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At least 150,000 North Koreans in nightmarish gulags, report says

April 10, 2012 |  4:30 am

North Korea keeps at least 150,000 people locked up in hidden gulags where they are forced to work behind barbed wire and electrified fences, according to a report from a human rights group.

Sixty North Koreans shared bleak stories of life in the notorious prison camps in the latest report from the U.S.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, which issued a similar report nine years ago when roughly 3,000 people had fled the communist country. That number grew to 23,000 in 2010 and 2011, it said, adding to the number of former political prisoners able to tell their stories.

"They are making the world aware of the crimes and atrocities upon which Kim family rule has long been based," wrote Roberta Cohen, chairwoman of the rights group. "It is not just nuclear weapons that have to be dismantled in North Korea but an entire system of political repression."

Former prisoners said they were constantly on the verge of starvation, rarely able to bathe and forced to do backbreaking labor a dozen hours or more a day, the report says. Women believed to have been impregnated by Chinese men during illegal trips from the country are forced to abort after returning to North Korea, former inmates said.

Prisoners can land in the gulag for “wrong thinking” or “wrong doing,” including something as  minor as failing to take care of an image of Kim Il Sung, the report says. Entire families, including children and grandparents, have been jailed for the alleged political crimes of their relatives, it says.

Though North Korea denies having political prisoners, the gulags have long been reported to exist. Two years ago, The Times' John Glionna recounted the tale of former inmate Kang Chol Hwan, who was imprisoned with other family members at the age of 9:

Ravenous and desperate, Kang and the other inmates ate whatever they could find. He caught rats and snakes to supplement his meager daily fare of corn and salt.

He learned to eat live salamanders quickly, to grab the creatures by the tail and swallow them in one gulp before they could discharge their revolting secretions. ... In prison, he watched friends slowly die of overwork and malnutrition. But what could he do?

"At Yodok, you couldn't worry about someone else," he said. "The fear of your own death was too strong."

The gulags have been repeatedly condemned by rights groups, including a coalition that sent a petition to the United Nations Human Rights Council last week, urging it to shut down the camps.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

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