Wash Post: Survivors of N.Korean prison camp tell horror stories
SEOUL — One by one they came, taking seats next to a United Nations flag and stating their names for the record. Some kept calm. Some wept. One, as he spoke, used his left hand to clamp his trembling right hand to the table.
They told stories about North Korea’s brutal network of criminal detention and political prison camps, and their evidence was physical: burns on their backs, scars on their heads, bodies ravaged by torture for acts that amount to crimes only in the North. They described forced abortions, public executions, constant hunger and ghoulish mind games played by prison guards, whose permission was needed even to catch and eat the camps’ many rats and mice.
Guards in a good mood would approve, said one defector, Shin Dong-hyuk.
Guards wanting a laugh would force prisoners to eat the rodents live.
Many of the defectors had spoken about their lives before, but this week, at a university lecture hall in downtown Seoul, their stories had a new purpose — as testimony in a U.N. investigation into North Korean rights abuses. Earlier this year, the U.N. human rights chief called those abuses unparalleled and said international attention was “long overdue” — particularly, she said, because they are continuing unabated under North Korea’s third-generation supreme leader, Kim Jong Un.
According to reports from nongovernmental organizations, the North, at these camps, gives prisoners starvation rations and works them to the brink of death, cutting back the rations further when the work is not done well. North Koreans can be imprisoned for criticizing the leadership, watching a foreign-made DVD, leaving dust on the portrait of a leader or attempting to leave the country. Many receive no trial or chance for appeal. The camps, modeled after Soviet gulags, were established by national founder Kim Il Sung as a way to weed out ideological opponents.
‘Almost as good as dead’
Witnesses on Tuesday and Wednesday said that one could be killed in the camps just for trying to stay alive. Public executions took place semi-regularly — maybe twice a year, the witnesses said — probably as a means of keeping other prisoners on edge. One camp survivor, Kim Eun-cheol, said he saw a fellow inmate executed for scavenging a potato from a field. Another was executed for eating herbs.
The commissioners have tried to get into North Korea, with no luck.
The U.N. Human Rights Council, in documents issued to the media, said its officials have asked the North for “unimpeded access” and cooperation with the investigation. But those requests have been ignored.
The North often describes any discussion of its observance of human rights as a major provocation and says rights violations are impossible under its socialist system. It also denies the existence of the gulags.