- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 20, 2007

SEOUL — North Korea’s most feared labor camp, Yodok, is a grim place where “a father robs a son’s food for his survival,” survivors say, but a report by an authoritative human rights group states that reforms to the North Korean penal code may have ameliorated the worst abuses.

Conditions at the camp were described vividly to foreign reporters this month by North Korean defector Kim Gwang-soo, who escaped to South Korea in 2004 after a sentence at Yodok.

Arrested in 1999 and accused of spying, Mr. Kim, 43, said he initially was interrogated by the notorious Hoeryung City security agency.

He was held in an underground cell, where he was beaten for weeks, suffering a fractured skull and the loss of his teeth. He said the most agonizing torture was “the pigeon,” in which his hands were cuffed behind his back and he was hung for 10 hours at a stretch.

“I could not stand up or sit down, the muscles on the shoulders were paralyzed and the bones seemed to break through the bosom,” he recalled.

Two other prisoners in the underground cells with Mr. Kim died before he broke down and “confessed.” Only then was he dispatched for a three-year sentence to Re-Education Center No. 15, commonly known after its county name: Yodok.

Mr. Kim was joined at the press conference by Kim Eun-cheol (no relation), 26, who was captured in 1999 after escaping to Russia and China and tortured by officials in North Korea’s National Security Agency.

For months, he was forced to kneel on a hot iron plate and beaten. However, he did not confess until he, too, was subjected to the “pigeon torture.” In 2000, he was sentenced to three years in Yodok.

Yodok, in the country’s mountainous center, is a huge labor camp where political prisoners are sent, sometimes with their families. Estimates of the prison population range from 20,000 to 50,000.

Inmates soon learn that while physical brutality is not as severe as that meted out by the security agencies, those who fall out of favor face a slow death.

“In Yodok, there is a way of killing prisoners without using violence,” said Kim Gwang-soo. “That is starvation, which is considered legal. The guards assign inmates who were targeted for killing hard work which they can never finish.”

Rations, of about 600 grams a day, are given only after completion of labor assignments. If work is unfinished, all the prisoners receive half rations, a system that turns inmates against one another.

But conditions in the North Korean penal system may have improved since the two Mr. Kims’ experiences, according to Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, or NKHR, a Seoul-based civic group.

The group in April published the first comprehensive report on torture in North Korea based on interviews with 20 defectors who had survived the interrogation centers and camps.

Pyongyang revised its criminal code in April 2004 — a year after the United Nations passed its first resolution criticizing North Korea’s human rights violations — inserting articles barring the use of torture and establishing the rights to fair trial and defense.

Although rights groups are skeptical that the law is being fully honored, NKHR Program Officer Joanna Hosaniak notes signs that some of the worst practices may have been ended.

“We cannot confirm certain types of torture continue,” she said. “The ‘pigeon torture’ does not appear in testimonials after 2002, and forced abortion has not been reported since 2000.”

NKHR research also indicates that border crossers are not as severely punished as they were in the 1990s. “We heard that [supreme leader] Kim Jong-il instructed that there be more moderate punishment for border crossers, and ordered officials not to allow ‘pumping,’ as that would lead them to try to escape again,” Miss Hosaniak said.

“Pumping” is a common practice: Prisoners are stripped naked, then forced to sit and stand repeatedly, sometimes hundreds of times, forcing their body cavities to deposit anything hidden.

NKHR acknowledges that its findings are tentative. A March report by Human Rights Watch concluded that, in fact, punishment against defectors has stiffened since 2004.

NKHR urges nations to engage North Korea while simultaneously pressing it on human rights and offering help to upgrade its penal system.

While the organization supports Seoul’s engagement with Pyongyang, it criticizes its silence on human rights. “We should take the initiative to promote North Korean human rights,” said Lee Young-hwan, author of NKHR’s April report.

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