In the first public hearing of its kind in Seoul, former North Korean political prisoners testified Tuesday to a United Nations' investigative body on the brutal treatment the communist country meted out to people who stepped out of line.
The public hearing is part of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) commissioners' 10-day visit to South Korea to investigate and compile reports on human rights conditions in the North.
The U.N. established the COI under its Human Rights Council in March, and it is the first-ever U.N.-approved body to conduct such research on the reclusive country.
The COI is to hold four-day public hearings with North Korean defectors until Friday, and meet with local activists and experts on North Korean human rights before leaving for Japan on Aug. 27.
In the hearing held at Yonsei University in Seoul, Shin Dong-hyeok, a 30-year-old former prisoner at the North's political prison in Kaechon, known as Camp 14, told his story, ranging from his birth in the camp to his escape from North Korea at the age of 25.
In his teens, he reported his mother's and elder brother's attempts to escape the prison camp to prison guards and had to see the family members executed in front of other prisoners, Shin said in the hearing.
Born in the camp for political criminals and raised there for the whole of his life, Shin had been trained to take pride in reporting the misconduct of other prisoners to the guards, even if they included his family members. Shin said he did not feel a family bond.
Among the horrific living conditions at the camp, Shin described prisoners there happy to have uncooked rat for meat, and the experience of having one third of his middle finger severed after accidentally breaking a factory table.
Out of severe starvation, he escaped the communist country before coming to the South in 2006.
Another female defector Ji Hyung-a also told the commissioners how women prisoners suffer under North Korea's inhumane treatment, including forced abortions.
A report by the Korea Institute for National Unification previously said it is estimated that a maximum of 120,000 political prisoners are being detained in five political prison camps.
Experts say the North has maintained these camps possibly in an attempt to warn its people against anti-state acts or defection attempts.
"The common features for both of the witnesses we heard on this first day are that they say they want to give evidence because they feel obligations for those who are left behind," Michael Kirby, the chairman of the commission, said.
The former prisoners' stories could be contested, but the contest could be resolved by the North opening its border for the commissioners to access to the country, the chairman said.
The U.N.'s mandate to probe human rights violations in the North "was unusually given without a vote, which itself is an indication that the international community is very concerned about the situation in North Korea,"
The COI asked the North to send observers to the public hearings in Seoul, but the request has not been answered, Kirby said.
The independent U.N. body is scheduled to submit its final report, containing findings and recommendations concerning imprisonment, torture and kidnapping committed by the North, to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March next year.
North Korea has been accused of grave human rights abuses ranging from holding hundreds of thousands of political prisoners in concentration camps to committing torture and carrying out public executions. The country, however, has denied the accusations, calling them U.S.-led propaganda to topple its regime. (Yonhap News)