By Joshua Rhett Miller, ,
Published May 16, 2015
The location of two American journalists sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in North Korea's Stalinist gulag remains unclear, though it appears the two women are not among the estimated 200,000 political prisoners held in the country's six labor camps.
Los Angeles-based Current TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested on March 17 and charged with entering North Korea illegally. They were sentenced last month following their conviction in a closed trial.
Family members of the women say they are are being pressured to remain silent and not to conduct interviews, in order to avoid upsetting the delicate situation.
Ling's father, Douglas Ling, refused to speak with FOXNews.com about his daughter's imprisonment, but a friend of Laura's said she worried Ling and Lee's story would soon be forgotten.
"My fear is as the time goes longer with them over there ... that this is going to be pushed aside," said Takoa Stathem, who noted that it has been over a month since any word on their condition has come in from North Korea.
Lee's husband, Michael Saldate, spoke at a vigil in Chicago on July 19 and said he received a message that the women were staying in a "luxury hotel," but he said that isn't the case.
"They aren't," Saldate said, according to ABC's Chicago affiliate. "They're staying in a medical detention center. They are treated fairly, but it's still not easy because they're away from their friends and their family."
State Department officials declined on Friday to respond to questions about the women's whereabouts, saying only that the last contact between Ling, 32, Lee, 36, and the Swedish ambassador in North Korea was on June 23 at an undisclosed location.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday she knows of no attempt by the North Koreans to seek ransom for the two reporters.
Meanwhile, an expert told FOXNews.com that Ling and Lee would not be held in forced labor camps, as has been reported, but rather in a penitentiary, which he said would be like a "country club" in comparison to the country's brutal labor camps.
David Hawk, senior adviser for the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said prisoners in the country's forced-labor camps work up to 15 hours a day and up to 29 days a month. They subsist primarily on corn and salt and are under constant threat of being executed.
The 200,000 political prisoners believed to be in the six labor camps comprise roughly 1 percent of North Korea's 22 million people; hundreds of thousands of other slave laborers are thought to have perished inside the mountain camps.
"Clear and massive crimes against humanity, that's what they are," Hawk told FOXNews.com. "It's one of the worst forms of repression in the world and it goes on and on and on."
Hawk, who authored a 2003 study entitled "The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea's Prison Camps," said the camps can be seen on satellite images, but what goes on inside is virtually invisible to the outside world.
"They work long and very hard under dreadful conditions," he said. "And they're all malnourished and kept on the verge of starvation constantly as a way of control. They're kept hungry so they're docile and obedient."
Prisoners typically work in various mines, including coal, gold and iron ore, Hawk said. Other workers are forced to raise livestock or plant crops.
"They raise rabbits, and the furs are used for the lining of soldiers' coats," he said. "And they raise bees to make honey. They have distilleries to make wine and liquor. They even make furniture."
Even more astonishing than the conditions inside the camps is the fact that none of the slave laborers were subjected to any type of legal hearing, Hawk said.
"They're not arrested, charged or convicted," he said. "They're just picked up and deposited in these camps. It's the complete absence of the judicial process."
Jung Gwang Il, 47, served three years of hard labor at Camp 15 before he was released in 2003. He said he witnessed two executions at the camp.
"They wanted me to admit to being a spy," Jung told the Washington Post. "They knocked out my front teeth with a baseball bat. They fractured my skull a couple of times. I was not a spy, but I admitted to being a spy after nine months of torture."
Jung, who now lives in Seoul, South Korea, and works as a human rights advocate, told the newspaper he weighed 167 pounds when he was arrested. Following his interrogation, he dropped to just 80 pounds.
"Most people die of malnutrition, accidents at work, and during interrogation," Jung told the Washington Post. "It is people with perseverance who survive. The ones who think about food all the time go crazy.
"I worked hard, so guards selected me to be a leader in my barracks. Then I didn't have to expend so much energy and I could get by on corn."
Other unspeakable horrors were not uncommon, according to recent accounts.
An Myeong-chul, a former North Korean prison guard, told the Associated Press in October that if a female inmate became pregnant, both she and her partner would be executed publicly. An said guards would then cut open the woman's womb to remove the fetus, which would be buried or fed to guard dogs.
Bob Joseph, senior scholar at the National Institute for Public Policy, said the "death camps" should be a bigger priority of the U.S. government.
"The brutality is really unparalleled," Joseph told FOXNews.com. "It's unconscionable in terms of the treatment of the people that are interred in these camps."
The people of North Korea are the "first and foremost victims" of Kim Jong Il's totalitarian regime.
"This needs to be a much broader, more central aspect of our policy," Joseph said. "Our policy has focused on the nuclear program. Even the last administration did not push on human rights in North Korea and turned a blind eye to these camps and to the general repression. That's fundamentally wrong."
FOXNews.com's Joseph Abrams contributed to this report.