Former U.S. president George W. Bush held talks this week with a defector from North Korea who gave a harrowing account of his childhood spent in a camp for political prisoners in a meeting seeking to draw attention to human rights abuses in the reclusive, nuclear-armed nation.
Bush and Shin Dong Hyuk, whose story is told in Escape From Camp 14, written by veteran American journalist Blaine Harden, spoke for an hour on Wednesday at the recently opened George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas, where the former president expressed concern that abuses suffered by prisoners in North Korea during Shin’s time in the camp continue today, sources said.
Shin, who escaped in 2005 from Kwan-li-so (Prison-labor camp) No. 14 by crawling through an electrified fence, said that Bush had invited him because of the former president’s concern for human rights in North Korea and because he had been impressed by the book about him.
Even now, almost 200,000 inmates of the North Korean camps are subjected to hunger, torture, and other abuse, with some publicly executed for attempting to escape, participants in the meeting said as they called for the world to pay greater attention to the sufferings endured in the camps.
Following the meeting, the former U.S. president and former political prisoner exchanged books, with Shin presenting Bush with a copy of Escape From Camp 14, and Bush in turn offering Shin a copy of his memoirs.
“Former president Bush is deeply interested in [the situation of] North Korean human rights, and especially in the political prison camps,” said executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea Greg Scarlatoiu, who attended the meeting.
Bush, who served as U.S. president from 2001-2009, met frequently while in office with North Korean defectors, activists, and their families, and in 2004 signed into law the North Korean Human Rights Act, which provides for humanitarian and legal assistance to North Koreans who have fled the country.
Scarlatoiu added that Wednesday's meeting creates a new opportunity to press the international community, including the U.S., to work to improve human rights in North Korea.
In September, the head of a U.N. investigation into human rights abuses in North Korea cited “unspeakable atrocities” in the secretive state, saying the international community must take action against leader Kim Jong Un’s regime and hold it accountable.
Michael Kirby, chairman of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, told the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council that testimonies heard so far by his panel indicate that North Korean authorities are responsible for violations in every area it had been tasked with investigating.
“We heard from ordinary people who faced torture and imprisonment for doing nothing more than watching foreign soap operas or holding a religious belief,” said Kirby, a former Australian judge.
Kiriby’s commission heard testimony from a former prisoner driven by hunger to eat rodents, lizards, and grass.
It also heard from a young woman who said she saw another female prisoner forced to drown her own baby in a bucket, Kirby said, and a man who said he was forced to collect and burn the corpses of prisoners who died of starvation.
North Korea’s mission to the U.N. Human Rights Council in a Sept. 17 statement called the commission’s interim findings “fabricated by hostile forces aimed at sabotaging the socialist system of the [North] and defaming it.”
Pyongyang has also refused to allow U.N. investigators to enter North Korea, describing defectors offering testimony to the commission as “human scum.”
The commission has now held hearings in Seoul, Tokyo, and London ahead of a meeting this week in Washington, and will present its final findings to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in March.
Reported by Young Jung for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Doeun Han. Written in English by Richard Finney.