Observer news paper quoted her as saying.
MANY CHRISTIANS "VICTIMS"
Many of the victims are believed to be Christians as North Korea’s Stalinist system of carrying out Communism is based on "total devotion" of the individual to an ideology promoted by the late leader Kim Il Sung and his successor and son, Kim Jong Il. Christianity is seen as a threat, several Christian and other observers have said. North Korean authorities have denied wrongdoing and say the North Korean people love to serve the country’s "dear leader".
Brother Simon, who has contacts with tens of thousands of Christians in North Korea through several networks, is convinced that despite the apparent dangers, at least 200,000 North Koreans are Christians "although that number may be even as high as half a million." One in four Christians in North Korea are believed to be in camps "where people usually do not survive," he said. "In North Korea it is strictly forbidden to be a Christian. Who has a Bible could be sentenced to a punishment camp along with his whole family."
He added that refugees deported from China could face at least several years imprisonment. "However if authorities find out the refugee has contact with a Christian he or she may face torture and even execution," Brother Simon explained.
SUPPORT FOR REFUGEES
Open Doors is helping refugees in China, although the influx of people crossing the border apparently decreased in recent months. "It’s very difficult to cross the river near the border. At the North Korean site [authorities made] dangerous pits with bamboo arrows," Brother Simon said. "There are also high fences with barbed wire while China has placed camera’s and even promised rewards for those reporting refugees to authorities. Another problem is that Chinese people helping North Koreans crossing the border illegally can face high fines," he stressed.
Brother Simon told BosNewsLife that his group has urged supporters to pray for North Korean Christians fleeing persecution. "We have noticed a dramatic increase of spying activities [in China] in areas where refugees are accommodated. North Korean spies are attempting to infiltrate in groups helping North Korean refugees."
He said there are "strong indications" that China wants to send back many refugees this year, "so that it can play the symphatic host to the outside world during the preparations of the Beijing Olympics" in 2008. "If there was one moment when North Korea needs prayer, it’s now," Brother Simon said.
Open Doors began a three-year round-the-clock prayer action for North Korea on January 1, 2005. About 3,000 Christians in the Netherlands and Belgium are involved in the prayer plan, Open Doors said. North Korea is leading Open Doors annual World Watch List of over 50 nations with the "worst religious freedom" violations. (With reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos and BosNewsLife News Center).