SEOUL, South Korea -- Shin Dong-hyuk said his earliest memory of life in a North Korean prison camp was the public execution that inmates were forced to watch when he was 5 years old. Inmates, he told a hushed audience here in Seoul on Tuesday, were so hungry that they devoured live rats and the raw hooves of a goat that prison guards had thrown away after slaughtering the animal.
One 7-year-old girl was clubbed to death for stealing a few grains of wheat, Mr. Shin said. He said he felt lucky when a warden ordered the tip of his finger chopped off, rather than having him executed, for the offense of damaging a piece of sewing equipment.
"We toiled as bid and ate what they gave us, we took their beating and starved when they didn't give us anything," said Mr. Shin, 31, who escaped the camp in 2005. "We were expendables they were keeping as beasts of labor, to get the most out of us before we die."
Mr. Shin's account on Tuesday was dramatic, but not particularly new; over the years, defectors from North Korea, including a handful of survivors of its prison camps like Mr. Shin, have told similar stories in interviews, at human rights conferences and in documentaries and memoirs. What made the accounts given by Mr. Shin and another defector unusual was their audience: the first United Nations panel established to investigate allegations of human rights violations by the North Korean government.
The three-member Commission of Inquiry was started by the United Nations Human Rights Council in March with a one-year mandate to investigate what the council called allegations of "systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights," including possible crimes against humanity, by the North Korean authorities.
The panel began five days of public hearings on Tuesday in a lecture hall at Yonsei University in Seoul. It hoped to interview 30 North Korean defectors, including some who fled the country only recently. Later this month, another round of hearings is scheduled for Japan, where the fate of Japanese citizens abducted and taken to North Korea decades ago remains a keen political and human rights concern.
"The panel decided to take public testimony to help raise international awareness of conditions in the country and because of a lack of response so far by the Pyongyang government" to repeated requests to visit North Korea, said Michael Donald Kirby, chairman of the commission. North Korea also has not responded to an invitation to attend the hearings, Mr. Kirby said.
The panel's work is the international community's most direct challenge to the young North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, over his country's human rights record, which rights groups describe as appalling. It also represents a victory for North Korean defectors, many of whom, like Mr. Shin, have become vocal campaigners for human rights in the North, arguing that international preoccupation with the North's missile and nuclear weapons programs should not divert attention from the people living under one of the most repressive systems in the world.
North Korea denies violating human rights and has rejected United Nations resolutions calling for better treatment of its people as a "political plot" to destabilize its government.
In a joint letter delivered to the panel on Tuesday, groups of North Korean defectors, including one called Free the NK Gulag, said they hoped that the inquiry would lead to the indictment of "Kim Jong-un and his clique" in the International Criminal Court.
"We ourselves or our family members were dragged into prisons without trial, we suffered unspeakable torture and humiliation when we were caught while trying to flee North Korea, and we had to witness neighbors and relatives dying while waiting for food rations," their statement said. "We were forced to witness almost monthly public executions. Because of our grandfathers' background, many of us were deprived of an opportunity to join the party or get jobs."
Jee Heon-a, 34, the other defector who testified on Tuesday, said that during a famine in the late 1990s, North Korean women were sold to traffickers in China. Those later caught by the Chinese police were repatriated to the North. Many suffered forced miscarriages through beatings and other forms of torture from North Korean guards at detention facilities, and one woman who gave birth to a baby was forced to drown it, she said.
Mr. Kirby said his panel would "seek to determine whether crimes against humanity have occurred and who bears responsibility." But he cautioned, "It is not possible at this moment to envisage the level of detail that the commission will be able to achieve in establishing lines of responsibility, if any."
There was poignancy in the fact that Tuesday's hearing was being held in South Korea. Here, North Korean human rights concerns have never elicited the kind of fervent activism seen in the days when South Koreans fought for their own rights under military dictatorships. Until recently, the authorities here feared that without an effective means of pressuring North Korea, openly challenging the North on human rights would only make it more repressive and less willing to engage in international efforts to denuclearize the country.
Mr. Shin, whose stories of his life in the North Korean labor camp -- including watching his mother and brother be executed -- are chronicled in the book "Escape from Camp 14" by Blaine Harden, said Tuesday that he had met people who questioned the veracity of his testimonies. He said he had no evidence except his accounts and the scars that he suffered from torture, and from an electrified fence that he crossed to escape the camp.
"I want to speak for those children who were born and live in prison camps as I did, and for people who don't even know what 'human rights' are," Mr. Shin said. "I hope that they can say they are hungry when they are hungry and say it's painful if someone hurts them."
The commission has identified nine suspected patterns of human rights violations to investigate, including denial of food, arbitrary detention and torture.
In its most recent report on humanitarian needs in North Korea, published Thursday, the United Nations cited "a chronic malnutrition (stunting) rate among children under 5 at 27.9 percent and 4 percent acutely malnourished (wasting)."
In its 2013 white paper on human rights in North Korea, the government-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul said the North's "discriminatory ration policy based on class creates inequality between the elite and the general public."
The white paper said that between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners are held in five prison camps operated by North Korea "as an important tool for regime maintenance." Inside, "many inmates end up losing their life," the paper said, because of "forced labor, torture, degrading mistreatment, poor nutrition and lack of medical care." North Korea denies that any such camps exist.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.