As It Happens

'Terrible brutality': Holocaust survivor compares North Korean prisons to Nazi concentration camps

Kim Jong-un should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity, according to a panel of former war crimes judges that includes Thomas Buergenthal, an Auschwitz survivor.
Kim Kwang-Il spent almost three years in a North Korean prison before escaping to South Korea. He published a book about his experience with illustrations of the crimes he witnessed. The captions read, "Crane, airplane, and car interrogation positions." (Drawings by Kwon Hyo Jin, submitted to United Nations by Kim Kwang-il)

Warning: this story includes descriptions of violence that readers may find disturbing.

Story transcript

A panel of former war crimes judges has concluded that North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. 

The panel's report, drafted with the support of the International Bar Association, chronicles evidence of rape, forced abortion, starvation, torture and murder, including infanticide. 

I am one of the youngest survivors of Auschwitz ... Some of us have to do something about this.- Judge Thomas Buergenthal

Thomas Buergenthal is one of the jurists on the panel. He compared the conditions in North Korean prisons to those in Nazi concentration camps.

Buergenthal was a judge at the International Court of Justice in the Hague and a survivor of Auschwitz. 
A 2013 satellite image of Camp 14, a notorious North Korean prison camp and a region outside the camp's perimeter. (AP Photo/Amnesty International with imagery provided by DigitalGlobe)

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Judge Buergenthal about the Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in North Korean Political Prisons. Here's part of their conversation. 

Judge Buergenthal, you have compared Kim Jong-un's political prisons to what you saw when you were a boy in Auschwitz. In what ways are they similar? 

Well, I think the situation in the Nazi camps, like Auschwitz and others, were organized cruelty and brutality. What's happening in the Korean ones, based on the study and the report we prepared, is less organized but it appears to be random brutality — terrible brutality. 

Who are held at these prisons? What's the population based on?

It's more than 100,000. If in North Korea, you have an individual who is suspected of being anti-government, the entire three generations of the family are put into these camps. 
Judge Thomas Buergenthal is one of three judges who took part in the inquiry into conditions at North Korean prisons. (Courtesy of Thomas Buergenthal)

But these are political prisons. What are the other charges against the people who are being held there?

Somebody reports them ... It's a random arrest often times because someone was informed on or because they made some sort of remark. 

Some are there because they attempted to escape — that's a very small number because it's very difficult to escape. 

Does anyone ever get out of these camps? 

From what we understood, very, very rarely. Because also, the food intake and the hard work is such that very few people survive it, even if they could be released at some point. 

The hard work and the lack of food would, again, be very similar to what you saw in Nazi camps.

Very much so. One example that struck me [was] the guards sometimes impregnate women, and if a woman gets pregnant, to get rid of the pregnancy, some of the techniques they've developed is to put a board on the woman's stomach and jump on it until the baby is dead. Now, that's something I've never heard before. It's shocking, and I've heard a lot of things in my life. 
Another drawing of former North Korean prisoner Kim Kwang-Il's experiences. According to the caption, this shows prisoners carrying dead bodies to a crematorium. (Drawings by Kwon Hyo Jin, submitted to United Nations by Kim Kwang-il )

There's a list of these kinds of tortures, and things that the camp does, particularly to pregnant women, in order to get them to abort or to destroy their children. You've just cited one of them, the others, we just can't speak of them. They are unspeakable tortures, aren't they?

Exactly. I mean the Germans, they put you in a camp, they never expected you to get out, if you were a Jew. They put you to work, as long as you could work, unless you didn't work, they wouldn't necessarily torture you. The torture consisted of not feeding us, from time to time beating us ... but this is something I've never, never seen before. 

And people are tortured in all kinds of ways, for things like trying to get more food, for stealing a potato, for trying to escape. 

Even picking bark from a tree, in order to feed themselves. That is also a crime, supposedly. 

What did the prison guards with whom you spoke ... say about this?

We only had one prison guard. He seemed to have become a prison guard because his family was well politically-connected, so I didn't get all that much from him. 
Kim Jong-un may be leader of North Korea, but he's also behind the country's undertaking of a series of criminal activities. (Wong Maye-E/Associated Press)

So there was no one who could shed light on how they could even find the people who are capable of this kind of sadism, the kinds of pain and torture they inflicted, how do they find people who can do that to others?

You know, based on my own experience, we humans have an ability to adjust, and very often in camps, what struck me is you put ordinary people as guards in these camps and they became vicious for whatever reason, to get promoted, to get some advantage from the authorities. It's not all that unusual; that's something one could have observed in the German camps as well. They were ordinary people who would probably under normal circumstances never done the things they in fact did. 

What has it been like for you to hear this evidence? 

It's not easy. At the same time, I feel that I am probably, as a lawyer, and one with my experience, better equipped to determine whether someone is telling the truth, and also being committed to preventing these crimes, these acts from happening to other people in other places.

I am one of the youngest survivors of Auschwitz. And I'm still around, most people are already gone. So some of us have to do something about this. 

This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity. To listen to the full interview with Thomas  Buergenthal, click or tap on the audio link at the top of the page.