“When we keep rabbits, we put them in cages and feed them inside the barn. In prison it was like we were the rabbits. We were treated like animals.” A woman who was imprisoned for just over a year in 2015 after complaining from her home witnesses how prisoners in North Korea are “dehumanized”.
“We slept in a cell of two square meters,” she continues. “We could hardly move. We were neither allowed to speak nor to look openly. Our gaze should always be on the ground.” She was fed pet food in very small amounts. “In the end you look like a skeleton, about to die.”
Hundreds of testimonials
It’s just one of the amazing testimonials from Korea Future’s amazing new report. This human rights organization has spoken to hundreds of former detainees and analyzed numerous official documents and satellite images, and now it presents the most detailed picture we have obtained from 206 detention centers in North Korea. It contains more than 1,000 documented cases of torture and has identified more than 900 individuals who actively participated in those malpractices.
“It is much more detailed and concrete than previous reports,” says Remko Brucker, professor of Korean studies at Leiden University. “We know that such things happen, but it still scares me every time. The report clearly shows the main structures and relates them to individual cases. This is a very comprehensive investigation that you simply cannot ignore. The research is that the United Nations (which published its own, less comprehensive, report in 2014, ed.) Actually should. But China and North Korea are members of it, so this is politically sensitive.”
The shocking story is that of three people who tried to cross the border, which is a crime in the country. One was heavily pregnant and forced to have an abortion, and the second was put on a diet of 80g of grain a day – which dropped her weight from 60 to 37kg in a month and started picking insects. Out of necessity and ate it … to eat – and a third had to stand in a very painful and difficult position every day for a month until 5 pm.
Another ex-con recounts how she had to lie on her back on the dining table when she entered the prison, so that a guard could look between her legs to see if she was trying to smuggle money with her. Officially, that was an “AIDS check,” as the woman says. That jailer had the gloves on, but he kept them on with the other, 70 to 80 inmates. “I will never be able to forget her.”
When she tried to run away, he patted her on the back with a large branch for a full day after that. “It still hurts. Part of my tooth broke and I can’t hear anything on my left side. It haunts me to this day.” It also testifies that detainees are not allowed to wash themselves, so there is hardly any hygiene. “Whenever there is free time, we remove insects from each other’s bodies. It is routine.”
According to Korea Future, all of this shows how systematic human rights are being violated in North Korea. “People are not locked up with the aim of rehabilitating them, but to isolate dissenting voices,” says Kim Jiwon of the organization.
Not much is known about these prisons until now because the government is doing everything it can to keep prying eyes out and prevent residents from looking across borders at how people live in other countries. Opponents are traditionally treated very strictly, which is typical of authoritarian regimes.
Korea Future hopes so the report It will lead to further investigations and possible prosecutions from other countries. The organization is also calling for targeted sanctions from the West. But North Korea, as usual, denies it is violating human rights. The government said in a statement that the report was part of a “US-led infiltration campaign”.
Therefore, according to Brooker, we should not hope that the report will change something. “A different regime is the only thing that can change anything there. Because if that is not true, as North Korea claims, it can refute everything by allowing the UN access to all the places where it investigates. It is the only country that consistently refuses to do so.” It doesn’t work for them.”
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