North Korea defectors tell of camps' hell
Washington - North Korean defectors on Tuesday urged the US to isolate Kim Jong-Il's regime as they recounted years in camps where they toiled morning until night and lives were worth less than flies.
Amid cautious international efforts to engage North Korea, US lawmakers invited two women to share their stories of suffering in a bid to put a greater priority on improving human rights in the communist nation.
Kim Hye-Sook told a congressional panel that she was taken to a prison camp with her family when she was only 13 because, she learned later, her grandfather had defected to South Korea years earlier.
Inmates were forced to work in coalmines for up to 18 hours a day and ate scraps of food, she said, and guards threatened to execute anyone who broke rules - including a ban on prisoners even knowing why they were jailed.
‘Bodies riddled with bullets’
Kim said that many people including her family members died at Camp Number 18, where she said "human lives are worth less than those of flies."
"I cannot even begin to describe how many people suffered and died because of starvation in the prison camp," she said, recalling bodies "riddled with countless bullet holes" if the inmates were seen as disobeying authorities.
"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 said to myself, 'Even dogs will not die so pitifully'," she told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Kim eventually found refuge in South Korea after fleeing to China, where she said she suffered sex trafficking. She was joined in Washington by Kim Young-Soon, who said she was sent with her family to a camp in 1970 because she knew Song Hye-Rim, the mistress of Kim Jong-Il, then the heir apparent.
Kim Young-Soon said that three of her sons, a daughter and her parents died of starvation and that a firing squad publicly executed another son who tried to flee from North Korea. She said that her husband was sent to another camp in 1970 and that she did not know his fate.
"I wasted nine years of the prime of my life in that hellhole of a place where even animals will turn their faces away," said Kim Young-Soon, who is now over 70.
She urged US lawmakers to press for Kim, one of the world's most reclusive leaders, to be brought before the International Criminal Court.
"As long as he exists, people's suffering will continue," she said.
The women's accounts were impossible to verify independently. But an expert who testified before the committee said that human rights abuses appeared to be worsening in North Korea, perhaps due to succession dynamics in the regime.
"There is no evidence that the human rights situation in North Korea has improved as the Kim regime proceeds with steps towards leadership succession," said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
Along with Pyongyang's provocations against South Korea, "the border crackdown aimed at preventing North Koreans from defecting to China has intensified and the political prisoner camp population has been on the increase," he said.
The crackdown comes as North Koreans increasingly have access to smuggled radios, allowing them to listen to South Korean broadcasts or US-backed Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, Scarlatoiu said.
The US earlier this month sent flood relief to North Korea.
But it has hesitated at full-fledged talks with Pyongyang, saying the regime must clearly commit to giving up nuclear weapons and improving relations with South Korea.