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North Korea Announces Plan to Release Some Inmates From Its Nightmarish Prisons

State media announced that people “convicted of the crimes against the country and its people” could receive amnesty, but it’s unclear how many prisoners will actually be freed.

by VICE News
Jul 14 2015, 5:10pm

Photo via Rodong Sinmun/EPA

Convicts in North Korea's notoriously brutal prison system got some rare good news on Tuesday: The government declared that some prisoners will be granted amnesty on August 1, the 70th anniversary of the country's independence from Japanese colonial rule.

It's unclear, however, how many and what kind of inmates will be released. The state Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced that the amnesty would include those "convicted of the crimes against the country and its people."

Details about North Korea's prison system are notoriously difficult to come by. Amnesty International estimated in 2011 that 200,000 people were being held in the country's political prisons.

Those who have spent time in the Hermit Kingdom's massive prison system have testified about punishing forced labor, sexual abuse, and public executions. A 2013 Amnesty International report on North Korea's largest political prison, Kwanliso 16, described prisoners being forced to dig their own graves before being executed with a hammer.

Related: North Korea Has Publicly Executed 1,382 People Since 2000, Report Claims

The UN reported in 2013 that the number of political prisoners in North Korea may have dipped down to the 80,000-120,000 range as the "inmate population was eliminated through deliberate starvation, forced labor, executions, torture, rape and the denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion and infanticide."

Hundreds of thousands have died in North Korean prison labor camps over the last five decades, according to UN estimates. The criminal justice system does little to distinguish between ordinary lawbreakers and political prisoners, though there are "reeducation camps" that are separate from the gulags. Detainees at the "reeducation camps" can also be subjected to forced labor and torture, but, unlike most concentration camp prisoners, they can be released after memorizing speeches by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and undergoing other forms ideological indoctrination.

"The vast majority of inmates are victims of arbitrary detention," the 2013 UN report said.

The North Korean government promised on Tuesday that released prisoners will be reintegrated into society. "Our Cabinet and related organizations will come up with practical measures to help prisoners to return to ordinary life when they are released," KCNA reported.

This is not the first time North Korea granted a large-scale pardon. Ten years ago, North Korea marked the 60th anniversary of its liberation from Japan by granting some prisoners amnesty. In 2012, more prisoners were released to commemorate Kim Jong-il's birthday.

Related: Did North Korea Really Publish Pictures of a Biological Weapons Facility?

Watch the VICE News documentary, Launching Balloons into North Korea: Propaganda Over Pyongyang: