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Defectors Say North Korea's Human Rights Situation Worsening

A group of prominent North Korean defectors has told the U.S. Congress that North Korea's human rights situation has worsened in recent years. They say tens of thousands of North Koreans held in political prison camps have little food or water and face torture and abuse.

A recent U.S. State Department report on human rights in North Korea estimated that the government is holding 150,000 to 200,000 people in political prison camps. It said prison conditions were harsh, prisoners were tortured and some women underwent forced abortions.

Former North Korean prisoner Kim Tae Jin, who spent four years in such a camp before escaping to South Korea in 2001 is now a leading pro-democracy activist.

"I am actually a living testimony to the horror and pain they [prisoners] have to go through," he said.

Kim told a congressional hearing in Washington Thursday most political prisoners in North Korea are jailed for having a religion or because family members were accused of crimes.

He says that from day one, he and other prisoners got a minimum amount of food and did not have water fit for human consumption. Kim says he only was allowed to drink water dripping from a toilet and had to use the same water to wash his dishes.

U.S.-based human rights groups say North Korea's government also deprives its people of almost all political and civil liberties.

Choi Zoo Hwal is a former North Korean military colonel who defected to South Korea in 1995. He told U.S. lawmakers that few North Koreans dare to oppose the government because they see it as a divine authority.

"There is no freedom to choose jobs, the place to live in or the freedom of religion whatsoever in North Korea," he said. "And North Korean residents have to live under horrendous supervision and control."

The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution on North Korea last month deploring what it called widespread rights abuses in the reclusive country. North Korea's delegation rejected the accusation.

Another North Korean defector, Kim Seung Min said the United States could improve the situation by supporting a radio station like his, that informs North Koreans about conditions in and outside the country.

He says North Korea has tried to jam signals from his station, Free North Korea Radio, since it began broadcasting from Seoul five years ago.

He says the station is undaunted, because it believes North Koreans should have access not only to food, but also freedom of thought, or "mental food" as he calls it.

The North Korean defectors urged the U.S. to back a South Korean group that sends leaflets into the North by balloon calling for the ouster of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong il.

South Korea's government has appealed to the activists to stop, saying the leaflets have inflamed relations with Pyongyang. But Seoul says it cannot ban the campaign.

North Korea says it is intensifying its investigation of a South Korean worker detained by the regime at a joint industrial complex just north of the border.

A statement issued Friday by the North Korean office overseeing the complex at Kaesong says the worker, identified as Yu Song-jin, "malignantly slandered" the regime's "dignified system." The statement says an unidentified agency is conducting a "deep-going investigation" into the case.

Yu Song-jin was detained by North Korean authorities on March 30 after allegedly making derogatory comments against Pyongyang. He is also suspected of trying to convince a North Korean woman to defect.

South Korea has repeatedly demanded Yu be released. Unification Minister Hyun In-taek issued a statement Tuesday saying the case will have important consequences for the future development of the joint venture.

Seoul also says Yu's detention amounts to a violation of human rights. But North Korea warned Friday there would be serious "consequences" if South Korea continued to raise the issue.

The Kaesong industrial park opened in 2005 as a symbol of reconciliation between the two Koreas. But the relationship has worsened since President Lee Myung-bak took office last February. Mr. Lee has made South Korean aid to the North contingent on Pyongyang's concrete progress toward nuclear disarmament.

North Korea has cut official contact with the South and restricted border crossings. Relations between the two sides grew more tense after the North launched a rocket on April 5.

Pyongyang also has announced that it wants to review contracts and wages at Kaesong.