There are plenty of attractions – and distractions for visitors to the South Korean capital Seoul, but a trip to the Odusan Unification Observatory may just top the list.

It’s located on a hill-top about an hour or so north of the city and it’s a good place to come and have a look at North Korea.

05 odusanobservatory r w Forced to dig their own graves: the brutality of North Korean labour camps

Through one of dozens of coin-operated binoculars on the outdoor plaza, you can see the Imjim and Han Rivers which form the border – and a series of large metallic fences on each bank. Beyond the fence line, a bleak vista of brownish scrub-land and sad-looking settlements fills the horizon.

It terms of scenery, it hasn’t got a whole lot going for it – but it is popular with visitors for the simple reason that it is the closest most people will ever get to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Visitors won’t come away will any additional facts about the reality of life on the other side of the border – but a quarter of an hour staring through those binoculars is enough to give you a dark and uneasy feeling about the place.

Amnesty International has done far more to expose the brutal truth of this repressive regime and today the human rights group released a series of satellite images and human testimony from North Korean defectors. You can read their full report here

Amnesty researchers have been looking at North Korea’s political prison camps where it is thought that 100,000 to 200,000 people are held on the basis of their “political unreliability” or “disloyalty” to Kim Jong-un’s regime.

The international community has long called on the North Koreans to shut these gulags which also, incredibly, hold the relatives of “offenders” on the basis of “guilt-by-association”.

Instead of closing them however, Amnesty believes the regime may be making them bigger.

After studying satellite images taken over a two-year period, researchers think “Camp 16″ at Hwaesong has been expanded with the construction of new housing blocks. The images also suggest significant economic activity at the camp including mining, logging and agriculture.

Prisoners are used as slave labour, working 12 hour days on near-starvation rations. Channel 4 News interviewed former prisoner Jeong Kwang-il, who spent three years in Camp 15 – better known as “Yodok”.

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“It was very hard. Nobody gets sufficient nourishment,” he told us. “Many people died of malnourishment while I was there. I’d say about 300 a year. We were treated worse than animals – although the dogs raised by the wardens had rice and meat. Our lives were much worse than (the lives of) the dogs.”

A former security guard called “Lee” told Amnesty about the methods used to execute prisoners at Camp 16. He said detainees were forced to dig their own graves and were then killed with hammer blows to the neck. He said prison officials routinely raped female prisoners and later executed them. “After a night of servicing the officials, the women had to die because the secret could not get out,” said Lee. “This happens at most of the camps.”

Mr Jeong told Channel 4 News that Yodok held many well-known figures who had fallen from favour.”In the camp I found out that it was full of powerful people. We use to talk. They told me incredible things.”

This week we learnt that Jang Song-thaek, the uncle and mentor to 20-something leader Kim Jong-un, had been purged from power. His whereabouts are unknown but it is possible – if not probable – that he now finds himself in some sort of detention facility.

Two of his closest aides were executed in public after being found guilty of corruption and “activities running counter to the policies of the Workers Party of Korea.”

Evidence gathered by Amnesty adds to a growing pile provided by camp survivors to a landmark UN commission investigating human rights abuses in North Korea. The commission may recommend the prosecution of the country’s leaders at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

North Korea still denies the existence of the camps and describess those defectors who have spoken out as “human scum”.

Still, Amnesty is equally scathing. The group’s East Asia head Rajiv Narayan said, “we have been investigating human rights violations for 50 years and we find North Korea to be in a category of its own.”

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