A friendly guide to North Korean gulags 11

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There has been a recent spate of travel writing about North Korea, once of the most secretive and brutally repressive countries in the world. I’ve found some of the stuff I have read unusually naive and glossy, but just ran across some welcomed developments casting always needed light, starting with the best piece of travel writing I have seen on it, by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s daughter Sophie.

Undoubtedly, North Korea has one of the most reprehensible governments in the world and has to be on everyone’s bottom five “Countries I’d Like to Live in” list.

This is a country that occasionally just randomly bombs South Korea, has announced a plan to target the US with nuclear weapons, has run the economy into the ground to such an extent that hundreds of thousands have died of starvation, has cut its citizens off completely from the world with no access to the internet and with the least free press in the world, and has imprisoned some 150,000 to 200,000 of its citizens in prison camps, or gulags, that rival the worst the old Soviet Union had in its heyday.

And newly casting light onto North Korean misery comes Google, of all things.

map of gulag prison camps in north korea on google

Your North Korean prison camps

Until very recently, North Korea was one big blank area on Google Maps, but through a cooperation of volunteer spotters and satellite imagery, they have recently started mapping this country for the rest of the world to see.

It is going to be an interesting and informative ongoing project.

Ryugyong Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea

the shadow of the 105 story Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang

Aside from views of 105 story tall buildings that North Korea hasn’t finished yet (though they say they will complete, 25 years in the making), some of the most interesting details are the views of the North Korean prison camps.

What is interesting is that Google hasn’t shied away from labeling the gulags as gulags — no obscuring the truth that they are just plain and simple political prison camps, run by one of the worst dictatorships on the planet (little improvement since Kim Jong Il’s death graced my 2011 year end review).

north korean gulag 22 map

your friendly neighborhood gulag offices

But all is not gloomy, depressing and dreary about this. Once these spots were put up on Google Maps, what did people start doing immediately??

Reviewing them. And some of the reviews are great. A sampling:

Gulag 16 Checkpoint
North Hamgyong North Korea‎

Garrick Butler reviewed in the last week — Quality Excellent

Probably the best checkpoint I’ve ever been frisked at, ever (and I’ve been to Juarez, Mexico, DR Congo and Syria in the past month alone). Definitely worth the wait to feel the supple hands of Private Park, the best frisker in the entire Korean People’s Army. Whether you’re headed for Hwasong or Chongjin, be sure to make Gulag 16 Checkpoint part of your trip to the DPRK! 

Paul Urfi reviewed in the last week — Quality Good

I wanted to give resort an “Excellent” rating but the checkout process was really difficult. This of course isn’t the fault of the Glorious Leader, in fact, it’s probably all my fault. Please forget I said anything…

Chongjin Gulag
North Hamgyong North Korea‎

Jean Philippe Da Costa reviewed in the last week –Quality Poor to fair

Not as good as the russian places that started the gulag chain, you can feel that they do not give attention to detail as the russians do. They need to do more cross training of facility employees to assure the same level of service.

Playlt Bogart reviewed in the last week — Quality Poor to fair

Very misleading! The travel brochure said it was the resort that James Bond spent 14 months in in Die Another Day, but it wasn’t! Furthermore, the pictures of the “fitness” room and the “pool” (really a sewage vat) were photographed from a very deceptive angle! None of the attendants spoke English, and my wife developed a terrible infection. We think someone died in the room next to ours, but the staff seemed not to care. In a positive, they had Wayne Newton as the gulag entertainment. One star.

Bukchang Gulag
South Pyongan North Korea‎

Pascal Sontag reviewed in the last week — Quality Excellent

“Congratulations – You Are Now The Mayor of Bukchang Gulag” I’ve never been more proud of a Foursquare badge.

Adam Clefe reviewed in the last week — Quality Very good

A little off the beaten path…. Well worth the the time spent on travel. Hosts treated me as equal, no special treatment. Great cultural experience! !!! Biggest complaint was no TV nor was there any power if TV was available. Great showers!!
A Google User reviewed in the last week — Quality Good

This prison camp is offensive to every civilized person, a place of unbelievable hardship and inhumanity. On the plus side, it has a very small carbon footprint and pretty much everything is recycled. So a mixed grade: 0 for friendliness to humans, but 10 for friendliness to the environment.

