A North Korean prison camp survivor on Wednesday gave a rare testimony exposing public executions and starvation at the detention centre where she was held for 28 years.
Kim Hye Sook was aged 13 when she was sent to join her parents at the Gwalliso No 18 political prisoners camp where detainees were treated “worse than dogs” while carrying out enforced labour and being abused by guards.
Kim, who was released in 2001 and now lives in South Korea, sobbed as she told a conference in Geneva how she was forced to watch public shootings and went without food to feed her brothers and sisters, who remain in detention.
An estimated 200,000 political prisoners are languishing in North Korea’s six camps, which the government denies even exist, said co-hosts the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.
Kim said that many prisoners, like herself, do not know why they have been detained and face death simply for asking.
“There was always not enough food to eat, and many people starved to death. Soon I didn’t feel anything seeing dead bodies after seeing so many of them,” she said in a 10-page testimony.
“The prisoners there did not know the meaning of ‘human rights’. They were living lives worse than dogs’ lives.”
Kim claimed that more than 100 public executions were carried out every year for all sorts of offences “ranging from stealing corn powder to being superstitious.”
“I saw my first public execution when I was 13, a mere child,” she told the conference. “Everyone in the camp had to come and watch.”
After being classified as a exemplary worker in the camp’s mines, she was allowed to marry and later gave birth to two children.
However her husband and brother were later killed in mining accidents at the camp.
After her release she managed to make her way to South Korea, escaping the north via China and then Thailand. When she was in China, more tragedy stuck when the house in which she was staying was swept away in flooding.
The UN General Assembly on Monday passed a resolution condemning human rights abuses in North Korea, highlighting concern over extra-judicial and arbitrary detentions, inhumane detention conditions and public executions.
It also condemned the “existence of a large number of prison camps and the extensive use of forced labor.”
“Continuous effort and perseverance are necessary on the part of all those here today to encourage North Korea to begin making positive changes in its human rights situation,” said Citizens’ Alliance founder and chairman Benjamin H. Yoon.
Human Rights Watch, also hosting the conference, said firsthand testimony was all the more significant as it was impossible for rights groups to access North Korea to assess the situation.
Philippe Dam, acting advocacy director in Geneva, said: “The last visit by an NGO was Amnesty International in the early 1990s.
“The only evidence we have is to rely on the testimony of defectors.”