Holocaust-surviving judge: N. Korean camps may be worse than Auschwitz

Thomas Buergenthal one of three jurists who say Pyongyang leaders should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity

Thomas Buergenthal (YouTube screenshot)

A judge who survived the Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen death camps as a child has said North Korean prison camps may be worse than those built by the Nazis.

Thomas Buergenthal, who in the past served as a judge on the International Court of Justice, said “the conditions in the Korean prison camps are as terrible, or even worse, than those I saw and experienced in my youth in these Nazi camps and in my long professional career in the human rights field,” the Washington Post reported.

Buergenthal was one of three renowned international jurists who on Tuesday said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other officials should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity committed in the authoritarian nation’s camps for political prisoners.

The jurists’ report is based on testimony from defectors and experts on the camps, believed to hold between 80,000 and 130,000 inmates. It cites evidence of systematic murder, including infanticide, and torture, persecution of Christians, rape, forced abortions, starvation and overwork leading to “countless deaths.”

South Korean conservative activists and North Korean defectors attend a rally against North Korea and North’s leader Kim Jong Un in downtown Seoul, South Korea, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

The report, drafted with the International Bar Association’s support, is billed as an unofficial follow-up to a UN investigation in 2014 finding reasonable grounds to conclude crimes against humanity had been committed in North Korea.

Buergenthal is not the only one to have served on past international tribunals: Navi Pillay is a former UN high commissioner for human rights, while Mark Harmon served on a tribunal trying Khmer Rouge leaders in Cambodia.

North Korea “continues to deny the very existence of these political prisons,” the report says. “Yet, detailed satellite imagery, as well as the corroborated testimony of scores of former prisoners and state actors with firsthand knowledge of the prisons, established the existence of this prison system, and the horrific practices that occur therein, beyond any doubt.”

The jurists conclude that 10 of the 11 internationally recognized crimes against humanity have been committed. They say many of the prisoners are family members of individuals accused of political wrongdoing — a form of collective punishment against “class enemies” that dates back to the 1950s. Such victims are subject to arbitrary detention, torture, summary execution or life sentences. Hundreds of thousands of inmates are estimated to have died in camps over the years, the report says.

Among the abuses reported: starving prisoners are regularly executed when caught scavenging for food; abortions being performed by injecting motor oil into the wombs of pregnant women, according to a former North Korean army nurse; and firing squad executions of prisoners who attempt to escape.

This July 29, 2016, file photo shows the main gate of the former German Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, Poland. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Crimes continue to be committed in the camps, and the judges conclude Kim, members of the State Security Department and prison guards are culpable. They call on the international community to initiate proceedings at International Criminal Court, or a special international tribunal, to hold them accountable.

Although international pressure on North Korea over its dire human rights record has escalated since the issuance of the UN report in 2014, there remains little chance of a referral to the ICC. China and Russia, permanent members of the Security Council with veto powers, oppose it.

UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein told the council this week that North Korea’s leadership has cracked down further on human rights as tensions have escalated over its nuclear and missile tests, and “horrific” prison conditions have become more severe. He said the reported five secret political prison camps serve as “a powerful instrument of control.”

North Korea’s UN Mission strongly condemned Monday’s meeting, calling it “a desperate act of the hostile forces which lost the political and military confrontation with the DPRK that has openly risen to the position of nuclear weapon state.” It called the human rights issue in the country “non-existent.”

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