UN human rights investigators on DPRK hear shocking testimonies in London

Conclude London Visit; travel to New York then Washington DC next week

London, 25 October 2013 -- Former prisoners, military officers and a human trafficking victim shared shocking testimony with a United Nations panel in London on Wednesday recalling disturbing accounts of human rights violations in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea chaired by former Australian Justice Michael Kirby, heard evidence from witnesses as part of its probe into human rights violations in the Asian nation.

During public hearings, conducted by Kirby and his fellow UN Commissioner Sonja Biserko of Serbia, four North Koreans who had fled the DPRK revealed how they were subjected to torture, sexual violence and starvation.

The first of the four witnesses providing testimonies through an interpreter, Kim Song Ju, described his experiences at an “interrogation centre” where he witnessed torture and ill treatment of inmates carried out by guards and prison staff. Explaining how he was first imprisoned for crossing the border into China, he portrayed life in North Korean prison camps where inmates were regularly subjected to humiliating treatment, "unbearable” living conditions and systematic beatings.

"As soon as I stepped foot back in North Korea the treatment I received was sub-human", Kim stated. Portraying prison cells with entrances 50-cm high, Kim recalled that prison guards would demean the inmates by instructing them "to crawl into their cells like animals". He went on to explain how inmates were frequently subjected to body cavity searches by guards looking for concealed money which they would confiscate for personal use. "These searches were also done on groups of women who were forced to squat down naked with their hands tied behind their backs".

Park Jiyhun emotionally recounted stories of how she fled the DPRK to China where she was sold as a “wife” to a Chinese gambler. Park, who fled to China to escape harsh conditions in the DPRK in order to save her brother from persecution, relived the harrowing tale of how she managed an escape via a frozen riverbed in northern DPRK to China, was sold and gave birth to a son. She wept as she described how she was arrested and forced to choose between leaving her son in China with her husband who may give him up, or take him to the DPRK knowing the risk of persecution there. "Since he was born in such a harsh place, I wanted him to become really strong," she told the panel. "So I named him Steel."

While back in the DPRK Park was placed in a detention camp and made to perform hard labour ploughing fields by hand with other detainees. While working in the fields she succumbed to a severe leg infection and nearly lost her leg. "I was a walking corpse", she recalled. Eventually she managed to return to China and find her son, who to her relief had not been sold or given away. From there she made her way to Britain, where she is now seeking citizenship.

Former soldier Choi Jong Hwa retold stories of public executions he witnessed as a school boy as early as the age of nine. "At these executions there were no lawyers or legal procedures. The people were simply executed after having told what they had done." Choi added that these people were executed to set an example for other potential dissenters. One of the five public executions Choi witnessed was the hanging of a factory manager who was accused of being a spy after his factory did not reach its economic quota, although the authorities formally charged him as a traitor for having conspired with people from the Republic of Korea.

Choi also shared personal experiences of starvation forcing him to loot food from civilians. "Nothing can stop a starving soldier from going over the fence", he stated. During the "great famine" which began in 1994, Choi told how his three brothers starved to death. "I really thought I could live decently if I tried hard," he told the hearing. "But when I buried three of my brothers, I felt something was terribly wrong." He added: “If something goes wrong in your family up to three generations can suffer, but if something goes wrong in the country the people will suffer beyond one hundred years".

Kim Joo-Il, a former North Korean army soldier, spoke of human rights violations committed in the military and corruption connected with strict food rations. "The officers mercilessly took our food away", he recalled. “If offenses were committed in the army they were usually tried in military courts…They had no access to an attorney or to a fair trial. Those found guilty would be sent to a labour camp”.

Noting that there were some 600 North Koreans who fled the DPRK currently residing in the United Kingdom, Kim said as a captain in the army he was tasked with rounding up deserters. In a twist of fate, Kim himself deserted the army and fled to London where he currently serves as President of the Association of North Korean Residents in the United Kingdom. “When I joined the army it was nothing like what I had thought it was. Shortly after joining the army I started planning my exit”.

A fifth witness, British Reverend Stuart Windsor, presented a report produced by Christian Solidarity Worldwide concluding that there is a prima facie case for the commission of crimes against humanity, namely murder, extermination, enslavement/forced labour, forcible transfer of population, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, persecution, enforced disappearances of persons, other inhumane acts and, perhaps rape and sexual violence.

Speaking at a press conference in London yesterday, Chairperson Kirby remarked that the testimonies the Commission heard were “extremely powerful”. “You have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the testimonies we’ve heard”.

The London hearings are the first held by a UN independent body in the United Kingdom. To date, the Commission of Inquiry has heard testimonies from some 65 witnesses during public hearings and has received some 200 confidential communications. Previous hearings were held in Seoul and Tokyo in late August. The testimony heard in London is consistent with the information that the Commission had already gathered in the Republic of Korea and in Japan.

Chairperson Kirby emphasized the value of having witnesses come before the Commission in public to share information so as to heighten awareness about the human rights situation in the DPRK, whose Government has so far declined access into the country to the Commissioners.

“Although we do not have direct access to the DPRK, we are still able to gather vital information from individuals who have bravely come forward to tell their stories,” said Kirby. “These hearings, which are transparent and conducted impartially, will hopefully sharpen the focus and spotlight on the situation in the country.”

The Commission of Inquiry, established by the Human Rights Council in March this year, wraps up their three-day visit to London tomorrow. While in the English capital, the Commission and their team met with UK Government officials, NGOs and a host of experts with specific knowledge about the situation about the human rights situation in the DPRK.

The Commission will travel to New York on Monday, 28 October where they will meet with senior UN officials and deliver an oral update to the General Assembly on 29 October. The Commission will then to travel to Washington D.C. where they will hold further public hearings on 30 and 31 October. The three-member body will report back to the Human Rights Council in Geneva at its next session in March 2014.