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June 9th, 2009
10:28 AM ET

Life inside a North Korean prison

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="T. Kumar of Amnesty International has studied conditions inside North Korean prisons."]

American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling have been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in North Korea. What kind of conditions would they face in a North Korean prison? Not much is known about them. But through the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, we have satellite maps showing the layout of one prison.

T. Kumar is the advocacy director for Asia and the Pacific at Amnesty International and he has studied the prison conditions in North Korea. He spoke to John Roberts on CNN’s “American Morning” Tuesday.

John Roberts: If they were sent to one of these prisons, what kind of conditions would they encounter based on the studies you've done?

T. Kumar: We have to divide the situation into two categories. First is about the living conditions. The living conditions are extremely harsh. It's overcrowded, very little food and very little, if any, medical attention. Then every day they have to work for more than ten hours. Very hard labor starting from breaking stones to working in the mines. And very little food again during the day.

Roberts: Very high rates of death in detention among these prisoners?

Kumar: Yes. It's a combination of facts why the deaths are occurring. Number one, it's hard and forced labor. Second, it's lack of food. And unhygienic environment…There is no medical attention at all in many cases. So combined of all of these issues, [there is a] very large number of people who die in these [prisons].

Roberts: But in terms of putting together this report and the conditions inside the prisons, the type of labor these people are being forced to endure, the type of conditions that they are being forced to endure, under their handlers, how did you find all of this information out?

Kumar: We get information through former inmates who flee to China as refugees. And through them, as well as other sources such as former guards [who] at times tell us what's happening. This we did not compile over a year or two. We have been investigating it for the last couple of years and found out all of this inside information. By the way, this is not the full information. Full information could be much worse.

Roberts: You know, at the same time that Laura Ling and Euna Lee were put on trial, there was the whole issue over North Korea’s nukes and the missile tests. The U.S. is talking very tough on that front, the military front, but talking very diplomatically here about the two journalists who have been sentenced.

Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “We view these as entirely separate matters. We think the imprisonment trial and sentencing of Laura and Euna should be viewed as a humanitarian matter. We hope that the North Koreans will grant clemency and deport them.”

Roberts: So the secretary of state and the administration at large are trying to separate these issues and talking very diplomatically about the two journalists. Do you think North Korea will see these as separate issues? Or do you think they're going to try to leverage it to the best of their ability?

Kumar: Yeah, Amnesty International supports the secretary of state's decision. But definitely North Korea is not going to take that position. The timing of their arrest and imprisonment, and the sentencing of 12 years, suggests that they are using this as a pawn in the whole bigger game of nuclear standoff with the United States.

Roberts: And do you think they will ever send Laura and Euna to one of these prisons? If you're a secretive nation and want to keep things hidden, it would seem the last thing you would want to do is send two American journalists to one of these prisons with the thought in the back of your mind that one day they might be released and tell the world what goes on there.

Kumar: We can't rule out anything. Amnesty International always warned the international community not to be complacent on these issues. Since the North Korean government has gone to the extent of sentencing them, we should expect the worst. Expecting it not to happen – it's going to be a disservice to the families as well as to these two journalists. The U.S. also can ask International Committee of the Red Cross, as a first step, to meet with them to see how they are doing. That's something the U.S. can do now.

Filed under: North Korea
soundoff (622 Responses)
  1. Duane

    People have to realize that yes maybe the US could destroy North Korea with air strikes and yes they could put a blockade on the country and try to cut off all power and food and such – but what about the repercusions that would come from doing this – do you not believe that they would fire off their missles and start a nuclear war? Or send out small commando groups to strike at the US? And what about the people of North Korea who have no say in their goverment – should they be punished and destroyed just because a few crazy men are controlling their country. It is to bad that these girls got caught up in this political mess – but like a lot of you have expressed they must have know the consequenses of their actions and we have no right to judge the law of the land – if people from other counties tried to come over and say that the laws that we have created were wrong I am sure you all would be the first ones to object. I am not saying I know what is the right course of action – but any course should be well thought out and we should understand the repercusions of any action that may be taken to save these to girls!

    June 9, 2009 at 5:10 pm |
  2. Lydia E

    As a journalist, I feel for these women. Also, I admire them for getting involved and taking the risk to bring attention to their story. Remember, you can't get a good story without some risk. And also this: no one ever deserves to be imprisoned in a labor camp for crossing a border. The only border crossed in this case is a humanitarian one.
    Hopefully they will be released soon, and because of their hardship more attention than they ever dreamed will be given to North Korea's humanitarian issues.

    June 9, 2009 at 5:10 pm |
  3. carol ann

    I know if I were in those girls place, I would be praying hard for someone to come and get me. They must have been motivated to go somewhere so dangerous. Who pays them, and how much for a story like that, and of course the recognition that would go with a story like that from that country. That would motivate some people to go beyond safety first. I hope they get to come home, and I think their laws there are exactly what they are-communist ! But we cannot just go to war over this, we have to think of the many others that would suffer. Trust me NK will come up with something they want real bad to exchange these women for. When they come home, they should be set free, since they will have already endured inhuman treatment. We need pray for our leaders to make the right decision, and let this be a lesson to us all that inhumane treatment of others, is really terrible when it hits you at home. And Heinrich, I wonder just what you are. You will stand before the God that made us all and answer for that mean spirited remark. I will pray for you and all like you. God Bless America.

