Focusing on Human Rights

Omestad, Thomas
September 2004
Nieman Reports;Fall2004, Vol. 58 Issue 3, p107
This article describes interviews with the political prisoners who survived the life inside North Korea's gulag by a writer who covers diplomacy and international news for U.S. News & World Report. The U.S. News & World Report conducted a months-long probe into the secret world of the North Korean political prisons. More than 200,000 North Koreans are believed to be held in political prisons, and some 400,000 have perished there over the years, according to U.S. and South Korean officials and human rights activists. Some survivors were reluctant to talk, I was warned. And yet, most of those whom I met with seemed eager to tell their stories. They conveyed a sense of mission: to bear witness to what they have experienced and seen. Talking with them, in some respects, was similar to interviewing victims of savage crimes anywhere. As they described the torture sessions, some survivors showed moments of great emotion. But more often, I was struck by the deadpan recollections of torture methods and details of camp life. Lee Young Kook, a man who once served as bodyguard for Kim Jong II, rolled up his pants to show me the grayish-brown scars on his right leg, a remnant of blows from long wooden sticks. Despite the fact that international news covers rarely sell well, the editors thought that the poignancy of the story and the depth of depravity, along with the importance of North Korea as a security issue, together justified making it a cover story. topic. I was told by a U.S. senator a few weeks later that the story was seen by a number of lawmakers and influenced their views as they considered new legislation on admitting North Korean refugees to the United States.


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