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Haunting sketches show horror of North Korean prison camps

Trapped in cages built for animals. Beaten, chained and forced to stand in torturous poses. Left to subsist on snakes and rats.

The damning UN report on North Korea's crimes against humanity released Monday contains shocking allegations, but its message of misery is driven home even more powerfully by eight sketches drawn by a man who survived more than two years in Pyongyang's hell on Earth. The drawings, released as part of the 400-page report, lay bare the brutality of a regime that has practiced torture on its people, undeterred, for years.

"This was the first thing that I saw: there it said that 'if you run, you die,'" Kim Kwang-Il, the 48-year-old artist and one of some 300 witnesses the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights spoke to in compiling the report.

Kwang-Il's sketches offer a rare glimpse inside a prison camp, where photographs are forbidden. Some depict the torturous poses inmates are compelled to assume for hours at a time, under threat of beatings by chains and ropes.

"We are supposed to think there's an imaginary motorcycle and we are supposed to be in this position as if we are riding the motorcycle," he said, describing one such torture. "And for this, we pose as if we are airplanes ourselves. We are flying. And if we stand like this there’s no way that you can hold that position for a long time. You are bound to fall forward. Everybody in the detention center goes through this kind of torture," said Kwang-Il, who now lives in South Korea. 

Another heart-wrenching sketch shows a starving inmate trying to catch a rat. 

"Because we starved so much and did not have enough to eat, we would find snakes in street," said Kwang-Il, who now lives in South Korea. "How do you eat a snake in the street? But for us the first one to find it was the person who got to eat it. Everybody raced to catch those snakes and that’s because we were so starved."

The UN report castigated the Hermit Kingdom for its ruthless treatment of people, depicting a brutal nation "that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world."

“[C]rimes against humanity have been committed in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the state," the U.N.'s high commissioner on human rights stated in a report released Monday. "These crimes against humanity are ongoing because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their root remain in place."

Kwang-Il served 29 months in a North Korean labor camp after he was caught smuggling pine nuts across the border. Other survivors told the UN panel during its year-long investigation of conditions in the secretive communist dictatorship. One witness described how a female inmate gave birth inside a camp. When a guard heard the baby's cries, he beat the mother as a punishment. And when she begged him to let her keep the baby, he forced her to drown the newborn.

Experts say it is common for prisoners in North Korean camps to lose up to half their body weight, or starve to death altogether. Many who survive are permanently disfigured from being chained to walls for days or even weeks at a time. The cruel regime not only punishes those it brands as criminals or disloyal, it also imprisons and tortures members of that person's family and succeeding generations, according to those who made it out of Pyongyang's gulags alive..

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, estimate that more than 200,000 North Koreans are being held in camps similar to the one depicted in Kwang-Il's sketches. Other activist groups, like Open Doors USA, estimate that number to be even higher, reporting that the secretive nation has detained about 400,000 of its citizens -- many of them Christians. In North Korea, the practice of Christianity is illegal. Owning a Bible is a crime, and any person caught with one is sent – along with three generations of his or her family – to prison.

Pyongyang refused to cooperate with the investigation and denied the commission of inquiry access to North Korea. Last May, North Korea sent a letter saying it "totally and categorically rejects the Commission of Inquiry," said Michael Kirby, the chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay pressed Tuesday for North Korea to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) following the report.

"We now need strong international leadership to follow up on the grave findings of the Commission of Inquiry. I therefore call on the international community, in line with the report's recommendations, to use all the mechanisms at its disposal to ensure accountability, including referral to the International Criminal Court,'' Pillay said in a statement.

The depravity and misery depicted in Kwang-Il's sketches shows the lasting damage done to the hundreds of thousands still held in camps, and the few who survived to tell the world of what they endured and witnessed.

"Because we saw so many people die, we became so used to it," one survivor told the commission. "I'm sorry to say that we became so used to it that we didn't feel anything."