South Korea's government-funded human rights watchdog has issued its first report on widespread abuses in North Korea. The report reflects a significant shift in South Korea's approach to Pyongyang.
The National Human Rights Commission report issued Wednesday says the number of North Korean political prison camps has declined, but the number of people being detained in them is still high.
Kim Hyung-wan, a policy director with the commission, says the camps began operating in the late 1950s, and there were 13 of them in 1970. After 1980, Kim adds, the number dropped to six camps, which currently are believed to hold 200,000 prisoners.
Human rights organizations say the North routinely incarcerates entire families for minor political infractions by one member, such as damaging a photo of leader Kim Jong Il, or humming a South Korean pop song.
The camps also punish those caught trying to leave North Korea, or who have been forcibly returned from China.
Kim says around 2000, the punishments differed based on the motivation for defecting. However, he says over the past three years, the punishment for attempting to defect has grown harsher.
This is the first time the South Korean commission has reported on abuses North Koreans face in their own country. Kay Seok, a researcher in Seoul for Human Rights Watch, says such a report has been long awaited.
"It is certainly one step in the right direction, and a welcome change," Kay said.
The report reflects South Korea's willingness to confront the North publicly on human rights issues since the inauguration of conservative President Lee Myung-bak two years ago.
The government-funded commission remained silent on North Korean human rights under two prior South Korean administrations, which had a policy of engaging Pyongyang and avoided openly criticizing it.
Seok points out during those years, the commission said what went on in North Korea was beyond its mandate.
"Which actually conflicts with the fact that the South Korean government has been accepting and resettling North Korean refugees all along … under the South Korean constitution, which defines the entire Korean peninsula as the South's territory. So their logic was not very convincing," Kay said.
Wednesday's report comes on the second day of North-South talks, and amid new tensions. A few days ago, Pyongyang responded to reports of a South Korean contingency plan for instability in the North with threats of what Pyongyang described as a "holy war."
And on Wednesday, the South's defense minister said the South would be ready to preemptively strike North Korea if it were certain that Pyongyang was about to launch a nuclear attack.