North Korea is being battered by an outbreak of paratyphoid fever, a disease that is aggravated by malnutrition—a given in a country that has suffered from food shortages for years, whose totalitarian leadership refuses outside aid as a point of pride, and diverts most of its resources to the military. On top of that, the country suffered a terrible winter harvest that yielded half its usual quantity. There are reports of citizens eating grass, leaves and tree bark.
And yet, even North Korea’s sick and hungry can be thankful that they’re not one of the 200,000 people cooped up in prison camps, according to a report released last week by Amnesty International. Satellite images show the camps are much larger than previously believed, and interviews with 30 people who managed to escape tell stories of 16-hour workdays, being forced to witness executions, “ideology education,” and hungry inmates resorting to collecting kernels of corn from animal feces. Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific director, said conditions were “some of the worst circumstances we’ve documented in the last 50 years.”
Amnesty speculates that the camps are expanding as part of a crackdown on dissidents, timed to quell uncertainty as Kim Jong Il is expected to hand power over to his son, Kim Jong Un.