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A Survivor Recounts Horrors Of N. Korea's Prison Camps
Rebuke by U.N. Rights Commission Reflects Tougher U.S. Stance

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By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 3, 2003; Page A20

SEOUL -- Lee's crime was that she was hungry. After years of meager rations in North Korea, the 22-year-old woman with curly hair left her peasant family's home and slipped across the border into China in 1997, hoping to find something to eat. She was caught and sent back, handcuffed, to a North Korean prison camp -- a world of cruelty.

She was worked to exhaustion, forced to run in her bare feet as she carried heavy bricks at a construction site. Her food was a bowl of watery soup every day with cabbage and a few rotten corn kernels.

There was no escape. "I didn't feel anything," said Lee, now 28 and safe after an escape that brought her to Seoul four months ago. Beaten, starved and assaulted by horrors, "you just don't think about anything. You really have no fear of death. At that point, you're just a machine with no emotion."

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights condemned North Korea's human rights record for the first time last month, answering years of demands by activists that the world confront the abuses.

The commission expressed "deep concern" about conditions in the country, including torture, public executions, political executions, use of political prison camps and selective provision of food.

The vote is a response in part to the harsher tone adopted by the Bush administration in dealing with North Korean abuses. Previously, the United States and other countries had been reluctant to push the human rights issue with the prickly North Korean government, arguing that it would have little effect.

But to the dismay of activists, South Korea and its new president, Roh Moo Hyun, a human rights lawyer, abstained from voting.

"South Korea should be ashamed that foreign countries are saying what we are afraid to say on behalf of fellow Koreans," said Chun Ki Won, a South Korean Christian aid worker who has been jailed in China for his work helping North Koreans escape.

Human rights activists estimate there are about 200,000 prisoners in at least five large North Korean camps, some confined for trying to escape like Lee, others for political offenses that make it likely they will die in prison.

The change in the U.S. line coincides with the appointment in March of Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as head of the U.S. delegation to the Geneva-based U.N. commission. Kirkpatrick promptly labeled North Korea as "hell on earth" and presented a new State Department human rights report, alleging that the North Korean government conducts forced abortions, murders of babies in prisons, kidnappings, and experiments using chemical and biological weapons on inmates.

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which meets annually, focuses international attention on human rights violators. The commission can send monitors and investigators, but at its meeting in Geneva it noted that North Korea has not cooperated with U.N. investigators dealing with torture, religious intolerance, arbitrary detention, involuntary disappearances and the right to food. It urged the North Korean government to do so. It also elected to put North Korea on its agenda again next year.

North Korea rejected the U.N. resolution, its U.N. ambassador saying it was "full of fabrications" and the official news agency saying it was "as foolish as trying to sweep the sea with a broom."

Some activists here said the resolution will have little effect on the government. Even the publicity value of its passage was lost in news coverage of the Iraqi war and the nuclear crisis with North Korea.

"It's a tiger without teeth," complained Kim Sang Hun, a human rights worker who has helped organize desperate escapes for North Koreans from China. "Why don't we demand to send international inspectors in there, like we do for nuclear weapons?"

"Human rights won't improve significantly until there is a regime change," said Chun. But he said spotlighting the human rights abuses "may help a little bit. North Koreans put a great importance on 'face.' They are very proud." Publicity about public executions of defectors who were caught seemed to stop the killings -- in public, at least, he said.

Rights activists were especially critical of South Korea's position, saying they expected more from South Korea's new government.

"It will go down as a stain on South Korea's history," said Tim Peters, director of Helping Hands Korea, which assists defectors. "There should be outrage toward the government here. Nothing can top the irony of a human rights Nobel laureate [former president Kim Dae Jung], followed by a human rights lawyer, and neither of them raising the issue of human rights."

Roh, in a recent interview with The Washington Post, defended his position.

"Rather than confronting the Kim Jong Il regime over human rights of a small number of people, I think it is better for us to open up the regime through dialogue," he said. "I think this will ultimately bring broader protection of human rights for North Korean people as a whole.

"As in Iraq, I don't think the North Korean human rights conditions can be changed by pressure from international public opinion," Roh added. "If I bring up the human rights [issue], it will not help improve human rights conditions in North Korea. Rather, it will be an obstacle to bringing an 'opening up' or peace in North Korea."

Lee saw the horror of those human rights conditions during her imprisonment in North Korea. The young woman cannot give her full name; her mother and three siblings still in North Korea would be in grave danger. Sitting in an activist's office in Seoul, her pretty smile dissolves into tears at recalling her months in prison.

Each night, she said, the 160 women in the camp lined up, heads bowed, as a guard whipped those who had not worked hard enough and slammed the heads of others against the wall. Fifty women were packed into a tiny room, forced to sleep while sitting.

"You go to sleep, and the next morning the person next to you is cold, dead," she said. "The older women would die right away." She said that a fellow prisoner, desperate with hunger, bit off half the ear of a woman who had died, and put it in her pocket to eat later.

Two sisters who tried to escape were caught and brought back to the camp to serve as a lesson. Lee said they were forced to lift a heavy log until it fell, crushing them. Other prisoners were ordered to stomp on the sisters' hands to break their bones. Finally the two women were strapped to a wall to be starved to death.

"After a week their bodies were gone. They had died," said Lee.

Lee became so weak in the camp she was sent home to die. Instead, a trader carried her on his back across the river to China, where she recovered her strength. A Christian activist gave her false papers, and Lee lived illegally for four years in eastern China, despite regular roundups by Chinese authorities to force North Koreans back across the border.

She finally joined the long smuggling route, an "underground railway" for North Koreans, that took her to Mongolia and eventually to South Korea in December. Only when she was safe did she throw away the rat poison she planned to take if she was forced back to North Korea again.

Lee arrived in Seoul to find physical comfort, but also referred to the loneliness that many other defectors describe when they finally reach safety. After two months in South Korea's reeducation camp, the government gave her an apartment and a monthly stipend. She is trying to learn secretarial skills and is contemplating life in a society where her accent and communist education set her apart.

"I thought when I came to South Korea everything would be happy. But I realize that's not true. I didn't know where to go or how to behave," she said.

She is sending money back through the smugglers' route so her mother and siblings can buy food in North Korea. "If my family is hurt, all my hope would be gone," she said.

"To be honest, sometimes I try to forget that happened to me," she said. "Now I realize how revolting it was. There, I was just numb. It's human to try to forget it."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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