In a café in Seoul, South Korea, Chun Ji Seung explained he was desperately sorry for what he had done. He was tall for a North Korean, a member of the well-fed elite that knew little of the starvation of millions in the closed nation. With that privilege, he applied his training in chemistry to test poisonous gases, gases the Kim Jong Il regime eventually tested on humans.
The 31-year-old Mr. Chun-whose name is an alias-said such experiments were conducted as recently as 2002, when he escaped to the South. Similar accounts have trickled out over the last decade, but his is the latest piece in a still-murky picture of testing related to developing weapons of mass destruction. His story emerged when Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, traveled to Seoul last November and spent 10 hours interviewing three defectors who conducted such research at the behest of the Kim Jong Il regime.
The latest revelations are significant as the United States works to cajole North Korea and four other partners back to the table in six-way nuclear disarmament talks. Conceding that the United States had presented it with clear evidence of North Korea's nuclear plans, Beijing officials hinted last week that they may reverse their own stand. China has long supported North Korea's contention that it has no enriched uranium, a dispute at the heart of the negotiations, effectively stalling any progress to end the WMD threat on the peninsula. With each new round of defectors and news of WMD programs, it becomes harder for North Korea to hold its strained position at the talks.
At a Washington press conference Mr. Cooper divulged what he had learned from the meetings with Mr. Chun. The young defector was the most nervous one he interviewed, terrified that North Korean authorities would discover his identity and retaliate against him and his family. He has refused to give any media interviews.
Mr. Chun explained that in 1994 he was a chemistry student at one of North Korea's top research institutions. Before he graduated, the government drafted him to work on two teams that were researching gassings-untraceable types that might have been useful for assassinations, others that brought almost instant death, and still more whose length of effects needed further study.
He was a member of Team A, which performed experiments exclusively on animals. When the results were successful, he said, Team B would step in and copy the tests-this time on humans. Team B members recorded their results matter-of-factly on a large chart under the animal findings.
Authorities shifted the teams from urban to rural areas frequently so they would not attract too much attention from the locals. That would have been likely, Mr. Chun said, because members were well-fed and clothed. When his team's research was successful, Mr. Cooper said, it became a "death warrant for political prisoners."
The one bright spot in Mr. Chun's story is the apparent desire he and some of his superiors have to expose the horror. "This young man fled North Korea in 2002 with the knowledge and assistance of a supervisor in this program, and what he described as a few senior members of the military," Mr. Cooper said. "Chun told me that these individuals had helped him to escape because they wanted the outside world to know what was going on."
Tim Peters is one of the Seoul activists who helped arrange Mr. Chun's meeting with Mr. Cooper. He directs Helping Hands Korea, a nonprofit that helps refugees from the North. Mr. Peters told WORLD he sees even more encouraging signs: "During the course of the interview he revealed what I considered the key explanation for his conscience-and a truly remarkable fact for anyone inside the North-that his mother was a Christian. I say 'remarkable' because virtually all North Korean refugees will say that there are no Christians inside the country."
The other two defectors Mr. Cooper interviewed were older and more callous. They were primary sources in a BBC documentary called "Access to Evil," which last year broke the news of North Korea's gas chambers. The first was a 55-year-old chemist who helped to supervise the gassing of two political prisoners in 1979 at a high-level camp.
Each prisoner was in a glass-enclosed chamber, one of four housed in a building at the camp. The chemist and others on his team were able to watch the prisoners through the glass and hear them scream through a two-way audio hook-up. He told Mr. Cooper that the first died after two and a half hours, while the second lingered an hour longer.
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.