Thank goodness for a sense of humor in the face of evil.

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About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.

11 thoughts on “A friendly guide to North Korean gulags

  • Maria

    I’m curious as to where the detailed information about the gulag layouts is coming from – refugees / escapees from DPRK?

    Thanks for linking to Sophie’s article. “It’s like The Truman Show, at country scale” – best description of North Korea.

    Have you seen the 3-part Vice series, Inside North Korea? Also quite illuminating, especially regarding the level of staging that goes on for the foreigners. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24R8JObNNQ4

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Maria, from what I read it is coming from refugees, including some actual prison camp workers that have fled.

  • Nate

    It’s hard to get a check on what is propaganda, what is real, when reading about NK. I have spoken to someone who has travelled there recently, and although there is a lot of truth in what is written, he made sure to make me understand that a lot of it is not true.

    Similarly, when I visited Iran, for a month recently – I found that almost everything I had read/been told about Iran, was absolutely false.

    Another note, to be taken in context of the numbers of prisoners, not the conditions of prisoners:

    Currently, the United States incarcerates it’s citizens at a rate comparable to the peak of the Russian Gulag system. The United States tops the charts of the proportion of it’s citizens behind bars, a higher proportion than any country on Earth

    Source: OECD, Wikipedia.

    And, the Human Rights of these American prisoners (the overwhelming majority of whom are behind bars for non-violent or drug related offenses) has been condemned by the UN:

    “Isolation of prisoners has been condemned by the UN in 2011 as a form of torture. At over 80,000 at any given time, the US has more prisoners confined in isolation than any other country in the world. In Louisiana, with 843 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, there have been prisoners held for as long as forty years in isolation.”


    Absolutely no gripes at all with how you have portrayed North Korea – it’s clearly an atrocious situation being faced by NK citizens.

    I hope you don’t mind a bit of “food for thought” for your readers, although this comment may be wrongly interpreted as an US vs NK post, it’s not – I just thought a little bit of related info may be interesting.

    If I wasn’t so stupid, I’d just shutup about this sort of thing – something I feel strongly about.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Not sure any of us can speak very authoritatively on North Korea, but as a former criminal defense lawyer in the States, I think I’m qualified to talk about that system.

      The US justice system has quite a few problems, but comparing it to the North Korean “justice system” is pretty far off. Huge difference… we actually have things like trials, lawyers, juries and judges (and a series of Constitutional rights, though not as vibrant as I’d like them, are still some of the strongest in the world). On the other hand, North Korea gulags are generally populated with prisoners just yanked out of their homes for political reasons.

      Perhaps I’m a bit biased, but I think it is pretty safe to say that 100 criminal justice experts out of 100 would say the US justice system is leaps and bounds above North Korea’s.

      • Nate

        I didn’t mean for my comment to be interpreted as a comparison of justice systems, and yes, I agree that the US justice system is no doubt leaps and bounds above North Korea’s.

        However, so is the imprisonment rate, and that’s the rub.

        And, it’s a fair comparison, in my opinion.

        • Michael Hodson Post author

          We imprison too many people, but they are also in prison for convictions of democratically passed laws (and imprisoned after public trials with lawyers, judges, juries and appeals thereafter). I agree we’ve got more in prison than we should, but they are there as part of a democratic process.

          Which is about 180 degrees different than North Korea.

          I don’t like a bunch of our criminal laws in the States, but they were all passed by a democratic process — I don’t always like the results of democracy either, but it’s better than any other system of government I am aware of.

  • Ali

    Stuff about North Korea fascinates me, mostly because they’re so secretive, and somehow I don’t remember ever learning much about the country until I got into the travel blogging world. I have no desire to ever go there and contribute a cent to a government that treats its people so horribly. Hopefully one of these days the situation will change for the better.

  • Liam Mason

    I had no idea the North had so many labor camps. Considering what I’ve heard about the conditions in these camps, I have to wonder who would consider these for tour destinations – or why for that matter. Surely there must be other better places to consider, are there?

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