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 has been spotlighted in a landmark report by a UN-mandated human rights panel, which says it’s time for regime officials to face international justice.
Its 400 pages are 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 are those from the “kwanliso” political prison camps, evoking the darkest chapters of world history.
“One of the witnesses from one of the camps told of how his duties included gathering up the bodies of those who had died of starvation and putting them in a pot and burning them,” said the commission’s chair, Australian former top judge Michael Kirby, on Monday.
The ex-inmate then took the ash and remaining body parts to be used as fertiliser in nearby fields.
“When you see that image in your mind of bodies being burned, and of parts of bodies, unfortunately it does bring back to those, certainly of my age, memories of the end of the Second World War,” the 74-year-old told reporters.
Barred by Pyongyang, the commission based its report on testimony from 320 North Korean exiles – dubbed “human scum” by Pyongyang.
It said 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.
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, 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 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.