Skip to main content

U.N. report highlights 'unspeakable atrocities' in North Korea

By Tim Hume, CNN
September 18, 2013 -- Updated 0804 GMT (1604 HKT)
Shin Dong-hyuk's horrific experiences in a labor camp were famously documented in
Shin Dong-hyuk's horrific experiences in a labor camp were famously documented in "Escape from Camp 14."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • United Nations inquiry looking into human rights violations in North Korea
  • The rights probe documented "unspeakable atrocities" after witness interviews
  • Commission listened to prison camp survivors who suffered through childhoods of starvation
  • North Korea has rejected this testimony as "slander" put forward by "human scum"

Hong Kong (CNN) -- A mother forced to drown her own baby and a prison camp inmate compelled to eat rodents and lizards just to survive -- these are some of the horrific experiences documented by a United Nations inquiry into human rights violations in North Korea.

According to the man who headed up the study, examples of "unspeakable atrocities" collected to date suggest widespread abuses on a scale requiring an international response.

"What we have seen and heard so far -- the specificity, detail and shocking character of the personal testimony -- appears without doubt to demand follow-up action by the world community, and accountability on behalf of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea," Michael Kirby, chair of the three-member commission of inquiry, told the U.N.'s Human Rights Council Tuesday.

The remarks were contained in a draft report updating the council on the work of the commission, ahead of a final report to the U.N. General Assembly slated for March.

Pyongyang has refused to cooperate with the investigation and rejects its validity.

Kirby said the interim findings were based on testimony given at public hearings in Seoul and Tokyo last month, from sources including North Korean defectors, former regime officials, survivors of political prison camps, and the families of Japanese and South Koreans abducted by North Korean agents.

UN hears story of North Korean torture
North Korea's prison camps
Korea's forgotten POWs

"The individual testimonies emerging from the public hearings, of which these are just instances, do not represent isolated cases," he said. "They are representative of large-scale patterns that may constitute systematic and gross human rights violations."

READ MORE: Defectors describe horror, heartbreak in North Korea's labor camps

Kirby said the inquiry had heard "from ordinary people who faced torture and imprisonment for doing nothing more than watching foreign soap operas or holding a religious belief." One woman had given an account of witnessing a female inmate forced to drown her own baby in a bucket, while a man had spoken of being forced to burn the corpses of many prisoners who had died of starvation, before scattering their remains on crops.

"The commission listened to political prison camp survivors who suffered through childhoods of starvation and unspeakable atrocities, as a product of the 'guilt by association' practice, punishing other generations for a family member's perceived views or affiliation," he said, referring to the account of Shin Dong-hyuk, the high-profile North Korean defector whose horrific experiences were documented in the biography "Escape from Camp 14.

Imprisoned from birth, he said, Shin had eaten "rodents, lizards and grass to survive, and witness(ed) the public execution of his mother and brother."

Kirby also referred to the testimony given by the parents of Megumi Yokota, a 13-year-old Japanese girl who was abducted by North Korean agents on her way home from school in 1977. Yokota was one of 13 Japanese kidnapped by North Korea and held in a North Korean facility as a way of training spies; the regime has said that she and seven others are dead.

They are representative of large-scale patterns that may constitute systematic and gross human rights violations.
Michael Kirby

International attention on North Korea has previously focused on halting its nuclear weapons program, but, in response to increasingly detailed reports of human rights abuses emerging from the isolated state, the U.N.'s Human Rights Council elected in March to establish the commission. Human rights groups estimate that as many as 200,000 people are being held in a network of prison camps in North Korea, as part of a system to crush political dissent.

READ MORE: Torture, starvation rife in North Korea's political prisons

Kirby noted that there had been "rays of hope of change" emerging from North Korea in the past -- including the regime signing an international convention recognizing the rights of the disabled, and moving to reopen the Kaesong industrial complex, operated in cooperation with South Korea -- but these had proven ephemeral.

North Korea had stonewalled invitations to participate in the inquiry, he said, with its official news agency rejecting the testimony as "slander" put forward by "human scum," he said.

He said the commission would seek to identify which North Korean institutions and officials were responsible for gross human rights violations, but did not clarify the mechanisms through which any prosecutions might occur.

North Korea is not a member of the International Criminal Court, but the court is empowered to investigate potential abuse by non-signatories at the request of the U.N. Security Council.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 2, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Experts warn that under Kim Jong Un's rule, Pyongyang has shown an even greater willingness to raise the stakes than before.
March 18, 2014 -- Updated 1314 GMT (2114 HKT)
China and North Korea criticize a U.N. report that found crimes against humanity committed in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
March 17, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
Megumi Yokota was only 13 when she was abducted by a North Korean agent in the 1970s. What happened after that?
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 0430 GMT (1230 HKT)
Report: North Korea uses multiple techniques to defy sanctions, and shows no signs of abandoning its nuclear missile programs.
February 21, 2014 -- Updated 0817 GMT (1617 HKT)
Families torn apart for more than 60 years -- separated by the Korean War -- began to reunite at a mountain resort in North Korea Thursday.
February 18, 2014 -- Updated 1150 GMT (1950 HKT)
A stunning catalog of torture and the widespread abuse of even the weakest of North Koreans reveal a portrait of a brutal state, the UN reported.
February 18, 2014 -- Updated 0431 GMT (1231 HKT)
Former prisoners in North Korea describe horrific stories of being tortured by authorities.
February 14, 2014 -- Updated 1527 GMT (2327 HKT)
Skiing is not the first thing that springs to mind when thinking about the isolated nation, but North Korea's ski resort is world class.
February 8, 2014 -- Updated 0315 GMT (1115 HKT)
American Kenneth Bae, who is being held in North Korea, has been moved from a hospital to a labor camp.
January 8, 2014 -- Updated 0213 GMT (1013 HKT)
Why is he being held by North Korea in a prison camp? These are the questions for many since his arrest in the isolated country in 2012.
January 27, 2014 -- Updated 0818 GMT (1618 HKT)
The first time the South Korean factory owner watched his North Korean employees nibble on a Choco Pie, they appeared shocked.
January 8, 2014 -- Updated 0126 GMT (0926 HKT)
Dennis Rodman's "Big Bang in Pyongyang" may be in a league of its own, but other stars too have mixed with repressive regimes before.
December 19, 2013 -- Updated 1800 GMT (0200 HKT)
Former NBA star Dennis Rodman arrives in North Korea to train basketball players, state-run media reports.
December 18, 2013 -- Updated 0250 GMT (1050 HKT)
The nation held a memorial in the honor of former North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il on the second anniversary of his death.
December 13, 2013 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
Days after he was removed from his powerful military post, Jang Song Thaek was called a traitor and executed.
ADVERTISEMENT