Former North Korean political prisoners recalled the suffering they endured in labor camps in testimony before a congressional panel on Tuesday, and called on U.S. lawmakers to help end human rights abuses in the country.
Meanwhile, a North Korea expert testified to what he called “intensified political repression” in the isolated Stalinist state.
Kim Hye Sook, who escaped from North Korea in 2009 and now lives in South Korea, said she was “dragged” to political prison camp no. 18 of the Bukchang prison camp in South Pyongang Province together with her parents, at the age of 13.
She was held there for 28 years, Kim said at a hearing called by a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs subcommittee.
Kim said that she learned only after her release that she had been taken to the camp because her grandfather had defected to South Korea years before.
At Bukchang, a camp surrounded by a 13-foot electrified fence, “human lives were worth less than those of flies,” Kim said.
Sent to work in the camp’s coal mines, Kim said, “I was plagued with hunger … My one wish was to eat just one bowl of white rice for one meal.”
Many at the camp died of starvation, while others were shot for “not listening to authorities or not showing enough ‘repentance,’” for their supposed crimes, Kim said.
“There was a time when I saw the bodies of people who were killed by firing squad who were rolled up in straw mats and carried away in carts, and I said to myself, ‘Even dogs will not die so pitifully.’”
Kim was eventually released, but lost her mother, brother, and grandmother in the camp, she said. Her father had been taken to the camp before her, and had vanished without a trace.
“My siblings are still incarcerated at camp no. 18,” she said.
Twenty-first-century North Korea is a place where the lives of political prisoners “are more easily disposed of than those of animals,” said Kim, “ a society where the whole country is a prison.”
“Please end the existence of such a society, and make it into a place where humans can live as people.”
A dangerous secret
Also speaking before the subcommittee, former North Korean Army dancer Kim Young Soon said she was taken in 1970 to camp no. 15 at Yoduk, in South Hamkyung Province, from which she was released in 1989.
She was arrested along with seven other family members, she said, because she knew that a school friend, Sung Hae Rim, had been taken to be the secret mistress of future North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
She was unaware at the time of her arrest that knowing this, or speaking about it, was a crime, she said.
Kim said that inmates of the camp were woken each morning at 3:30 and forced to work at hard labor “from sun up until sun down.” If work goals were missed, “the whole group was punished,” she said.
One of her sons, age 9, drowned in a river near the camp. And following her release, authorities gave one of her daughters away for adoption.
Another son, 23, was publicly executed by firing squad in 1993 for attempting to escape to South Korea following his release from the camp, Kim said.
“From our original family of eight people, currently only two have survived and successfully escaped from North Korea. The rest of my family, six people, have all died.”
'Tears of blood'
“I have lived a life of tears of blood and hardship,” Kim said. “Please save the 23 million people in North Korea who are living a life of misery not unlike what I suffered.”
Defense Forum Foundation president Suzanne Scholte, also testifying before the subcommittee, noted that “North Koreans are the only people in the world who do not enjoy one single right that’s enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
This document was adopted by the United Nations in 1948—ironically, the year that North Korean founding leader Kim Il Sung came to power, said Scholte, whose group advocates for North Korean refugees.
“But despite [current leader] Kim Jong Il’s best efforts to keep North Koreans literally in the dark, up to 60 percent of North Koreans have access to some form of information beyond the regime’s propaganda,” Scholte said.
“They are increasingly learning that the source of their misery is not America or South Korea, as they are brainwashed from childhood to believe, but the source of their misery is in fact Kim Jong Il and his regime.”
Foreign governments and nongovernment organizations should make human rights “central” to all negotiations with or about North Korea, Scholte said.
North Korea, as a member state of the United Nations, should be bound by the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, agreed Grigore Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea.
The Washington-based Committee is now preparing an update to its report Hidden Gulag, first published in 2000, Scarlatoiu said, adding, “We have collected testimony by at least 60 former inmates at political prisoner camps."
“The difference between  and now is that we have had testimony from some guards. We have better satellite imagery. Based on such testimony, we seem to see intensified political repression.”
All indications now point to “a new nucleus of power” made up of hardliners forming around presumed leadership successor Kim Jong Eun, the third son of Kim Jong Il, Scarlatoiu said.
New Jersey congressman Chris Smith, leading the hearing, said he hoped that the witnesses' accounts would help raise attention to the human rights situation in North Korea, which “because it is so closed, very often evades all scrutiny.”
“It is our hope that their testimony will help to galvanize the international community to take action to secure the freedom of those who are needlessly suffering and dying under truly horrific conditions.”
Reported by Richard Finney.