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Middle East

A life of torture, starvation and executions: Inside North Korea’s horrifyingly cruel prison camps

United Nations expert panel in Seoul hears harrowing evidence from former inmates

A mother made to kill her own baby. Starving children forced to eat live rats and frogs. Public executions. Torture. Mutilation. These are just a few of the horrific yet routine occurrences in North Korea’s prison camps, according to two former inmates who testified today before a United Nations commission of enquiry in Seoul, South Korea. The Pyongyang regime, by contrast, denies such camps even exist.

The commission, which intends to interview 30 North Korean defectors over five days in a lecture hall at Yonsei University, marks the first time the country’s human rights abuses have been put before an expert UN panel.

Among its first witnesses was 31-year-old Shin Dong-hyuk, who escaped from the gulag in 2005 and recently published a memoir of his experiences. Mr Shin was born and grew up in the infamous Camp 14, and said his earliest memory was of a public execution.

He later informed on his own mother and brother to save himself, and was made to watch their execution, too. He saw a seven-year-old girl beaten to death for stealing a few grains of wheat. When he accidentally dropped a sewing machine, he said: “I thought my whole hand was going to be cut off at the wrist, so I felt thankful and grateful that only my finger was cut off.”

A second defector, 34-year-old Jee Heon-a, said prisoners often resorted to eating salted frogs in an effort to stave off extreme hunger. She also recalled seeing a mother ordered to kill her own baby. A prison guard “told the mother to turn the baby upside down into a bowl of water,” Ms Jee said.

“The mother begged the guard to spare her, but he kept beating her. So the mother, her hands shaking, put the baby face down in the water. The crying stopped and a bubble rose up as it died. A grandmother who had delivered the baby quietly took it out.”

Between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners are incarcerated at five vast prison camps in North Korea, according to a 2013 White Paper on the country’s human rights abuses by Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.

“Many inmates end up losing their life,” the paper reported, due to “forced labour, torture, degrading mistreatment, poor nutrition and lack of medical care.”

The country’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, has demonstrated little interest in veering from the aggressive, isolationist foreign policy course of his father, Kim Jong-il. Since taking power in 2011, the younger Mr Kim has ramped up North Korea’s nuclear weapons and rocket programmes, not to mention his own combative rhetoric. Pyongyang also vehemently denies responsibility for any human rights violations, describing such claims as a “political plot” to undermine the regime.

Though the commission is seen by many as being years overdue, it nonetheless comes at an awkward moment, just as relations between North and South Korea appeared to be warming.

On Sunday, Pyongyang announced that it had agreed to hold talks with Seoul over reuniting families who were separated by the Korean War some 60 years ago.

As the UN panel heard its first testimony, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, arrived in Pyongyang to discuss the resumption of such reunions.

Experts believe the commission is likely to have little concrete effect, and although it is intended partly to publicise the problem, only a few dozen people – many of them journalists – attended the first day’s hearing in Seoul.

The chairman of the commission, Michael Donald Kirby, said that the panel would “seek to determine whether crimes against humanity have occurred,” but that: “It is not possible at this moment to envisage the level of detail that the commission will be able to achieve in establishing lines of responsibility, if any.”

And yet, while people in Seoul seemed largely uninterested in the commission, the news is expected to trickle through to their impoverished neighbours to the north, where campaigners believe it will leave a far deeper impression.

Kim Sang-hun, chairman of South Korea’s Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights, told Reuters: “People here don’t realise how important this is. It will have a tremendously powerful impact across North Korea.”