Allegations Of Human Rights Abuses In North Korea Probed

In Seoul, the U.N. is holding a hearing on human rights abuses in North Korean labor camps. North Koreans who have escaped the prison camps are telling their stories of torture and starvation. For more on the hearing, David Greene talks to Alastair Gale, Korea bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In South Korea this week, survivors of North Korean prison camps have been telling their stories of torture and starvation. They're speaking at a United Nations hearing that's delving into human rights abuses in North Korean labor camps, where up to 200,000 political prisoners, including spouses and children, are being held.

For more, we turn to Alastair Gale, who is the Korea bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. Good morning.

ALASTAIR GALE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So it sounds like there have been some pretty grim stories coming at these hearings. I wonder if there are some that have really have stuck out for you over these first two days.

GALE: Well, the hearings kicked off yesterday and they started with a gentleman by the name of Shin Dong-hyuk. He was actually born in the camps and he has some of the most horrific stories of torture, and starvation and seeing members of his family executed. You know, there are things going on in these labor camps that are just unimaginable for people outside the country. So to hear these stories is, you know, somewhat overwhelming.

GREENE: He actually watched his parents executed at this camp, you say?

GALE: He watched his mother executed, yes. And this is something that he talks about, how he basically ratted on her and he is to blame for her death. So this is obviously a very difficult story for him to tell.

GREENE: Now there have been many forums in the past for stories like this. I mean North Koreans detailing the decades of abuse, but this is the first time the U.N. has held hearings. Is this a significant move by the U.N.?

GALE: It is. I mean this started in March with the establishment of this commission of inquiry. Now the U.N. has looked into human rights abuses in North Korea since 2004, but they've only had one official who has been in charge of this and has not really had the resources and certainly hasn't had the cooperation of North Korea. Now that hasn't changed this time around. North Korea has been invited to these hearings. The commission of inquiry has asked to go into the country, but North Korea has said no. So this is stepping things up a, you know, a significant level and it's the first really systematic kind of in-depth look at all the issues to do with North Korea's human rights abuses. You know, they're not just looking at the prison camps. They're looking at things like the abductions of, not just South Koreans, but Japanese and other countries' nationals. They're looking at the starvation in the country, torture, the way that North Korea treats handicapped people, for example. Basically, over the course of the year, the idea is to build up a clear a picture as you can, without going into the country, of how serious these abuses are.

GREENE: And those facts, as we're learning them, are things that the North Korean regime doesn't acknowledge and stories that they work very hard to prevent from getting out.

GALE: That's right. They deny that there are prison camps. They deny that there are human rights problems. But there's just so much testimony now from people who have left the country, and not just the people who have been in the camps, but also the guards and other officials; so this is the first attempt to kind of put this all together. They also will be talking to people that look at, you know, satellite imagery and other ways of gathering intelligence about what's going on in the country. So for the North Koreans, this is something they'll obviously be paying attention to. Will it change their behavior? Obviously everyone hopes that it would. But when this issue has been brought up before, they've not responded favorably. So they haven't said anything yet about this particular inquiry, but I'm sure they will at some point.

GREENE: Alastair Gale is the Korea bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal and he spoke to us from South Korea. Alastair, thanks very much.

GALE: No problem at all.

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GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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