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.
The three-member commission was established in March and given a year to complete its report. But this week-long series of public hearings in Seoul, which runs through Saturday, forms the heart of its work, a legal investigation that doubles as horrifying theater. Later in the week, the commission will also interview witnesses about other alleged North Korean rights violations, including systematic abductions of foreigners, particularly during the 1960s and ’70s.
The investigation, U.N. officials say, could help establish whether the North’s leaders are committing crimes against humanity. But in the shorter term, these hearings, streamed online, are also designed to raise global awareness of a police state that imprisons 150,000 to 200,000 of its people in city-size gulags, sealed off from outsiders in the nation’s northern mountains.
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.