Kang Chol-hwan was nine years old when his grandfather was accused of treason against the Kim regime. He and several family members were sent to North Korea’s Camp No. 15. For the next 10 years, Kang ate rodents and earthworms to survive and regularly watched public executions. The family’s pain and suffering were due to their so-called crime of “guilt-by-association.”

Last month, North Korean authorities ordered the expansion of the same political prison camp system that imprisoned Kang and his family. A recent report suggests that North Korea is expanding its prison network to increase forced labor.

During the Eighth Party Congress, Kim Jong-un declared war on the development of marketization and the emergence of private businesses in North Korea. To combat this perceived anti-socialist sentiment, North Korean authorities are preparing to crack down on individuals who participate in market activities and violators of COVID-19 restrictions. The expansion of prison camps is a gesture by the Kim regime to instill more fear and expand control of the North Korean people. 

Crimes against humanity occur inside North Korea’s prison camps. Testimony and satellite imagery confirm the existence of six operational political prison camps in North Korea that hold between 80,000 and 120,000 prisoners, including an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Christians. Satellite photos reveal the modern-day gulags with maximum security enclosures, barbed wire fences, guard towers, and gated high walls. Enslaved by the government, prisoners arduously labor within or outside prisons, ranging from eight to 12 hours per day. They are also vulnerable to deliberate starvation, sexual violence, torture, and public execution. 

For years the international community has decried gross violations of human rights inside the prison camps. The recent expansion of the prison camp system, however, increases the need for the US government to take substantive actions to address human rights issues in North Korea.

Inside North Korea’s prison camps, families are torn apart and pitted against one another. The prison camps hold many families, mainly because of the Kim regime’s policy of “guilt-by-association.” Lim Hye-jin, a former prison guard, recounted the ruthless killing of an entire family. When two brothers failed to escape, they were publicly beheaded, and their seven family members were summarily murdered. Children born inside the prison camps often develop no emotional ties to their parents. Instead, they view their parents as competitors for scarce food and resources. This is but one of the ways the Kim regime seeks to tear families apart.

Many innocent people are dying in North Korea’s prison camps. The estimated fatality rate at the labor camps is close to 25 percent, with most of the deaths caused by malnutrition from deliberate starvation. Amnesty International reports that as many as 200,000 people could be dying inside these prison camps. Others estimate that as many as 400,000 to 1 million may have perished. As the camps expand, more innocent people will, no doubt, die.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken made clear the United States’ commitment to championing human rights through diplomacy. If the Biden administration hopes to do so, it must pursue policies toward North Korea that seek to address both human rights and security issues.

One way of doing this is to press North Korea to release all women, children, and the elderly from political prison camps. It should also request access for the International Committee for the Red Cross, the World Food Programme, the United Nations, and other humanitarian organizations so that they can provide assistance to North Korea’s most vulnerable populations.

The Trump administration stopped short of a maximum pressure policy toward North Korea. While the previous administration increased sanctions against the country, it still left valuable leverage off the table. The challenge for the Biden administration will be to build on sanctions efforts, like the authorities enshrined in the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, that tie human rights and security concerns together in sanctions policy.

Making progress with North Korea requires addressing the two pillars of its policy where the Kim regime derives legitimacy: its weapons programs and its political prison camp system.

For people like Kang Chol-hwan, the stakes couldn’t be higher.