What's It Actually Like In North Korea? A Million Times Worse Than You Imagine.

A new United Nations report has found that crimes against humanity are occurring in North Korea and they're calling for an international tribunal to investigate and hold perpetrators to account. These survivors paint a pretty compelling picture of why to do so.

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Survivor (Translated): The prisoners didn't care. People died every day. We'd wrap up the bodies and bury them. In the winter, the dogs would gnaw at the corpses. Death just wasn't important.

Narrator: Ahn Myung-chul was a member of a privileged family and was trained as a security agent and was a guard in three of the political prison camps in North Korea.

Ahn Myung-chul (Translated): During recruit training at Camp 11, we were taught above all that political prisoners were traitors to the Party, to Kim Il-sung and enemies of the people. If we showed sympathy or did them favors, we'd be punished as well as our parents. If prisoners resisted or tried to escape, it was fine to shoot and kill them.

Joanna Hosanial: Kwan-li-so is a prison system which holds political prisoners in remote areas of North Korea. We estimate that there are between 150,000 to 200,000 political prisoners being held right now in all these camps. On satellite photos it looks like simple village settlements, however, these are very strongly secluded areas with no contact with the outside world.

Phil Robertson: The North Korean government denies the existence of the Kwan-li-so. And this is not surprising because they also deny that human rights of any sort are taking place in North Korea. The Kwan-li-so are the modern day equivalent of the Russian gulag, where prisoners are starved, beaten, tortured and worked to death.

Anonymous (Translated): The camps are a living hell. I've seen people beaten and tortured there many times. I worked for the Ministry of People's Security (the police) from 1995 to about 2003, so I went to Camp 18 several times. When I saw the lives of the prisoners, I'd be the first to kill myself if I had to live there.

Narrator: Mr Lee Young-Kuk served as personal bodyguard to Kim Jong Il for 10 years. He later made critical comments against North Korea's regime, was arrested in China, sent back to North Korea. Tortured and sent to political camp number 15 in Yodok.

Lee Young-Kuk: It was around 9 p.m. Guards were running back and forth with radios and guns, saying a prisoner had escaped in the direction of Baekdu Mountain, which is far from the camp. It appeared he ran in that direction. So a battalion blocked the perimeter. The escapee was captured and brought back not in a car, but dragged behind a truck. All of us saw him in the morning tied to the back of the truck and covered in blood. Then they executed him.

Kim Hye-Sook: These are pictures I drew from the 28 years I sent in the prison.

Narrator: Miss Kim Hye-Sook was sent to camp number 18 in Bukchang at the age of thirteen. Her grandfather escaped allegedly to South Korea and that was the reason for the relocation of the whole family. She spent there 28 years.

Kim Hye-Sook: They would signal us to come over and make us sit down. There was a position in which we all had to sit. We'd put our hands behind our backs and kneel, then raise our heads and open our mouths. They'd spit phlegm into our mouths. If we swallowed, they wouldn't hit us. But if we gagged, then they would beat us badly. They were taught to treat us cruelly. They didn't care about human rights.

Ahn Myung-chul (Translated): There are two ways to control political prisoners in North Korea; one is with violence and the other is with food. If the prisoners are well-fed, they work less.

Narrator: Kang Cheol-Hwan. His grandfather was arrested and accused of treason against the North Korean state. Based on that, the whole family was sent to the camp. Kang Cheol-Hwan was nine years old at the time and was released after ten years.

Kang Cheol-Hwan (Translated): Many people lost their minds. Those who were near death looked like living corpses. This was quite common. If you still have the energy to look for food, then you are fine. But when this energy leaves you, then it becomes a problem. So there were people who lost their mind, who were just waiting for death.

Kim Hye-Sook (Translated): As the children got older, their heads got bigger but they didn't get taller because of their poor diet. Their legs and arms were thin and their heads were big, so they didn't have a normal shape. They didn't look like human beings.

Lee Young-Kuk (Translated): The prisoners were given very little corn but cows ate a lot of it. The cow dung had corn in it, so the old men would pick it out and eat it. They had such a strong will to live. It was like dogs fighting over small scraps. That's what we'd become. Kim Jong-Il turned the people into complete beasts.

Kim Hye-Sook (Translated): I lived in a political prison camp for 28 years, so I was asked if I could draw a map of the place. I remember the place very well, so I just closed my eyes and drew on this long piece of paper. They studied my map and compared it with the earth satellite pictures and they matched perfectly.

Phil Robertson: Guilt by association in North Korea means that if you commit a crime, not only would you be punished, but also three generations of your family will be punished.

Narrator: Your grandparents, your parents, your grandchildren.

Kang Cheol-Hwan (Translated): Officials from the National Security Agency came to our house and falsely accused us as traitors. They said that the punishment for our crimes is death, but we would not be killed. However, we could no longer stay in Pyongyang. We would have to be resettled in a special place. They put our belongings in a truck and took us to the prison camp at Yodok.

Kim Hye-Sook (Translated): They didn't tell us anything. When we entered the camp, there were ten rules and the first was to not ask about your crime. Because of this rule, the people inside never knew what their crime was. There were no trials or anything like that.

Ahn Myung-chul (Translated): Public executions are a means of control in the prison camps and I have seen many. Every North Korean has seen public executions. When the prisoner arrives, pebbles are shoved into his mouth. Triangular ones. The pebbles are stuffed into their mouths and their faces covered by rags then a patch is put over the eyes. Then they are tied to a stake at the chest, belly and knees. The first shots strike the head, the second the chest and the third the belly. If family members or friends of the condemned cry at the execution, they are arrested on the spot and sent to the detention center to be executed. I never saw anyone cry.

Joanne Hosanial: North Korea is a terrorist state that bases all of its policies on controlling the society and this control is based on the fear so that is the most powerful method to really control the whole state. And it really has worked very well for the regime.

Anonymous (Translated): People might resist the regime with their lives if it was only themselves who might be killed. But it's not only one man being put to death, it's three generations of his family too, meaning his children and relatives will all be sent to the prison camp. Because of this, many reluctantly go along with the regime. So I think it's really the prison camps that sustain the regime.

Phil Robertson: These and other crimes are now being investigated by an UN Commission of Inquiry established by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. We fully expect that Commission of Inquiry will receive the support of the international community in demanding accountability for the crimes that have been perpetrated by the North Korean government against its own people.

Kim Hye-Sook (Translated): When I think about it now, I was not a human being. I was more like an animal. I thought that's how life was. Only after leaving North Korea did I realize what life was supposed to be.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

The original video was made by Human Rights Watch and published by Upworthy on our YouTube page. Stay up-to-date on Human Rights Watch's latest effort by following them on Facebook.

Posted By:
Adam Albright-Hanna

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