South Korean report details alleged abuses at North Korea’s prison camps


Raw firsthand accounts provide a record of what its authors say are specific international human rights violations. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

A South Korean government-funded human rights group has released a series of raw firsthand accounts of North Korea’s political prison camps, Seoul’s first comprehensive attempt to catalogue the atrocities that Pyongyang denies take place.

The 381-page report, based on about 200 face-to-face interviews with defectors who survived the camps, is a significant step for a South Korean government that has long remained quiet about the human rights abuses of its neighbor.

The report, issued last week with little fanfare, provides a record of what its authors say are specific international human rights violations, including where and when they occurred. Although names have been redacted, the report has biographical information on North Korean agents and prison guards who allegedly oversaw the abuses, providing the potential foundation for Seoul to one day convene a tribunal that prosecutes those responsible.

Some human rights activists have requested that Seoul do as much, because South Korea’s constitution stipulates that North Koreans are entitled to be citizens of the South, with legal standing in the court system.

Even the threat of such trials would put North Korean authorities on notice “that they will be held accountable for their crimes,” said Suzanne Scholte, chairman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, which works to promote human rights in North Korea.

“The reason we published this,” said Lee Yong-ken, chief of the North Korea human rights team at the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, which compiled the report, “is to spread awareness and to have a realistic account.”

The political prison camps — known in the North as “Totally Controlled Zones” — and reformation camps, meant for less serious offenders, together underpin the system of surveillance and punishment that the ruling Kim family has used for decades to snuff out dissent and threats to its power. North Korea officially denies the existence of such camps, but the city-size installations are visible by satellite imagery, and independent human rights reports suggest that 150,000 to 200,000 people are confined within them.

Despite more than a decade of reports from human rights organizations about the camps, the outside world has almost no record of the specifics: who is there, why they are there, and what their lives are like.

But the steady flow of defectors into South Korea is providing Seoul with a growing opportunity to change that. Roughly 23,500 of them now live in the South, including at least several hundred former prisoners.

Detailed testimony

After a year of interviews, the commission published defectors’ accounts almost verbatim. Defectors describe their own experiences and the things they witnessed. One tells of a female guard who took glee in beating prisoners with lumber. Another tells of a 19-year-old who was executed by a 21-year-old guard, brains blown up so “severely that the face was unrecognizable.” Yet another describes torture methods, including what prisoners called the “Flying Jet,” the “Motorcycle” and “Pumping.” While subjected to such torture, detainees, during mealtime, were given spoons with the narrow tips removed, making it harder for them to swallow the utensils and commit suicide.

Some of the most detailed testimony comes from Jeong Gwang-il, who says he spent three years (2000-2003) at the Yodok prison camp after illegally crossing into China.

At Yodok, perpetually famished prisoners sometimes participated in Olympic-style games, ordered as amusement for agents from the “integrity department.” Those agents, according to Jeong’s testimony, sent prisoners on 2.5-mile downhill races to retrieve corn cakes at the bottom.


North Korea concentration and detention camps map highlighting Yodok Prison camp (Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)

“Many prisoners fell off the cliff while hustling and jostling on the way,” the report says, “and the integrity department agents considered this as a spectacle or entertainment.”

At Yodok, laborers who failed to meet work quotas saw their meager food rations cut in half, a cycle that led to starvation because the less they ate, the weaker they got, and the poorer they became at work.

During corn farming season in April, prisoners were asked to mix corn seeds with human feces, reducing the motivation for thieves to eat them. One prisoner, Jeong testified, stole the seeds anyway, tried to clean them and died of colitis.

Those who complained about conditions were frequently betrayed by fellow prisoners, Jeong said in a separate interview last week at a coffee shop in Seoul. Often, Jeong himself informed guards about such misbehavior. “Some people would say, ‘This is worse than being dead.’ And I’d report it. Then the person would be taken to solitary confinement for one month and given one meal per day.”

Jeong, slim and fit, spoke matter-of-factly about the rules of the camp, where you told on others to avoid punishment for yourself. “It sounds brutal,” he said, “but that’s the way it worked.”

‘Assailants’ listed

Many of the defector testimonies are accompanied by a list of “assailants” — that is, authorities who, survivors say, committed the abuses. In the case of defector Kim Gang-il, for instance, the assailants include the preliminary judge who sentenced him, members of the central prosecutor’s office, a major general at the reformation camp and other security officials. The names have been redacted from the report, but the commission has them on file.

Kim, according to his testimony, was arrested in 2004 for “illegal smuggling” after trying to sell copper to China. He said he was beaten and tortured at a detention house and then sent to a mountainous reformation camp, where prisoners slept 60 or 70 to a room. Many worked in copper mines that had no safety lights and where high-tension wires passed “chaotically.” Workers “frequently” died of electrocution.

Those who died from infectious disease, starvation or labor were often not immediately buried, according to Kim. Rats devoured the corpses’ eyes, ears and genitals, “making them impossible to recognize.”

Eventually, the bodies were dumped into a “large steel furnace in a place inside the camp called ‘Bulmangsan’ and burned . . . with logs.”

But the incinerators didn’t burn the bodies completely and were always filled with charred skeletal remains. Workers used the ashes of the corpses as fertilizer for pumpkins, radishes and cabbage.

Those vegetables, Kim said, “grew well where they sprinkled the ashes.”

Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

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