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.
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.