Shin Dong-hyuk said his earliest memory of life in a North Korean prison camp was the public execution that inmates were forced to watch when he was 5 years old. Inmates, he told a hushed audience here in Seoul on Tuesday, were so hungry that they devoured live rats and the raw hooves of a goat that prison guards had thrown away after slaughtering the animal.
One 7-year-old girl was clubbed to death for stealing a few grains of wheat, Mr. Shin said. He said he felt lucky when a warden ordered the tip of his finger chopped off, rather than having him executed, for the offense of damaging a piece of sewing equipment.
“We toiled as bid and ate what they gave us, we took their beating and starved when they didn’t give us anything,” said Mr. Shin, 31, who escaped the camp in 2005. “We were expendables they were keeping as beasts of labor, to get the most out of us before we die.”
Mr. Shin’s account on Tuesday was dramatic, but not particularly new; over the years, defectors from North Korea, including a handful of survivors of its prison camps like Mr. Shin, have told similar stories in interviews, at human rights conferences and in documentaries and memoirs. What made the accounts given by Mr. Shin and another defector unusual was their audience: the first United Nations panel established to investigate allegations of human rights violations by the North Korean government.
The three-member Commission of Inquiry was started by the United Nations Human Rights Council in March with a one-year mandate to investigate what the council called allegations of “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights,” including possible crimes against humanity, by the North Korean authorities.
The panel began five days of public hearings on Tuesday in a lecture hall at Yonsei University in Seoul. It hoped to interview 30 North Korean defectors, including some who fled the country only recently. Later this month, another round of hearings is scheduled for Japan, where the fate of Japanese citizens abducted and taken to North Korea decades ago remains a keen political and human rights concern.