SEOUL: Public executions and torture are daily occurrences in North Korea’s prisons, according to dramatic testimony from former inmates at a UN Commission of Inquiry that opened in South Korea’s capital yesterday.
This is the first time that the North’s human rights record has been examined by an expert panel, although the North, now ruled by a third generation of the founding Kim family, denies that it abuses human rights. It refuses to recognise the commission and has denied access to investigators.
Harrowing accounts from defectors now living in South Korea related how guards chopped off a man’s finger, forced inmates to eat frogs and a mother to kill her own baby.
“I had no idea at all ... I thought my whole hand was going to be cut off at the wrist, so I felt thankful and grateful that only my finger was cut off,” said Shin Dong-hyuk, punished for dropping a sewing machine.
Born in a prison called Camp 14 and forced to watch the execution of his mother and brother whom he turned in for his own survival, Shin is North Korea’s best-known defector and camp survivor. He said he believed the UN panel was the only way to improve human rights in the isolated and impoverished state.
“Because the North Korean people cannot stand up with guns like Libya and Syria ... I personally think this is the first and last hope left,” Shin said. “There is a lot for them to cover up, even though they don’t admit to anything.”
There are a 150,000-200,000 people in North Korean prison camps, according to independent estimates, and defectors say many inmates are malnourished or worked to death.
After more than a year and a half ruling North Korea, Kim Jong Un, 30, has shown few signs of changing the rigid rule of his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, state founder Kim Il Sung. Neither have there been signs of a thaw or loss of control inside the tightly controlled state.
Jee Heon-a, 34, told the Commission that from the first day of her incarceration in 1999, she discovered that salted frogs were one of the few things to eat.
“Everyone’s eyes were sunken. They all looked like animals. Frogs were hung from the buttons of their clothes, put in a plastic bag and their skins peeled off,” she said. “They ate salted frogs and so did I.”
Speaking softly, she took a deep breath when describing in detail how a mother was forced to kill her own baby.
“It was the first time I had seen a newborn baby and I felt happy. But suddenly there were footsteps and a security guard came in and told the mother to turn the baby upside down into a bowl of water,” she said.
“The mother begged the guard to spare her, but he kept beating her. So the mother, her hands shaking, put the baby face down in the water. The crying stopped and a bubble rose up as it died. A grandmother who had delivered the baby quietly took it out.”