    June 9, 2009 at 5:09 pm |
  4. raf

    Russ, are you kidding me? You had a bad experience with two reporters, and because of that, these two completely unrelated women deserve 12 years in a North Korean prison? Because they're also journalists?

    June 9, 2009 at 5:08 pm |
  5. toni

    Umm, i don't think the US should do anything to "save" these two people. I think they need to serve their sentence according to North Korean Law. I mean come on, why should we ask for early release for any prisoners, there is enough law breakers in this world as it is.

    June 9, 2009 at 5:08 pm |
  6. Jon

    You cannot expect to travel to other countries and be protected by US law. Anyone remember Michael Fay, the American teen who was caught vandalizing cars in Singapore?? He cried for the US to bail him out but it failed. He was sentenced to four months in jail, a $2,200 fine - and six strokes of the cane. I agree with this. It's their country with their laws.
    Also, a while back, Israel and Hezbollah fighting broke out in Lebanon. Hundreds of VACATIONING Americans were rescued from Beruit. Why would you vacation in Beruit?!?!?!? The State Dept. Issued warnings about travel to Lebanon six months before fighting broke out. You get what you deserve when you travel to hostile areas. These two ladies lived in China and broke North Korean law when they crossed the border illegally.

    June 9, 2009 at 5:06 pm |
  7. David

    Well it is a tragedy for sure, but the curcumstances of their capture/abduction is not clear. Ans as far as N Korea using them as leverage will probably happen because we all know that the liberals will want the US to capitualate to the N Koreans. As far as the military option, not an option because it will destabilize a economic power (S Korea) and the instability would spread world wide economicaly(China- US) and in the end what G-20 nation would want to have the current economic situation made worse . In the case of military vs military the 1.4 million man North Korean army vs the 700,000 South Korean army plus the 28,000 US army garrision. It would be long and bloody and the US is in no position to support a 2 1/2 front war. Nor has the support of the citizens at home because the Dems and Liberals run the show now....

    June 9, 2009 at 5:06 pm |
  8. aznbear

    Both of those girls should of thought twice before doing what they did. Now they have to pay the price...Life sucks..lession learned..

    June 9, 2009 at 5:05 pm |
  9. wolfgar

    Finely, a country that knows how to handle Illegal Aliens!
    We can learn a lesson from this America!

    June 9, 2009 at 5:05 pm |
  10. Alan

    Hopefully this series of posts is not representative of our society at large . . . scary!

    June 9, 2009 at 5:04 pm |
  11. someone from NJ

    Well thought comments are already posted here. Many people are waiting for help this very minute for good reasons. i personally would'nt waste anytime for those who cross the country illegally in to the land of Dictatorship. I think US should take aid of China and Japan if they are interested in this matter. Ofcourse i know little of international political issues. Ofcourse i personally cant comment on nuclear issues, its like i ask my kid not to buy adult magazines if bought some of them already. You know iam taking about nukes. Well Power rules and can dictate the terms. So why not now instead of making this a world drama.

    June 9, 2009 at 5:04 pm |
  12. Bob Legacé

    Kimmy boy in N.Korea is as bad as Hithler so...what is your country waiting to nuke the little bastard ??

    Have a good day


    June 9, 2009 at 5:03 pm |
  13. Ann Davis Midland, Texas

    I do feel sorry for the families of these two Americans, but they shouldn't have been trying to get into a country illegally. There's a right and wrong way of doing things and these girls chose the wrong way. Now they are being punished.

    June 9, 2009 at 5:02 pm |
  14. Michael

    Mystery solved. For a first-hand account of North Korea's prison camps, read "Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag." Written by a defector from North Korea, Mr. Chol-Hwan Kang. He also speaks about those who wish to silence or kill people like him. He now lives in South Korea and continues to be brave in his opposition to North Korea.

    June 9, 2009 at 5:02 pm |
  15. Ken - Denver

    It's hard to lose to fact it's usually bloody well impossible – but once in a while you get lucky. Think of the books they can write if they get out alive. Sorry but you can't build national policy around 2 idiots sneaking around for a story.

    June 9, 2009 at 5:01 pm |
  16. sergio

    its hard for me not to believe that these two journalists were not kidnapped by the north koreans when they strayed too close to the border...the north korean government has been know to conduct incursions into south korea and kidnap their citizens..tiny submarines have been captured by the south koreans and south korean citizens have given accounts about being kidnapped...not sure why this seems so far fetched for such a secretive governement

    June 9, 2009 at 5:01 pm |
  17. MCBearCat

    Regardless of their guilt or innocence, they both knew the risks they were taking. I seriously question how a young woman could make a priority of spending time around the North Korean/China border more important than caring for her children at home. She set her priority and is now suffering the consequences...good luck to both of them.

    June 9, 2009 at 5:00 pm |
  18. Ed

    Hate to break it to you Suzanne Lee, but we are NOT the most powerful country! You can thank the president that just moved out for that!

    June 9, 2009 at 4:56 pm |
  19. Toni from TX

    I believe America should do whatever it takes to free those journalists ASAP! I only hope they regret risking their lives and the sorrow they are causing their families for their stupidity. North Korea is no place for North Koreans let alone Americans.

    June 9, 2009 at 4:55 pm |
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