North Koreans forced into prison camps live out an existence unlike any seen since the killing fields of Cambodia or the horrors of World War II, according to the head of a U.N. panel assigned to investigate Pyongyang’s human rights violations.
In March, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to create an Independent Commission of Inquiry into North Korea’s human rights violations, the first of its kind designated to tackle the hermit kingdom’s abuses. Michael Kirby, a retired Australian judge, was named to lead the three-member panel, which North Korea immediately banned from entering the country’s borders, saying that it “totally and categorically rejects the Commission of Inquiry.”
Undaunted, the team began conducting interviews with refugees and defectors in South Korea and Japan earlier this year. One former camp inmate told investigators that he was lucky when a warden ordered the tip of his finger chopped off for damaging a piece of sewing equipment used to carry out forced labor — he could easily have been executed for the transgression.
“We heard from ordinary people who faced torture and imprisonment for doing nothing more than watching foreign soap operas or holding a religious belief,” Kirby told the Human Rights Council on Tuesday in an oral update on his team’s work. “Women and men who exercised their human right to leave the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] and were forcibly repatriated spoke about their experiences of torture, sexual violence, inhumane treatment and arbitrary detention.”
Among the testimony team collected included from children who were born into the camps as their parents served out their sentences. “They had to live on rodents, grasshoppers, lizards and on grass and they were subject to cruelty,” Kirby told the BBC World TV. “All in all it is a very horrifying story, the like of which I don’t think I’ve seen or read of since the Khmer Rouge [in Cambodia] and the Nazi atrocities during the second world war,” Kirby continued.
Eileen Chamberlain Donahue, the U.S. representative to the Council, praised the report for beginning “to shed light on the horrifying realities of life in North Korea and raise international awareness of the ongoing tragedy and barbaric conditions there.” The United States originally joined the Human Rights Council in 2009 after previously boycotting the body under the Bush administration, and helped lead the charge on appointing a special commission on the DPRK.
The tale Kirby related in Geneva does not bode well for imprisoned U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae, who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor earlier this year. Bae’s family has said that his health is failing within the North Korean gulag system and he has not received proper medical attention. North Korea had at one point seemed willing to allow the visit of the U.S.’ Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues to discuss Bae’s case, but rescinded the offer just days before Amb. Robert King was set to arrive.
Satellite imagery earlier this year showed that one of North Korea’s many prison camps has been greatly expanded over recent years, likely due to an increase in occupants. These camps — which can now be viewed on Google maps — are home to up to 200,000 alleged political prisoners and others who require “reeducation.” Former prisoners have produced graphic drawings depicting the horror of life in these camps.
Kirby’s team will will continue to gather information from North Korea defectors as they can, brief the United Nations General Assembly in October, and issue its final report to the Human Rights Council in March of next year.