Brainwashed from birth, under constant surveillance, cowed by the all-embracing state and facing the spectre of disappearing forever in its vast network of camps if they step out of line.
The cruel lot of North Koreans was spotlighted Monday in a landmark report by a UN-mandated human rights panel, which said it was time for regime officials to face international justice.
Its 400 pages were filled with shocking testimony from North Koreans who have managed to escape the clutches of the totalitarian, nuclear-armed regime.
Among the most shocking stories gathered by the Commission of Inquiry on North Korea were those from the “kwanliso” political prison camps, evoking the darkest chapters of world history.
The ex-inmate then took the ash and remaining body parts to be used as fertiliser in nearby fields.
Barred by Pyongyang, the commission based its report on testimony from 320 North Korean exiles — dubbed “human scum” by Pyongyang.
It said that many more were afraid to speak out, fearing the harm that the regime could inflict on relatives, or its history of abducting defectors from the countries where they have found a haven.
The regime denies the existence of camps in the country, but the report said that stance was disproved by testimony from former prisoners, guards and neighbours, plus satellite imagery.
– School classes brought to watch public executions –
Between 80,000 and 120,000 people are thought to be held in North Korean camps, including generations of whole families arrested for alleged political crimes under collective guilt rules.
Hundreds of thousands of others were believed to have perished in the camps over the past half century, “gradually eliminated through deliberate starvation, forced labour, executions, torture”, the report said.
Drawings by a former prisoner published in the report detailed torture methods with names including “pigeon”, “aeroplane” and “motorcycle” — anodyne names for brutal methods.
Prisoners were also used for martial arts practice, forced to have abortions if they fell pregnant, and lived on rodents and leaves.
The report also pointed to allegations that political prisoners were killed in medical experiments conducted to test the impact of chemical and biological weapons.
It said, however, that it was not in a position to verify the accuracy of such claims, nor those regarding medical experiments on hospitals for the disabled.
But it said it did have clear evidence that chemicals were forced into women’s vaginas to force abortions.
For those outside the camps, public executions and the fear of imprisonment were a tool to “terrorise” the population, whose daily life was marked by constant “surveillance, coercion, fear and punishment to preclude the expression of any dissent”, the report said.
It detailed the use of public executions with machine guns, with entire school classes brought to watch.
Another witness, Choi Young-hwa, was aged 16 when he saw a factory manager shot for “espionage” after dismal economic performance.
Factory workers were also taken to watch such slayings.