South Korea's government-funded human rights watchdog has finally issued its first report on widespread abuses in North Korea. The report reflects a significant shift in South Korea's approach to Pyongyang.
The National Human Rights Commission report says the number of North Korean political prison camps has declined, but the number of people being detained in them is still high. Kim Hyung-wan, a policy director with the commission, says the camps began operating in the late 1950s, and there were 13 of them in 1970. After 1980, Kim adds, the number dropped to six camps, which currently are believed to hold 200,000 prisoners.
Human rights organizations say the North routinely incarcerates entire families for minor political infractions by one member, such as damaging a photo of leader Kim Jong Il, or humming a South Korean pop song.
The camps also punish those caught trying to leave North Korea, or who have been forcibly returned from China. Kim says around 2000, the punishments differed based on the motivation for defecting. However, he says over the past three years, the punishment for attempting to defect has grown harsher.
This is the first time the South Korean commission has reported on abuses North Koreans face in their own country. Kay Seok, a researcher in Seoul for Human Rights Watch, says such a report has been long awaited. "It is certainly one step in the right direction, and a welcome change," Kay said.