Harrowing sketches depicting torture, starvation and death in a North Korean prison have been published in a UN report into human rights abuses.
The drawings show emaciated inmates being brutally abused and resorting to eating rats and snakes in order to survive.
They were submitted by defector Kim Kwang-Il, who was arrested in 2004 and subsequently jailed for crossing the border and smuggling. He had traveled to China to sell pine nuts.
They appeared in a book about the 48-year-old's experiences in detention and are based on descriptions he gave to professional artists after he defected to South Korea in February 2009.
The images reveal a practice known as “pigeon torture” – an agonising stress position whereby the victim is forced to spend three days at a time with their hands handcuffed behind their back whilst being hung so as they are unable to stand or sit. Often during interrogations the prisoner is beaten until they vomit blood, Mr Kim said.
Other variations to extract false confessions from prisoners include “motorcycle torture” and “plane torture”, involving the prolonged extension of the arms until the victim collapses through exhaustion.
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Mr Kim is one of more than 300 North Koreans who gave testimony, 80 of whom appeared at public hearings in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington D.C. (Full testimonies can be found here.)
Recalling the conditions upon his incarceration, he said: “I went into the Kyohwaso [a North Korean concentration camp] in September 21. This was the first thing that I saw: there it said that ‘if you run, you die’ – that’s what it said there. If you run away you are going to be shot to death."
Of the food prisoners received Mr Kim revealed: “… they fed us some things that not even the pigs would eat, like for example, rotten cucumber. Boiled rotten cucumber was given to eat. And if we refused to eat that we would be punished.”
Explaining why some of the sketches show prisoners eating snakes and rats, he said: “… because we starved so much and did not have enough to eat, we would find snakes in street. I know this sounds terrible to you. How do you eat a snake in the street?
“But for us the first one to find it was the person who got to eat it. Everybody raced to catch those snakes because we were so starved.”
He added: "Inmates died. Because we saw so many people die, we became so used to it. I'm sorry to say that we became so used to it that we didn't feel anything. In North Korea sometimes people on the verge of dying would ask for something to eat.
"Or when somebody died, we would strip them naked and we would wear the clothes. Those alive had to go on, those dead, I'm sorry, but they're dead, but we become used to this."
He also described being forced to transport the bodies of his fellow inmates who succumbed to the abuse to a makeshift crematorium.
He said: “We would light a fire. It’s not like we… it’s like burning rubbish, burning garbage and if you see inside the pot you would see the bones that have not burned and sometimes you get the powders of these bones. We would take them to the fields and use them as fertiliser.”
Overcrowding was rife, and at times he claimed there were up to 170 people in cells designed to accommodate 17 people.
“Sometimes people would sleep standing up and you would take turns lying down and standing up. In that kind of environment sometimes you are so exhausted that you want to give up, end your own life,” Mr Kim recalled.
The UN report likens North Korea's inhumane treatment of prisoners to those of Nazi-era atrocities and claims rape, executions and forced abortions are also common among the country’s secret kwanliso camps, which are estimated to hold more than 200,000 men, women and children. It states:
"The unspeakable atrocities committed against the inmates of the kwanliso political prison camps of the DPRK resemble the horrors of camps that totalitarian states established during the twentieth century. In the political prison camps of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the inmate population is gradually eliminated through deliberate starvation, forced labour, executions, torture, sexual violence including rape and a denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion and infanticide. The Commission estimates that hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have perished in these political prison camps over the course of more than five decades."
The inquiry has been gathering evidence for almost a year. Meanwhile the North Korean government, under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, has hit out at the report in a statement sent to Reuters news agency.
It calls it "fabricated and invented" and an instrument of political plot, adding: "However, we will continue to strongly respond to the end to any attempt of regime-change and pressure under the pretext of 'human rights protection'."
Amnesty International has urged the world to increase pressure on North Korea.
“The gravity and nature of human rights violations are off the scale," Amnesty International’s East Asia Research Director Roseann Rife said.
“The UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council should seize this opportunity and use their power and influence to ensure the North Korean government acts on the Commission’s findings. The people of North Korea deserve no less.
“The international community cannot afford to sit idly by, as these incomprehensible crimes are perpetrated. The Commission’s findings reinforce the need for the UN Security Council to raise human rights alongside security and peace when it comes to North Korea.”
The report recommends the UN Security Council refers the country to the International Criminal Court or setting up an ad hoc tribunal, but the country's only ally China is likely to block any such attempt, the BBC writes.
The panel will formally present its findings next month, when the Human Rights Council will decide which recommendations to support.Suggest a correction