SEOUL, South Korea -- One by one they came, taking seats next to a United Nations flag and stating their names for the record. Some kept calm. Some wept. One, as he spoke, used his left hand to clamp his trembling right hand to the table.
They told stories about North Korea's brutal network of criminal detention and political prison camps, and their evidence was physical: burns on theirs backs, scars on their heads, bodies ravaged by torture for acts that amount to crimes only in the North. They described forced abortions, public executions, constant hunger and ghoulish mind games played by prison guards, whose permission was needed even to catch and eat the camps' many rats and mice.
Guards in a good mood would approve, said one defector, Shin Dong-hyuk. Guards wanting a laugh would force prisoners to eat the rodents live.
Many of the defectors had spoken about their lives before. But this week, at a downtown Seoul university lecture hall, their stories had a new purpose: as testimony in a U.N. investigation into North Korean rights abuses. Earlier this year, the U.N. human rights chief called those abuses unparalleled, and said international attention was "long overdue" -- particularly, she said, because they are continuing unabated under North Korea's third-generation supreme leader, Kim Jong Un.
The three-member commission was established in March and given a year to complete its report. But this week-long Seoul public-hearing series, which runs through Saturday, forms the heart of its work -- a legal investigation that doubles as horrifying theater.
Later this week, the commission will interview witnesses to other alleged North Korean rights violations, including its systematic abduction of foreigners, especially during the 1960s and '70s. The inquiry, U.N. officials say, could help establish whether the North's leaders are committing crimes against humanity.
But in the shorter term, these hearings, streamed online, are meant to raise global awareness of a police state that imprisons 150,000 to 200,000 of its people in city-size gulags, sealed from outsiders in its northern mountains.
According to reports from nongovernmental organizations, the North gives prisoners at these camps starvation rations and works them to the brink of death, cutting rations further when work isn't done well. North Koreans can be imprisoned for criticizing the leadership, watching a foreign-made DVD, leaving dust on a leader's portrait or trying to flee the country. Many get no trial or chance for appeal. The camps, modeled after Soviet gulags, were established by national founder Kim Il Sung as a way to weed out ideological foes.
Witnesses Tuesday and Wednesday said one could be killed in the camps just for trying to stay alive. Public executions occur semi-regularly -- maybe twice a year, witnesses said -- probably to keep other prisoners on edge. One camp survivor, Kim Eun-cheol, said he saw a fellow inmate executed for scavenging a potato from a field. Another was killed for eating herbs.