Horrors Reported in North Korean Gulag

2003-11-14
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Starvation, infanticide among routine horrors of detention

Survivors of North Korea's labor camps and detention centers say deaths from exhaustion, starvation, and infanticide are common in a system where inmates can be detained indefinitely for trivial offenses.

"If you are jailed in a Kyo-hwa-so, you have to work all day long to earn 180 grams of rice ... If you do not complete a daily quota, you won't get the rice."

In a report for the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, human rights researcher David Hawk said witness testimonies had highlighted a common thread of inhuman conditions and brutal treatment running through all of the isolated Stalinist country's prison and detention centers.

"Each of these different prisons — ; slave camps, prisons, and detention facilities — ; is characterized by extreme phenomena of repression," Hawk told reporters following publication of the report Oct. 22.

Forced abortions

Choi Young-hwa, who spent two months in a detention center near Sinuiju, said pregnant women were given forced abortions by guards in her prison.

"We had several pregnant women there, and I saw the prison guards kill unborn babies by injecting the belly of five or six-month pregnant women," she told RFA's Korean service. "Or if they have a woman who is close to term, they let her give birth, then kill the baby by covering it with a wet towel," Choi said. She said prisoners worked from dawn to late at night. They were always hungry, and some ate grass in an attempt to find extra nourishment.

Choi, who was detained in a jip-kyul-so center for North Koreans forcibly repatriated from China are sent initially, said living conditions were equally inhuman. "There were five or six rooms, and each room had some 20 to 30 people. There were so many fleas and lice stemming from dead bodies," she said.

Attempted suicides not uncommon

RFA also interviewed a former inmate of North Korea's re-education camps, Ji Hae-nam. Ji was detained at Kyo-hwa-so No. 1 for three years from 1993, and he said living conditions were so bad that some inmates attempted suicide while he was there.

"If you are jailed in a Kyo-hwa-so, you have to work all day long to earn 180 grams of rice," he said. "If you do not complete a daily quota, you won't get the rice."

Ji said that during his time at the camp, a fellow inmate — ; a woman named Boon — ; committed suicide by swallowing 18 needles. "The guards fed her a half-basket of cabbage leaves per day for a month to take the needles out of her stomach," he said.

'Re-education'

Kyo-hwa-so inmates were frequently forced to memorize the speeches of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and forced to confess to arbitrary wrongdoings unrelated to them during self-criticism sessions, the report said. "These activities are not even close to the meaning of re-education," it said.

The U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea report said many inmates were detained in the 1980s and 1990s during times of famine for trading food and commodities on the black market to meet basic nutritional needs, which the government viewed as a political crime.

"Many innocent people ended up being captured and detained in a Kyo-hwa-so as a result. Even women were sent to the facilities," said Lee Soon-Ok, a former re-education camp inmate.

Arbitrary detention

Such camps are often located close to coalmines and factories where inmates work as slave laborers, the report said. Once inside, inmates must struggle to survive. Many die of starvation or work-related accidents. Prison hospitals lack doctors and medicines, and they function as places to die.

Inmates of these camps are frequently imprisoned indefinitely, without trial, for offenses such as listening to South Korean radio. Ahn Hyuk, a former inmate of a long-term prison-camp that few survive, described to RFA the kinds of offenders who served time with him: "Those who dropped some ink on a picture of Kim Il-sung, those who danced with a Western girl and kissed her during their stay abroad, those who neglected to wipe dust from a Kim Il-Sung picture."

The human rights report said three generations of an offender's family were often housed in the long-term prison-camps, called Kwan-li-so . "Thousands of Koreans imprisoned in the Kwan-li-so , political penal forced labor camps, are victims of what the U.N. defines as arbitrary detention," Hawk said.

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