Korea Future—a non-profit whose mission is to investigate human rights violations in North Korea—has received hundreds of complaints of human rights violations, including physical and sexual violence, happening inside North Korean prisons.
According to the BBC, “the non-profit has identified 597 perpetrators linked to 5,181 human rights violations committed against 785 detainees in 148 penal facilities,” the report said.
“The prison system and the violence within it were being used to suppress a population of 25 million people,” Korea Future co-director in Seoul, Suyeon Yoo, told the BBC.
Lee Young-Joo is one of the 200 witnesses who contributed to this investigation. The evidence has been compiled into a database in hopes that it will eventually be used to bring the responsible parties to justice.
North Korea is currently more secluded from the world than ever before. Ruled by the Kim family for three generations, people are mandated to show absolute devotion to the leader Kim Jong-un and his family.
Young-Joo attempted to defect from North Korea in 2007. She was caught in China and sent back. She has repeatedly tried to escape and has been physically punished for doing so. Prisons were supposed to deter people from escaping North Korea, but didn’t work on Young-Joo and her cell mates.
“The guard would ask me to come to the cell bars and put out my hands, then he started beating my hands with a king ring until [they] got all bloated and blue. I didn’t cry out of pride, these guards consider those of us who tried to leave North Korea as traitors.”
In her cell, she was ordered to sit cross-legged, both hands on her knees, not moving for 12 hours. She had limited access to water and two pieces of a corn husk to eat.
“I feel like an animal not a human,” she said of her time waiting three months to be sentenced at the Onson Detention Center in North Korea.
In the North Hamgyon Provincial Holding Centre, an interviewee witnessed a fellow detainee suffering through an abortion. She confirmed the baby survived but was later drowned in water.
Youn-joo was sentenced to three and-a-half years in prison. “I was worried whether I would still be alive by the time I finished my sentence,” she said. “When you go to these places, you have to give up being human to endure and survive,” she says.
Saeron Yoo, who enjoys a new life in South Korea, was also in the Onson Detention Centre, and remembers receiving brutal beatings by the State security guards.
“They beat your thighs with a wooden stick. You walk in but you crawl out. I couldn’t look at other people being beaten and if I turned my head away they would make me look at it. They kill your spirit.”
The International Criminal Court of experts investigations has enough information that is admissible in court to prosecute. Saeron and Young-Joo hope this report will bring them a step closer to the justice they crave.
“If there is a way, I want them to be punished,” Saeron said, remembering her prison nightmares.