In moving testimony recalling their lives spent in North Korean prison camps, two North Korean defectors called on the United States to act to end human rights abuses in North Korea before a U.S. Congressional subcommittee this week. The hearing took place as U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Robert King met with South Korean officials, reportedly trying to get an agreement on resuming food aid to the North. Representatives from both countries are also scheduled to discuss the North’s nuclear program this week in China.
The atrocious human rights record of the North Korean dictatorship—among the very worst in the world— was described in grisly detail by prison survivors and human rights workers who detailed inhumane gulag-style prison camps, human trafficking, torture, political repression and religious persecution at a congressional hearing this week held by Congressman Chris Smith (NJ-04), chairman of the House panel that oversees human rights. North Korea’s dictatorship was the topic of a hearing entitled “Human Rights in North Korea: Challenges and Opportunities” before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights.
Opening the hearing, Mr. Smith thanked two female defectors for telling their stories: “Mrs. Kim Young Soon and Mrs. Kim Hye Sook, who both have survived the extreme deprivations of the North Korean prison camps, have travelled all the way from South Korea to share their experiences with us. They will be speaking on behalf of the estimated 150,000 to 200,000 prisoners currently held in North Korea’s penal-labor camps.”
Mr. Smith also said that is was the Committee’s hope that their testimony will help to galvanize the international community into action to end human rights abuses in North Korea.
Mrs. Kim Hye Sook, believed to be longest-serving survivor of North Korean prison camps, told the House panel many people suffered and died because of starvation in the prison camp, and many people were killed and executed without reason. She lost her husband, grandmother, father, mother and brother, all of whom were sent to camp number 18 with her.
She told the panel how North Korean security forces came to her home in 1975 when she was 13-years-old, and dragged her and her family to a prison camp, where she spent the next 28 years.
“I cannot even begin to describe how many people suffered and died because of starvation in the prison camp, and how many people were killed without reason for not listening to authorities or not showing enough repentance through public execution by firing squad,” she said.
She also made a plea to end the cruelty and misery inflicted on North Korean refugee women who have escaped North Korea into China, and have become victim to human trafficking. “After narrowly escaping death and coming out of North Korea and into China and third countries, and then becoming victims of human and sexual trafficking, I can say with authority that the tragic situation of the North Korean refugee women must be told and told again in the international community,” she said.
She said that North Korea is “a society where the whole country is a prison” and that those who are in search of freedom suffer severely.
She also expressed optimism and that she was encouraged by appearing before the panel to expose the atrocities happening in North Korean political prison camps and crimes against humanity: “I believe that one of the reasons and purposes for my survival from the prison camp was for me to live and be able to be a witness in the U.S. Congress—where order and principles, and human rights are cherished—to what I experienced and saw regarding the lives of the North Koreans who live without any rights. The fact that I am sitting before you is the sole reason why I had to survive the political prison camp of North Korea.”
Mrs. Kim Young Soon, another former prisoner and Vice President of the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea recalled how her entire family was sent to Yoduk Political Prison Camp in 1970, recalling, “There were so many dead bodies, enough to fill up a field.”
She lost almost all of her family there: her three sons, daughter, father and mother all died from starvation and that “there were no coffins so their bodies were rolled in a straw mat and buried.” One of her sons, who was 9 years old at the time, drowned in Ryongyung River, which is near the prison camp. Her daughter was given away for adoption and to this day, she does not know about her whereabouts or whether she is alive or dead. Her youngest son was publicly executed by a firing squad for trying to escape North Korea after his release and attempting to go to South Korea, in 1993 at the age of 23. Her husband was sent to another political prison camp in 1970, and “to this day I do not know whether he is dead or alive.”
Despite this devastating loss, she and one son survived and escaped North Korea on February 1, 2001 and later entering South Korea in November 2003. She has dedicated her life to ending the suffering of her people and telling her story to raise awareness.
She thanked the Committee for their interest in human rights in North Korea and asked them to “please save the 23 million people in North Korea who are living a life of misery not unlike what I suffered. Even though I am now over 70 years old, I will fight for the freedom of my people, my countrymen until all my strength is expended.”
Mr. Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a Washington DC based organization which seeks to raise awareness about human rights in North Korea also testified. He said that the situation in North Korea is only getting worse: “According to experts and testimony by recent North Korean defectors, there is no evidence that the human rights situation in North Korea has improved as the regime proceeds with steps towards leadership succession. On the contrary, it appears that, as North Korea engaged in grave military provocations such as the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan on March 26, 2010, and the shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong on November 23, 2010, 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.”
North Korea is one of the most closed societies on earth. Freedom House ranks North Korea dead last in its annual press freedom index and gives it the lowest possible rating for both political rights and civil liberties and Reporters Without Borders ranked the dictatorship 177 out of 178 in their 2010 Press Freedom Index. Human Rights Watch stated in its 2011 World Report: that the North Korean regime remains “one of the most abusive in the world” and that “All media and publications are state-controlled, and unauthorized access to non-state radio or TV broadcasts is severely punished.”
A huge network of informers and police forces monitors and controls every facet of social, political, and economic life. The U.S. State Department’s most recent human rights report describes North Korea as “a dictatorship under the absolute rule of Kim Jong Il” where “members of the security forces have committed numerous serious human rights abuses.” Among the abuses cited were “extrajudicial killings, disappearances and arbitrary detention, and political prisoners,” harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, and forced abortions and infanticide in prisons.
Citing that the North Korean people are so restricted in the information they receive, his organization recommended “that the United States should continue to expand radio broadcasting into North Korea and encourage other efforts that provide information directly to the North Korean people in accordance with the North Korea Human Rights Act. His organization also recommended that the United States make it known to the North Korean people that their welfare is of great concern to the American people.