WASHINGTON (AP) — When Amnesty International officials scrutinized new satellite imagery of a notorious North Korean prison camp, what caught their attention was not what was happening inside the fence but outside it.
A network of what appeared to be guard posts enclosing a valley and a small town indicated not an expansion of the sprawling Camp 14, as originally thought, but authorities’ control of those living beyond the camp’s perimeter.
The rights group isn’t sure why that’s happening but says it’s another good reason to step up scrutiny of human rights conditions in the secretive nation, with its unparalleled restrictions on citizenry and its vast gulag.
Amnesty is pushing for member states next week at the U.N. Human Rights Council to support an independent commission of inquiry into systematic abuses and crimes against humanity in North Korea.
That would add international pressure on Pyongyang, which was hit Thursday with the toughest U.N. sanctions yet for its latest nuclear test. It has responded by unleashing a barrage of threats against the United States and South Korea, which undertake major military exercises in the region next week.
A U.N. special rapporteur on human rights is due to present a report on North Korea to the council in Geneva on Monday. Japan, Europe, the U.S. and South Korea have all indicated support for some kind of enhanced inquiry mechanism, and only half of the 47 member states on the council will need to vote in favor for it to be established.
While it is highly unlikely North Korea would allow investigators into the country, Amnesty says a commission of inquiry would lead a better resourced probe into conditions in the country and could provide a basis for some day bringing perpetrators before the International Court of Justice.
“The focus on North Korea right now is on its provocative statements and threats of nuclear strikes. As scary as that prospect is, it’s an extraordinarily remote possibility,” Frank Jannuzi , deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA, told reporters Friday in Washington.
“What is certain is the human tragedy faced by North Koreans every day,” Jannuzi said.
A third of North Korean children are chronically malnourished, according to the U.N., and up to 200,000 people are held in political prison camps, many simply because they are related to those deemed unfriendly to the authoritarian regime.
The best-selling book “Escape from Camp 14” by author Blaine Harden has shed light onto one corner of the gulag. It tells of Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born in the camp, endured forced labor and torture, then at age 23 managed to escape through its electrified fence and eventually reached the West.
Amnesty said it commissioned the satellite images and analysis of the area, which lies 43 miles north of Pyongyang, from commercial provider Digital Globe. It found that North Korea has constructed a 12.5-mile perimeter, much of it on steep terrain, next to the camp to encircle a valley that contains mines, orchards and a small town. While the perimeter is marked by posts and not a fence, there is controlled access and some 20 guard towers that are more concentrated near the town than the camp.
“What’s most worrisome is that it seems to expand the scope of control beyond the formal boundaries of the prison camp,” said Jannuzi.
Still, Jannuzi, a former U.S. congressional staffer who has been to North Korea several times, said the country is not the “black box” it’s often made out to be. Foreign charities and aid groups operate there, and there is some tourism.
Jannuzi predicted the mounting international pressure on North Korea over its rocket and nuclear tests, while justified, will lead to a “hardening of views and tightening of controls” there and will set back hopes of an incremental opening.
“Times of military tension and escalation are always bad for us trying to do work to promote human rights,” he said.