Tales of unimaginable suffering were at the core of testimony from former inmates of North Korea's political concentration camps at a press conference Monday.
"I ate whatever I could put into my mouth, except stones," recalled an inmate at the Yodok camp between 2000 and 2002. "Grain stock was checked every day and we were kept away from grains, so you had this extreme pain of being unable to eat them even if they were within sight," he said. "As starving inmates surreptitiously ate seeds, security guards sprayed pesticides on the seeds, so many died from eating the poisoned seeds."
The event was organized by activist group Democracy Network against North Korean Gulag at the Seoul Press Center.
Of 250 inmates he met at the camp, 80 starved to death or executed in public after being arrested for attempting to flee the Stalinist country. He himself was held on espionage charges after being caught with a Bible smuggled in from South Korea.
Women at the event wore dark glasses to conceal their identities but were unable to hide their tears. One recalled how she languished at the Kaechon political prison camp for 28 years after being taken into custody at 13 for guilt by association with a crime committed by one of her relatives. She said, "I saw a starving woman eat the flesh of her son who had died of a disease."
Another was detained at Kaechon Women's Prison for attempting to flee the North twice, in 2003 and 2005. "Once we stood in line in the hallway of a detention house where a security guard was kicking a pregnant woman," she recalled. "Some time later, this woman returned and lay bleeding with an empty womb. But nobody could do anything to help her."