Rights testimony in Seoul was rawSEOUL - Testimony by North Korean defectors at UN hearings this week in Seoul contained chilling accounts of systematic rape, murder and torture, but they were also a reminder of toothless UN efforts of the past to get Pyongyang to treat its citizens better.
What’s new, officials say, is that the United Nations has empowered a formal commission of inquiry to collect evidence of human rights abuses in North Korea and ensure “full accountability” for any crimes against humanity.
Recommendations from the commission will be passed on to UN and other international agencies for review - and it’s possible they could trigger consequences for North Korea.
North Korea has shrugged off years of outside pressure, including tough UN and U.S. sanctions directed at its nuclear and missile programs.
“You are the only hope to save these people,” Ahn Myung-chul told the three-person commission. Ahn worked as a guard and driver at several political prisoner camps in the 1990s before defecting.
North Korea, which denies the existence of the camps and the abuse described in painstaking detail by defectors this week, has responded neither to an invitation to talk to the commission nor a request for the panel to visit the North.
So the panel has been interviewing people who say they have been there - members of the roughly 25,000-strong North Korean defector community in South Korea.
Much of what has been said this week is not new, but the testimony provided here and later in Tokyo will form a part of the report that the commission will present in March.
In an auditorium at Seoul’s prestigious Yonsei University, defectors spoke at times with tears and anger. They faced probing, and sometimes blunt, follow-up questions from the investigators.
Kim Hyuk told the commission he lived on the streets from the age of 7, scavenging and begging for food near a train station. He watched a public execution when he was 9. He saw children younger than himself die because they couldn’t successfully beg or steal.
The orphanage where he later lived in the late 1990s, during a devastating famine that killed hundreds of thousands, tried to discharge children because they thought they’d be better off begging on the streets than dying in the orphanage, Kim said.
Ahn Myung-chul said he and guards would summon prison inmates from fields to practice the Korean martial art of taekwondo on them, taking care to target their “weak points.” Ahn saw so many inmates beaten to death that he told the commissioners he lost count.
“Inmates in the camps are not treated as human beings,” Ahn said. “If we shot a captive, we really didn’t care if they lived or died.”
The government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, which conducts in-depth surveys and interviews of North Korean defectors, estimates that between 80,000 and 120,000 people are held in political camps.
North Korea’s human rights record has been overshadowed for years by international diplomacy aimed at ridding Pyongyang of its nuclear weapons.
Earlier this year, after UN sanctions that followed Pyongyang’s February nuclear test, North Korea threatened nuclear war on Seoul and Washington.
The commission’s visit to Seoul comes as North and South Korea pursue tentative diplomacy meant to restart various cooperation projects that were scrapped during periods of past tensions.
U.S. human rights envoy Robert King will have talks with officials in Seoul in coming days. He is not expected to visit the North.
North Korea has done little to improve human rights despite pressure from many international organizations, said analyst Cheong Seong-chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea. He said change from Pyongyang will require aid, other incentives and an easing of political tension on the Korean Peninsula.