On February 1, North Korea is expected to issue a special pardon for prisoners to commemorate what would be the 70th birthday of deceased leader Kim Jong Il and the 100th anniversary of the country's founder Kim Il Sung's birth.
According to a report released by Amnesty International in May 2011, North Korea holds about 200,000 people in a network of political prisoner camps.
The amnesty is a rare move and is seen as an attempt to increase the popularity of the country's new leader Kim Jong Un, the Associated Press reports. According to North Korea's news agency KCNA, the amnesty exemplifies the "noble, benevolent and all-embracing politics of President Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jong Il," the BBC reports.
North Korea's announcement failed to specify how many detainees would be released, and which categories of prisoners would be eligible for the pardon. Yet rights groups have noted that thousands of prisoners will remain in detention with little hope for any improvement of their living conditions. Torture, executions, malnutrition and working conditions resembling slavery are rampant in the camps, Amnesty's report concludes. Witnesses described to the group how they saw prisoners eat rats and snakes, and were forced to attend executions, suffered torture and were deprived of sanitation.
Lee, a former inmate of the Yodok camp, told Amnesty of several instances in which he was tortured.
"My arms were tied and hung for half hour, then brought down and then taken back as many as five times a day. At other times, a black plastic bag was put on my head and then I was submerged in water for long periods at a time. For five months, I was tortured; not every day but off and on. When I was tortured, it was for the whole day. At the end, I confessed to what they wanted me to confess."
Thousands of children reportedly are born, held and put to work in the camps. According to Amnesty, many inmates are held for 'guilt by association' because one of their relatives has been sent to the camps.
Shin Dong-Hyuk was born in the Kwanliso 14 camp in 1982. His mother was publicly executed in the camp when he was 13-years-old.
"I was forced to undertake dangerous work and saw many children killed in work. Sometimes, four to five children were killed in a day," Shin explained to Amnesty.
"North Korea under Kim Jong-Il has been a human rights hell on earth," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch said in December 2011. "Kim Jong-Il ruled through fear generated by systematic and pervasive human rights abuses including arbitrary executions, torture, forced labor and strict limits on freedom of speech and association."