Shin Dong-hyuk said he was just obeying the rules when he told authorities about the secret plan of his mother and older brother to escape from their life of starvation and oppression.
He then watched as they were executed in public.
“Regulations required the reporting of such matters,” Shin said.
Shin, 30, was born in 1982 in a political prison in North Korea’s South Phyongan province.
His descriptions of the horrors of prison life are part of an investigation by a United Nations commission looking into human rights abuses in North Korea. Set up in May, the commission of inquiry is nearing the halfway point in its investigation.
Pyongyang continues to deny human rights abuses, including the existence of political prisons.
But in late August, commission members visiting Tokyo and Seoul heard about the brutal conditions in North Korea from former inmates and defectors.
“I believe human rights mean eating what one wants to eat and saying what one wants,” Shin said at the session in Seoul. “However, such conditions do not exist in the political prisons.”
No one ever told Shin why his family was imprisoned. Although there was a school in the prison, Shin said he was forced to work on the farm and coal mine most of the time.
The prison only provided some corn and pickled cabbage for the inmates’ meals. Some prisoners ate grass and rodents to abate their hunger, according to Shin.
He said public executions were held at the prison twice a year.
“I believe they were held to instill fear and tension in the inmates,” he said.
In 2005, Shin climbed over the barbed wire at the prison and made his way to China, where he sought asylum at a South Korean consulate. He moved to South Korea about six months later.
He said the main reason for his escape was to eat different foods before dying.
“I still have nightmares about the difficult conditions at the political prison, and I cannot overcome the trauma,” Shin said.
According to a report released in May by the Korea Institute for National Unification, North Korea operates five political prisons holding between 80,000 and 120,000 inmates. The prisons range in size from 50 to 250 square kilometers.
There are two types of prisons. Inmates in “total control zone” prisons can never leave, while those in the “revolutionized zone” prisons may leave depending on their behavior.
In the commission session held in Tokyo, Sakie Yokota, 77, spoke about her daughter, Megumi, who was abducted by North Korean spies in 1977 at age 13.
Pyongyang in 2002 admitted to abducting Japanese nationals and allowed five to return to Japan. North Korea said Megumi committed suicide and provided a photo of a person believed to be her.
“I will never forget how I cried and said ‘I am so sorry for not being able to find you’ after seeing the image of Megumi whom I had searched for while crying,” Sakie Yokota said.
Japanese officials believe Megumi is still alive, and that North Korea continues to hold Japanese in the country.
Others who once lived in North Korea spoke about the terrible conditions there.
Decades ago, Hiroko Saito, now 72, moved to North Korea with her Korean husband and family as part of a program to return Korean nationals to North Korea. She later defected and returned to Japan.
“I had heard it was supposed to be a paradise on Earth, but it was hell,” Saito said.
She talked about stealing rice to overcome hunger and illegally selling copper wiring.
In response to the testimony, a representative from North Korea read a statement at a Sept. 17 session of the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The statement described the commission’s report as “faked material” and a political ploy by Japan and the European Union. It also said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un places priority on the interests of the people and is protecting and promoting human rights.
Since 2004, the United Nations has named a special rapporteur to look into human rights violations in North Korea. Twenty-three reports have been submitted.
However, Pyongyang has refused to recognize any of those reports.
The new U.N. commission of inquiry was set up after the U.N. Human Rights Council in March approved a joint proposal for the establishment of a commission dealing with North Korea submitted by Japan and the EU. North Korea has made clear it will not allow the commission into the nation.
Commission members will continue their investigation in Thailand, Britain and the United States and look into the degree of human rights violations in nine areas, including the violation of the right to eat, torture and limits on the freedom of expression.
A final report is expected to be compiled next March.
Based on that assessment, a judgment will be made on whether crimes against humanity have been committed in the country.
But many countries are not as interested as Japan in the human rights situation in North Korea.
Whether the international community can work together in forcing North Korea to respond will be key in improving human rights conditions in North Korea and resolving the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by Pyongyang.
(This article was written by Akihiko Kaise in Seoul, Takuya Hiraga in Tokyo and Hiroyuki Maegawa in Geneva.)
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