By John M. Glionna and Ju-min Park
December 4, 2009
Reporting from Seoul – Lee Kyung-hee took a deep breath Thursday, and then she recounted the nightmare when her newborn was killed before her eyes in a North Korean prison.
In 2005, Lee, eight months pregnant, escaped to China. She was caught by authorities and returned to North Korea. Weeks later, a soldier stood beside her prison bed and, moments after she gave birth, suffocated her tiny boy.
“If he had lived, he would be 4 years old today,” she said.
Lee spoke at a news conference held by a coalition of North Korean human rights activists that is urging that an international tribunal put North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on trial on charges of human rights abuses.
Acting on behalf of 150 North Korean refugees, the Antihuman Crime Investigation Committee wants the International Criminal Court at The Hague to determine whether “the extreme, systematic and widespread violations perpetrated against us constitute crimes against humanity.”
Committee members plan to fly to The Hague next week to file a petition demanding that an arrest warrant be issued for Kim, activists said.
“This is not a political show. We are serious,” said lead activist Young Howard.
He likened Kim to Sudan’s President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, whom the tribunal indicted in March on war crimes charges, its first action against a sitting head of state.
Kim, 67, the self-declared “Dear Leader” of the isolationist nation of 24 million, rules with brutal severity. Since succeeding his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994, Kim has sent an untold number of North Koreans to their deaths, activists say.
To silence opposition, North Korea operates several political gulags holding an estimated total of 150,000 to 200,000 inmates, according to U.S. State Department statistics.
A recent report by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation ranked North Korea and Myanmar, also known as Burma, at the bottom of all Asian nations in terms of political freedom.
Now refugees want to see Kim, reportedly in failing health after suffering a stroke last year, put on trial as an international criminal.
One by one Thursday, half a dozen North Korean refugees — three women, two men and a 10-year-old boy — told their personal tales of torture and hardship under Kim’s regime.
They acknowledged that the chances of bringing Kim to justice are a long shot, but the refugees, who have defected to South Korea, said they wanted to spread the word about the atrocities.
Observers here said the activists’ effort would be a success even if Kim never faces the tribunal.
“Their actions are meaningful in awakening public opinion in the international community,” said Heo Man-ho, a political science professor at Kyungpook National University in Daegu. “North Korean defectors are speaking out.”
Jung Gyoung-il, 46, secretary-general of the group Democracy Network Against North Korean Gulags, said he spent three years, beginning in 2000, in the infamous Yoduk prison after authorities beat him so badly that he falsely confessed to being a spy.
“Yoduk is a place where veterinarians can be a doctor. I once asked why veterinarians treated us, and the soldiers said, ‘You are animals, so medical treatment can’t be offered by doctors. That’s what veterinarians do.’ “
He said the conditions were so harsh that prisoners lost their sense of humanity.
“In gulags, if someone dies, people never feel sad,” he said. “They even like it. We would have to work burying the dead body. Then we could hear ‘good job’ and receive a bowl of rice.”
According to correspondence sent by committee members to The Hague on behalf of refugees, Jung’s experiences were typical.
“We were subjected to reduced food rations so extreme that we literally saw scores of our fellow prisoners die of malnutrition, starvation and disease,” the letter reads.
“We witnessed fellow detainees beaten for failure to meet work quotas, and executed without judicial review for infractions of labor camp regulations. . . . Some of us were released from imprisonment because we had lost so much weight and were so sick, we were sent home to die.”
North Korea has termed the accusations of human rights abuses as “a trite political plot hatched by hostile forces against” the communist country.
One North Korean woman who declined to give her name said Thursday that of the defectors sent back to North Korea, women who had married Chinese men were treated the worst.
“The authorities asked them, ‘Did you have fun when living with Chinese?’ They kicked and hit with their guns,” she said. “One pregnant woman started to bleed. Her baby was killed in her gut.”
The woman said she was arrested five times for attempting to escape. “Do you know what I decided, when I reached South Korea?” she asked. “I wanted to survive to let people know.”
Lee said she faced similar mistreatment after she was returned to North Korea, pregnant by a Chinese man.
Dispatched to a women’s correction center, she was ordered to kill her baby herself after giving birth. She refused, was beaten, and then the soldier smothered the infant.
On Thursday, Lee was asked whether she wanted to see Kim Jong Il executed if he was convicted.
Her answer was immediate.
“Yes,” she said softly.
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