WASHINGTON – Her father was tortured in detention in North Korea and died. Her elder sister went looking for food during the great famine of the 1990s, only to be trafficked to China. Her two younger brothers died of starvation: one of them was a baby without milk whose life ebbed away in her arms.
North Korean defector Jin Hye Jo tearfully told her family’s story to U.N. investigators at a hearing in Washington on Wednesday, the latest stop in the investigators’ probe of North Korea’s possible crimes against humanity.
The U.N. commission, led by Australian judge Michael Kirby, says the evidence gathered so far points to systematic and gross human rights violations. It is empowered to seek full accountability, although bringing perpetrators to justice remains a distant prospect.
North Korea’s authoritarian regime, which denies any rights abuses and political prison camps, isn’t cooperating and has denied access to the investigators.
Jin is one of two defectors testifying at the public hearing, held at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The three-member panel has received evidence from dozens of others in hearings held in South Korea, Japan and Britain. Kirby said it will present its final report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March.
On Thursday, experts were to testify about North Korea’s vast gulag, estimated to hold 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, and about access to food in the country, where hundreds of thousands perished in the 1990s famine, and child stunting remains widespread.
Among the commission’s various lines of inquiry, it is expected to probe the causes of the famine, and to what extent it was due to natural disasters — as the authoritarian regime of then-leader Kim Jong Il claimed — or mismanagement.
Jin, 26, who has lived in the United States since 2008 and runs a charity for North Korean defectors, scoffed at the suggestion that the food shortages were due to natural causes, claiming that government officials drive BMWs and drink exotic whiskies while children die.
She recalled how the shortages became very serious in 1996 and she would return from school feeling dizzy from hunger. Her parents made clandestine trips north to China to get food. But her father was arrested, and according to a fellow detainee, was beaten and killed, although authorities claimed he was shot trying to escape.
The family’s fortunes only got worse. In 1998, after Jin’s elder sister went missing, her mother went to China to try to locate the sister. Jin, then age 10, was left with her grandmother and two younger siblings to care for their newly born baby brother. Because of the father’s previous arrest, she said, the family was shunned by neighbors when they begged for food.
“My baby brother died in my arms because we had nothing to eat. Because I was holding him so much, he thought that I was his mom, so when I was feeding him water, he was sometimes looking at me, smiling,” Jin said, weeping.
She said her grandmother and her 5-year-old brother also starved. The remaining family members fled to China but were arrested several times and repatriated before finally gaining asylum in March 2008 with the help of Christian missionaries.
Rights activists criticize China for such deportations, saying it is a violation of a U.N. refugee convention it is a signatory to. China claims the North Koreans are economic migrants. Jin gave a detailed account of beatings and torture inflicted by security officials in both countries.
While the U.N. commission’s work has put a spotlight on the dire human rights conditions in North Korea, it is not yet clear what actions the world body could take to punish the North.
Even if the panel concludes that crimes against humanity have been committed, a referral to the International Criminal Court appears unlikely, as it would require the approval of the U.N. Security Council, where China has a veto.