Wednesday, 28 Feb 2024

North Korean jail tails tell of possible fate of US army defector Travis King

US soldier Travis King is understood to be in North Korea after illegally crossing the border during a visit to the demilitarised zone with South Korea.

North Korea has said King, 23, fled because he was sick of “discrimination” in the army and had become “disillusioned”.

State media outlet KCNA claimed that the private has since admitted to crossing the border illegally and claimed he wanted refuge in the country.

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The country claims that he fled "inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination” on July 18 but since then has not been seen or heard from.

Concerns about his welfare have been growing, and despite the unverified rhetoric coming from North Korea about his detention, the country has a brutal track record when it comes to incarceration.

Reports about the horrors of the country’s pretrial detention system are the stuff of nightmares, with human rights charities pleading for raised awareness.

Former detainees have described to Human Rights Watch the realities of being in the system.

The organisation published a report: ‘Worth Less Than an Animal’: Abuses and Due Process Violations in Pretrial Detention in North Korea, which platforms the voices of survivors of the system.

The organisation's Asia director Brad Adams said that: “North Korea’s pretrial detention and investigation system is arbitrary, violent, cruel, and degrading.

“North Koreans say they live in constant fear of being caught in a system where official procedures are usually irrelevant, guilt is presumed, and the only way out is through bribes and connections.”

It is reported that once an investigation is started it is highly unlikely one could avoid short-term or long-term unpaid forced labour.

Accounts from the survivors say they were made to spend days sitting on the floor, either knelt or with their legs crossed, hands on laps and with their heads down.

Movement would be met with collective punishment for the entire group.

People are given numbers instead of their names and understood to be regarded as lower than the guards, and therefore unworthy of eye contact.

A former soldier, inmate and now defector said: “If we moved, we were punished by standing and sitting, doing push-ups, abdominals, or holding onto the metal bars”.

Accounts claim beatings are common, with heads pushed into bars and fingers hit as they stuck out of cells.

“If they were really upset, they’d come into the cell and beat us,” the defector added.

“This happened every day, if not in our cell in the others, we could hear it, it was to maintain tension.… There were times I was almost about to give up on life.…

“ While I was there, more than 50 detainees disappeared [into the political prison camp system].”

Cells are reported to have been overcrowded and food scarce, with space to sleep on the floor inadequate for the number of people present.

Blankets, soap and menstrual hygiene products were hard to come by and bedbugs and fleas were rife.

A former government worker turned defector told HRW of his imprisonment after a bid to escape: “They just beat me up for 30 minutes, they kicked me with their boots, and punched me with their fist, everywhere on my body.

“As the questioning went on, I found out that I had been reported as a spy. Violent beatings and hitting were constant in the beginning of [the preliminary examination] questioning for one month.”

They added: “It was winter, but there was no heating. There was only one small wood heater right in front of us, next to the guard.

“It was so cold … and nobody knew where we were, so we couldn’t get anything from outside.

“It was really cold, but it was worse because there were so many bedbugs and other bugs that bit you.”

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