Holocaust Survivor: North Korean Prisons May Be Worse Than Nazi Concentration Camps

Kim Jong-Un signing an order document of a test-fire of the inter-continental ballistic rocket Hwasong-15
Kim Jong Un signing an order document of a test-fire of the inter-continental ballistic rocket Hwasong-15 / Getty Images
December 12, 2017

A former international judge who survived Auschwitz during the Holocaust said North Korea’s prisons may be "even worse" than Nazi concentration camps.

Law professor Thomas Buergenthal co-authored a new report identifying how rape, malnutrition, and overwork are rampant in North Korean prisons. He said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s mistreatment of political prisoners is at least as atrocious as the concentration camps carried out during World War II, according to HuffPost.

"I believe that the conditions in the [North] 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," Buergenthal, who endured the Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen concentration camps a child, told the Washington Post.

Buergenthal, alongside two other internationally renowned judges, Navanethem ‘Navi’ Pillay and Mark B. Harmon, authored a report published Tuesday by the International Bar Association. The report titled, "Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in North Korean Political Prisons," talks about many of the atrocities inside the country's prisons, where 80,000 to 130,000 people are estimated to be held.

The report is based on testimony from North Korean defectors, including a former prison guard, and scholarly research, videos and transcripts. It says investigators found evidence of crimes against humanity that have been committed in the prisons, including murder, extermination, enslavement, forcible transfer, imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, persecution and enforced disappearances.

The report focuses on North Korea’s four "total control zones," where people are sent with no prospect of release. "Hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have been sent to political prisons over the past 50 years, with up to three generations of families detained together and forced into slave labor, mostly to work in mines, logging and agriculture," the report says.

Prisoners are regularly tortured and killed, according to the report. It says rape is rampant, as is malnutrition, starvation and overwork.

"There is not a comparable situation anywhere in the world, past or present," Navi Pillay, another report author who also is a judge in South Africa, told the Post. "This is really an atrocity at the maximum level, where the whole population is subject to intimidation."

North Korea's policy of detaining individuals the regime views as the enemy "seeds" dates back to the 1950s. The report noted, however, that the country's isolation hampers efforts to document crimes inside its prisons.

The International Bar Association said the study serves as an unofficial update to the 2014 United Nations inquiry on human rights abuses in North Korea.

The report ultimately calls for an international tribunal to investigate North Korea’s crimes and hold Jong Un, party officials, prison guards and security officials accountable for their misconduct.

"Given North Korea’s tightly controlled leadership structure, Kim Jong Un and his inner circle warrant prosecution under the principle of command responsibility," the report says.