North Korea

At least 35 North Korean prisoners are said to have starved to death in July


COVID restrictions kept families from bringing the extra food that inmates rely on to stay alive.

At least 35 North Korean prisoners are said to have starved to death in July

A female North Korean soldier stands guard at the entrance of a female prison on the banks of the Yalu River near the Chongsong county of North Korea opposite the Chinese border town of Hekou, northeastern China’s Liaoning province, May 31, 2009.

At least 35 North Korean women serving time at prisons north of the capital Pyongyang died of malnutrition in July because their relatives could not visit them to deliver food due to COVID-19 restrictions, sources in the country told RFA.

Though Kaechon Prison in South Pyongan province provides food for inmates, it is not nearly enough, especially since prisoners are made to perform hard labor for long hours every day. Their survival depends on their families bringing them extra food when they visit.

North Korea in May declared a “national maximum emergency” after a major outbreak of the virus the previous month. During the emergency, which only ended this month, families who live far away from the prison could not make the trip. 

As a result, malnutrition cases increased among the prison population, and 20 women lost their lives, a resident of the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service Aug. 18, on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“Last week, I visited my sister at Kaechon Prison and she told me 20 female prisoners died from malnutrition and harsh labor,” the source said.

Prior to the pandemic, it was normal for three or four prisoners to die each month, she said.

The source’s younger sister is serving a five-year sentence for getting caught making phone calls to a family member who had escaped the country and resettled in South Korea.

“There are still about 50 prisoners diagnosed with malnutrition in the women’s prison and they were isolated into a group of sick inmates. They can’t get up or sit down. They seem like they are waiting to die,” said the source.

“When a death occurs … the guard enters the prison and piles the bodies on one side. At the end of each month, the prisoners are told to transport the dead bodies on a stretcher to bury them in the mountains behind the prison,” she said.

According to the source, families normally visit their inmates and deliver foods like corn flour that can last until their next visit.  

“The increased number of prisoners dying of malnutrition was due to the restriction of movement during the COVID-19 outbreak. It became difficult for families to come and visit,” she said.

“The prisoners cannot withstand intense labor after only eating a single rice ball each day as provided by the prison,” said the source.

Prisoners in Chungsan Prison, also in South Pyongan province, are allowed to receive family visits once every three months, a resident of the northern province of Ryanggang told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“As the movement of residents was restricted, residents closer to Chungsan prison were able to provide food to their families in prison. But it was difficult for those who live far away, like out here in Ryanggang province,” he said

“They can only come using servi-cha and can bring food only once every six months,” said the source. Servi-cha are privately owned trucks or vans that can be hired to transport goods or people to places inaccessible by trains and buses.

The second source said that there are some in Chungsan Prison who have not received any food from their families during the pandemic.

“Prisoners with family and acquaintances bringing in outside food will barely survive prison, but prisoners without outside food die of malnutrition. In the past month, 15 prisoners died of malnutrition in the women’s prison,” said the second source.

“When a prisoner dies, the prison calls the police from the prisoner’s hometown and asks them to take the body to the family,” he said. “However, during the COVID emergency, the family is charged with taking responsibility for the body. If they cannot arrive in time, the dead bodies are rolled up in straw bags and buried around the prison.”

After facing a barrage of international criticism over its treatment of prisoners, North Korea in 2015 began punishing officials in prisons where many inmates died, according to the second source.

Since then, families have been allowed to visit every month instead of every three months, and 10 percent of the food they brought was required to be shared with the entire prison population so that prisoners who have no one visiting them still receive the extra food.

But since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, family visits were once again reduced to once per three months. With much less food coming in, malnutrition among the prison population increased rapidly, he said.

Rather than taking measures to prevent malnutrition, however, North Korean authorities are doing their best to prevent news of the deaths getting out, both sources said.

RFA was not able to independently confirm the malnutrition death toll for the two South Pyongan prisons.

False victory

North Korea declared victory against coronavirus and ended the maximum emergency order on Aug. 10, declaring the country completely virus free, but sources told RFA that suspected cases continue to report to quarantine centers.

A source in South Pyongan told RFA that anyone with a fever higher than 37 degrees celsius (98.6 Fahrenheit) must be separated and quarantined.

“Currently, about 150 patients who are quarantined at the Anju Hotel are supplied with two fever reducers per day and they get to gargle with salt water three times a day for 7 to 15 days. They can be released only after the fever symptoms disappear,” she said. 

“In a building in Songchongang district of Hamhung City, about 200 fever patients are currently quarantined,” a resident in the eastern province of South Hamgyong province told RFA.

“The city’s quarantine command requires doctors to check the body temperature of every resident of each household every morning,” she said. “They have to register and report residents with temperatures of 37 degrees Celsius or higher.”

The fourth source criticized the government’s declaration of victory over coronavirus: “For whom is this false propaganda that the authorities have declared the end of the maximum emergency?”

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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