In prisons, swift death for babies

James Brooke
The New York Times

SEOUL: On a cold March day, the bleak monotony of a North Korean prison work detail was broken when a squad of male guards arrived and herded women prisoners together. One by one, they were asked if they were pregnant.

"They took them away in a car, and then forcibly gave them abortion shots," Song Myung Hak, 33, a former prisoner, recalled in a recent interview about the day two years ago when six pregnant prisoners were taken from his work unit in the Shinuiju Provincial Detention Camp. "After the miscarriage shots, the women were forced back to work."

With more and more escapees from North Korea reporting that forced abortions and infanticide are the norm in North Korean prisons, the country's official Korean Central News Agency has denounced the charges as "a whopping lie."

In 2000 and 2001, China deported thousands of North Korean refugees, with many ending up in North Korean prison camps. People who later managed to escape again, to China and South Korea, say that prisoners who were discovered to be pregnant were routinely forced to undergo abortions. If babies were born alive, they say, guards forced prisoners to kill them.

Earlier defectors from North Korea say that the prohibition on pregnancy in its prisons dates back at least to the 1980s and that forced abortions or infanticide were the rule. Until recently, though, instances of pregnancy in the prisons were rare. China's deportations of thousands of illegal migrants from North Korea has resulted in a sharp increase in the number of pregnant women ending up in North Korean prisons. Defectors, male and female, are reviled as traitors and counterrevolutionaries when they are returned to North Korea. But women who have become pregnant, especially by Chinese men, face special abuse.

"Several hundred babies were killed last year in North Korean prisons," said Willy Fautre, director of Human Rights Without Borders, a private group based in Brussels.

Fautre said that over the last 18 months, he and his volunteers had interviewed 35 recent escapees from North Korean camps. Of the 35, he said, 31 said that they had witnessed babies killed by abandonment or by being smothered with plastic sheets.

"This is a systematic procedure carried out by guards and the people in charge of the prisons - these are not isolated cases," Fautre said in a phone interview. "The pattern is to identify women who are pregnant, so the camp authorities can get rid of the babies through forced abortion, torture or very hard labor. If they give birth to a baby alive, the general policy is to let the baby die or to help the baby die with a plastic sheet."

Lee Soon Ok, who worked as an accountant during her six years at Kaechon political prison, said in an interview that twice she saw prison doctors killing newborn babies, sometimes by stepping on their necks.

With virtually no medical care available for any prisoners, surgical abortions were not an option, she said. Lee, 54 and an economic researcher in Seoul, said: "Giving birth in prison is 100 percent prohibited. That is why they kill those babies."

The author of a book on her prison experiences, Lee has long campaigned to focus attention on North Korea's prison system. On May 2, she was one of three North Korean defectors who testified on human rights abuses in their homeland at a hearing in Washington of the House International Relations Committee. U.S. and South Korean food aid goes to about a third of North Korea's 22 million people.

As more and more accounts of infanticide are made public by former prisoners, North Korea has issued angry denials.

In January, the country's news service said charges by Human Rights Without Borders that "unborn and newly born babies are being killed in concentration camps" were "nothing but a plot deliberately hatched by it to hurl mud" at the North.

Since then, allegations of baby killing in North Korean prisons have increased. They were featured in February at a human rights conference on North Korea in Tokyo and in March were included for the first time in the State Department's annual human rights report. They were raised in April by European Union delegates to the annual session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, and in May a former North Korean prisoner testified before a House committee in the United States.

North Korea's mission to the United Nations did not return phone messages about the charges. But last month, at the UN conference on children in New York, the North Korean delegate said that his nation regarded each child as "king of the country."

Recent interviews with seven defectors now living in the Seoul area provided a detailed and different picture.

Except for Song, the recent defectors allowed publication of only their family names, which are common in both Koreas. These four said that they feared reprisals against relatives in the North. Two defectors, who escaped almost a decade ago after working in the prison camp system, allowed their full names to be used.

In her Seoul apartment, Lee, 64 and no relation to the accountant, said that she was still haunted by memories of prison after being deported from China in 2000.

The widow of a North Korean general, Lee recalled thinking that she had won an easy job in the clinic after arriving in June of 2000 at Pyongbuk Provincial Police Detention Camp. Then she said she saw a prison doctor administer injections to eight pregnant women to induce labor.

"The first time a baby was born, I didn't know there was a wooden box for throwing babies away," Lee recalled. "I got the baby and tried to wrap it in clothes. But the security people told me to get rid of it in the wooden box."

That day, she said, she delivered six dead babies and two live ones. She said she watched a doctor open the box and kill the two live babies by piercing their skulls with surgical scissors. The next day, she said, during a four-hour shift, she helped to deliver 11 dead babies from 20 pregnant women who had been injected to induce delivery. Between March and May of 2000, some 8,000 North Korean defectors, overwhelmingly women, were deported from China to North Korea during a crackdown on prostitution and forced marriages, according to D.K. Park, a retired UN worker who works with Human Rights Without Borders along the frontier between North Korea and China.

Another woman, Park, 41, no relation to the human rights worker, said that she was among those caught up in a Chinese sweep two years ago, ending up in a work camp in Onsong, North Korea. She was nine months pregnant at the time. "One day, they gave me a big injection; in about 30 minutes I went into labor," she said in her apartment south of Seoul. "The baby I delivered at the detention camp was already dead." As for babies born live in prison cells, defectors say, male guards threaten to beat women prisoners if they do not smother them.