Death of Two North Korean Prisoners Highlights Starvation Diets

Prisoners cut off from family visits due to coronavirus are going hungry.
2021-07-21
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Death of Two North Korean Prisoners Highlights Starvation Diets A prison camp in North Korea's South Pyongan province is shown in an undated photo.
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Two malnourished North Korean prisoners died in recent weeks, one dropping dead at work and the other beaten to death because she was too weak to do labor, said sources in the country who said coronavirus bans on family visits stopped inmates from supplementing meagre diets.

Prisoners are made to work all day and fed starvation rations, resulting in severe weight loss due to malnourishment, and eventual death by starvation.

“A male prisoner in his 50s collapsed and died while pulling weeds from a rice paddy last week,” a resident of South Pyongan province, near the North Korean capital Pyongyang, told RFA’s Korean Service July 16.

“Most prisoners are severely malnourished because the food they get these days is so little that it leaves them starving,” a said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

According to the South Pyogan source the man in his 50s was incarcerated at one of the country’s most notorious prisons, Prison No. 11 in Chungsan, where he toiled daily and was fed only 100 grams of boiled corn – a meal that provides 96 calories.

“Most prisoners have collapsed from malnutrition after the prison banned outside visitation due to the coronavirus. Before the pandemic, prisoners’ family members were allowed to visit them once a month and feed them more nutritious food. They were barely surviving then,” said the South Pyongan source.

“But now that family visits are banned, the prisoners are working hard to remove the weeds with their extremely emaciated bodies,” the South Pyongan source said.

If the prisoners skip work due to illness or fatigue, they miss out on their 100 grams of corn, so most never stop working regardless of how sick or tired they are, the South Pyongan source said.

“When it rains and they can’t work, the prisoners lie in their cells all day as if they were dead. With only bones and skin left, they are just breathing, and they look as miserable as dead bodies,” said the source.

“Prison No. 11 is one of the most notorious in the country. The prisoners are dying from hunger and overwork, but they and their families have no way to complain about it anywhere.”

Another source, a resident of the northeastern province of North Hamgyong, told RFA that a security officer beat a 31-year-old detainee to death in pre-trial detention in the provincial capital Chongjin.

“The woman who died was sent to a pre-trial detention center for watching a South Korean movie,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“She became so malnourished and weak that she did not move as quickly as directed and she was beaten to death by the security agent,” the second source said.

She had been caught two months earlier in a sweeping ideological crackdown under the recently passed Reactionary Idea and Culture Law, according to the North Hamgyong source.

“The security agent who killed her was a 24-year-old recruit who just graduated from the Political University and was newly assigned to the detention center,” the North Hamgyong source said.

“The woman’s body was buried in a nearby hill, and the security agent who killed her continues to work without having been punished. Nearby residents and detainees at the detention center are furious.”

The Seoul-based Korea Joongang Daily noted that the Reactionary Idea and Culture Law did not precisely define which acts and ideas could be called “reactionary” when it was passed in Dec. 2020.

RFA reported last week that the government made a list of reactionary activities, including what one source described as minor acts that authorities formerly tolerated.

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2019 human rights report, estimates of the North Korean prison population range between 80,000 and 120,000. This figure includes estimates for political prison camps, the existence of which North Korea denies.

A 2012 report by the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) said North Koreans who are sent to the various levels of the penal system--sometimes for very arbitrary reasons--endure brutal interrogations that include torture.

In addition to forced labor and starvation, they could be subject to torture, murder, extermination, rape… and “other inhumane acts committed knowingly in a systematic and widespread manner by state police agents operating on behalf of the state authority,” the report said.U.N Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights Tomás Ojea Quintana warned in a report in March that the closure of the Sino-Korean border and restrictions on the movement of people could bring on a “serious food crisis.”

“Deaths by starvation have been reported, as has an increase in the number of children and elderly people who have resorted to begging as families are unable to support them,” said the report.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimated in a recent report that North Korea would be short about 860,000 tons of food this year, about two months of normal demand.

Reported by Jieun Kim. Translated by Jinha Shin. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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