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Death by experiment

"Death by experiment" Continued...

Issue: "Johnny Carson: In memoriam," Feb. 5, 2005

As a result of the successful conclusion of the experiments, he received a medal and a commendation, and his career was put "more on a fast track," Mr. Cooper said. "Twenty-five years later, he showed absolutely no regrets or remorse, only saying, 'These were political prisoners who were considered criminals, and who were going to die anyway.'"

The second defector also described similar glass chambers used in the 1980s, in which officials threw down beaker-like glass vessels that broke and released a lethal substance.

While the three men Mr. Cooper interviewed are shy of public attention, other defectors tell about the horrors of Kim Jong Il's regime every chance they get. Soon Ok Lee was born in 1947 and went from the hearth of a model Korean Workers Party family to become an outspoken critic of the Communist regime.

Ms. Lee trained as an accountant and rose to become a supervisor of a center that distributed Chinese-manufactured fabrics for party officials. In 1986, she was ensnared in a power struggle between party officials and public security bureau police, who were unhappy over not receiving more fabric. Authorities arrested and charged her with theft and bribery, and shunted her from one prison camp to another before consigning her to a camp in Kaechon, South Pyong-an Province, where she was until 1992.

In that 6,000-prisoner camp, officials soon pulled her from the sewing lines to use her managerial experience, where she was able to observe camp operations more closely. Now a South Korean citizen, Ms. Lee does not speak English but has appeared at several U.S. human-rights events to protest the North's gulag. In April last year, she submitted testimony to Congress on chemical and biological experiments on humans she witnessed.

For one experiment, officials told her to hand out liquid-soaked cabbage in white buckets to 50 women. "After the women ate it, blood came out from their mouths and their rectums," she wrote. "It looked like something had exploded inside them. In just a few minutes, they were all kneeling and falling forward. The blood that came out of them went for five to six feet. There was pandemonium and screaming."

Officials did similar tests on other men and women, in all about three times a year, Ms. Lee said. Other experiments involved poisonous gas once or twice a year. Officials donned protective suits and threw what looked like paintballs on the ground, forcing 30 to 200 prisoners to walk through the gas they emitted. The prisoners fell over and cramped up.

Eventually the death toll from the experiments was killing off too many prisoners and hampering camp officials' ability to meet work quotas. When the director complained to the state security bureau, they sent a terse reply, Ms. Lee said: "'It is a Kim Jong Il directive: The chemical and biological weapons are needed for the battlefield. It is meaningless to conduct these experiments on animals.' The head of the camp was left speechless."

On the basis of such evidence, Congress passed the North Korea Human Rights Act last year, meant to punt human-rights abuses to a higher priority in diplomatic negotiations with the country. Even so, defectors' stories are only slowly diffusing into the West, and in the meantime an estimated 200,000 North Koreans languish in prison camps.

"We don't know how many people have been gassed, or how many have died," Mr. Cooper said. "We do know it's linked to weapons of mass destruction." As more defectors tell their stories, linking nuclear disarmament talks to human rights is becoming less a luxury and more an imperative.

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