UN investigators probing human rights abuses in North Korea have heard harrowing evidence in London from people who have managed to flee the secretive Stalinist regime.
Led by retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, the team is the first UN expert panel to officially investigate human rights abuses in North Korea.
The landmark UN rights commission heard from a handful of defectors who have reached Europe after similar hearings were held in Seoul and Tokyo.
Jihyuan Park, aged in her thirties, wept as she told how she managed to cross the border into China in 1998, only to be sold as a “wife” to a Chinese gambler and his family.
“The first thing they told me was that, since they’d bought me, they could do anything to me,” she told the panel through a translator.
Park, who fled North Korea after her soldier brother got in trouble for his business activities, gave birth to a son in China, but was then arrested and told she would be sent home without him.
Soon after, she heard her “husband” haggling with a trafficker over a price for the boy.
Park was sent back and, like other would-be defectors, placed in a detention camp and made to perform hard labour, but she eventually managed to return to China and find her son, who had not been sold to traffickers.
From there, she finally made her way to Britain, where she is now seeking citizenship.
Another defector, Song Ju Kim, told of his four attempts to flee North Korea because he “didn’t have any food”.
Famine killed hundreds of thousands of North Koreans during the 1990s, and millions still depend on food aid.
Kim told of how he was caught almost immediately by the Chinese army on his first attempt to cross the icy Tumen river in March 2006 and received a severe beating by the North Koreans, which he described as “below human”.
Kim described a detention centre where he witnessed terrible beatings, was ordered to search through prisoners’ excrement for money they were believed to have swallowed, and where inmates were not allowed to stand up.
Pyongyang has refused to grant the UN commission access to the country and has described the dozens of defectors who have given evidence as “human scum”.
Two days of further hearings are due to be held in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday next week.