American college student Otto Warmbier, 21, was recently sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after being found guilty for “hostile acts” against the state by trying to steal a propaganda banner from the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang where he was staying.
Unless U.S. diplomats can convince the totalitarian state to grant special amnesty for Warmbier, the Cincinnati, Ohio native may not taste freedom until he is 36.
Here’s what Warmbier may have to survive in North Korea’s brutal labor camps, where dissidents are disappeared, women are raped and men are broken.
Modeled after the Soviet gulags of Stalinist Russia, North Korea’s forced labor camps were first established in the late 1940s. North Korea denies the existence of such camps, but satellite imagery says otherwise, according to a 2014 UN special commission report.
Worked to Death and Tortured
Korean citizens who’ve escaped such ordeals speak of family and friends who couldn’t survive the constant near-starvation conditions and brutal forced labor.
Suzanne Scholte, the chairman of the North Korea freedom coalition based in Washington D.C., assists escaped defectors and campaigns for improved human rights. Scholte explained to The Guardian what typical conditions in a labor camp looks like:
“Conditions are horrific. People are worked for 14, 15 or 16 hours every day with just a handful of corn to live on and they are intentionally starved and worked to death.
“Torture is common, there is no medical aid and the sanitation is horrible. They wear the torn uniforms of old prisoners and sleep crammed together in a room.”
Prisoners are put to work in fields, sent to forests to log wood, put to work in mines where safety measures are non-existent, or sent to factories where being injured is basically expected.
Starvation and Rotten Food
While prisoners face beatings, malnutrition typically claims the lives of life-time prisoners by the age of 50.
The 2014 UN report details systematic starvation, torture, rape and executions at camps that hold 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners in total, many of whom simply disappear with no word to their families even in the case of their death. The report says:
“The commission estimates that hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have perished in these camps over the past five decades.”
A 2009 legal report from South Korea, via The Washington Post, reported that prisoners are fed a few ounces of rotten corn and a kind of “salt soup.” Prisoners may even be beaten mercilessly if they try to cook rats for themselves.
The Post reported that prisoners “lose their teeth, their gums turn black, their bones weaken and, as they age, they hunch over at the waist … they live and die in rags, without soap, socks or underwear.”
Hope for Warmbier
Without a doubt, the hardest conditions reported from North Korea equate to a slow death sentence of which very few survive and escape from. These forced labor camps violate every basic human right possible, but North Korea may not send any American prisoners there and risk confirming to the world their existence, meaning there is likely hope for Warmbier. Scholte told Business Insider:
“This student will not be sent to one of these death camps because they cannot let the world know that they are committing these atrocities. They may put him to work in a labour camp but I would suspect for six months or, I hope, less than a year. They are going to use him and it will depend how much the US pushes the regime to release him.”