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North Korea's Prisons 'As Terrible Or Even Worse' Than Nazi Camps


The political prisons in North Korea are, quote, "as terrible or even worse than Nazi concentration camps." That's from someone who knows firsthand. Thomas Buergenthal survived Auschwitz and another camp as a child. Buergenthal co-authored a report out this past week for the International Bar Association on conditions in those prisons. It found plenty of evidence to charge North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for crimes against humanity. And please note that for younger listeners, there are graphic descriptions of violence in our conversation. Judge Thomas Buergenthal joins us now. Welcome to the program.

THOMAS BUERGENTHAL: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you learn about the conditions in the North Korean camps?

BUERGENTHAL: First of all, of course, we were not surprisingly not allowed to go to North Korea. So we had to depend on some other defectors who came from there and also some very reliable reports. And at the same time, what we did in doing our work initially is to do it in a way as if we were judges sitting at a trial. So we had lawyers who acted as prosecutors who provided some additional evidence.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, what did they tell you about the conditions inside the camp?

BUERGENTHAL: Basically, that they were terrible. They were so terrible, also, in terms of what we found out, particularly from the defectors, that that's why I made the statement I made, which was that I thought it was as bad or possibly worse than what I knew. In terms of some of the stories we were told, there were things that I hadn't even heard of in the camps.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you give me an example?

BUERGENTHAL: Well, for example, there was one case that really got to me. Sometimes, the guards will impregnate women. If the woman gets pregnant, they, of course, want to get rid of the fetus. So what some of the techniques they used - they put a board on her stomach and jump on it until the fetus is dead. Now that's something, to me, that is most shocking than anything I was familiar with.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the role of these camps in the North Korean regime?

BUERGENTHAL: The - most of them are political prisoners whom the government believes, in some ways, critical of the government. They sometimes received from other people - somebody reported them for saying something. But what is so interesting or sad or terrible - they not only arrest the person that is the supposedly guilty person. They arrest three generations of their family and put them in the camp. And the chances of anybody ever getting out is very slim.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Since you've brought up your own connection to Nazi concentration camps, I'd just like to ask you briefly for what your experience was so that our listeners can understand your own personal connection to that.

BUERGENTHAL: Well, first of all, I am one of the youngest, if not the youngest, survivor of Auschwitz. I was 10 years old in Auschwitz. I had initially been in the ghetto and then in Auschwitz. And from there, I went on the death march out of Auschwitz, when the Russians - troops approached to another camp - Sachsenhausen. And then I was liberated in 1945. And at that point, I was just turning to be 11 years old.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sir, what has been the reaction from North Korea to this report?

BUERGENTHAL: What I've seen, you know - I've, of course, read some articles. And some of their newspapers were reporting that, of course, they were denying everything. Apparently, the North Korean ambassador to the U.N. made a statement that this was - he adopted our new words fake news, et cetera. You know, they said it wasn't true. It's all paid for or whatever.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you hope will happen now that this report has been made public? I mean, what can be done?

BUERGENTHAL: Well, you know, ideally, of course, one would hope that the report would go to the Security Council and that the Security Council would adopt some binding resolutions. The problem is that one can, of course, assume that Russia and China or one of them will veto their resolution. So there's really no chance of getting it from there to the International Criminal Court, where it really belongs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The North Korean ambassador - as you mentioned, to the United Nations - said that these reports are not helpful in this tense situation between the U.S. and North Korea. What do you think?

BUERGENTHAL: The truth of the matter is that we have a terrible situation between the U.S. and North Korea. Ideally, there will be some diplomatic talking point about what's going on. But I don't see that this is - any way affects things one way or the other. The North Koreans have really been negotiating recently. And President Trump even announced that our secretary of state shouldn't be wasting his time to be negotiating with them. So I don't see either side, at this time, willing to negotiate. But I think you should keep in mind, we - it is important that the truth come out. And maybe that'll have some impact on improving the situation of the prisoners there. That is what I am interested in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Judge Thomas Buergenthal, thank you very much for joining us.

BUERGENTHAL: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.