SEOUL — A new report on North Korea's notorious political prison camps shows that many of those jailed in recent decades were desperate people seeking food or work overseas rather than dissidents.
Other offences were even more trivial, it says: one female former student was serving a term for having a western-style dance with a foreigner, another student was incarcerated for singing a South Korean song.
An entire family was thrown into a camp after the father forgot to refer to the state's late founder Kim Il-Sung as "Great Leader" during an ideological session.
The report by the South's National Human Rights Commission, a state-appointed body, is its most detailed investigation of human rights abuses in the communist state.
Officials provided extracts to AFP this week before its upcoming release.
"It details the horrific situation of inmates," a commission official said.
The report is based on interviews with 834 refugees, including those once held in the six camps, which rights groups say house a total of around 200,000 "political" prisoners.
It lists the names of 278 people in the camps between the mid-1990s and 2005 and information on their offences.
"We hope this report will have the effect of checking and preventing human rights abuses in North Korea," Lee Yong-Ken, head of the commission's North Korea human rights team, told AFP.
Among the 278, about 60 prisoners -- the largest single category -- were being punished for fleeing the impoverished country in search of food and work abroad or for trying to escape to South Korea.
Twenty-seven of the inmates were ethnic Koreans who had settled in the North after moving from Japan.
Five people were imprisoned for Christian worship while 29 were "guilty by association" -- serving time because of alleged offences committed by family members.
About 30 were jailed for making critical comments about the regime, "defaming the dignity" of leaders, praising capitalism, disclosing state secrets or engaging in corruption.
Others were held on espionage charges or for their political beliefs.
According to a media report this week, the list includes one high-profile victim -- Sim Chol-Ho, a former vice minister of posts and telecommunications who was sent to the Yodok camp in 2001 for criticising intelligence authorities.
Sim was released 18 months later and in February this year was named a minister, according to the Korea JoongAng Daily citing the commission report.
It quoted a defector as saying Sim received about 200 grams (seven ounces) of corn powder every day in Yodok and was forced to eat grilled rats to survive.
Last month a group called the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea estimated that 400,000 inmates of the camps have died in the past few decades from starvation, overwork or execution.
The South Korean report quotes one woman as saying 3,721 inmates died from January to June in 2005 at the Jeungsan prison in South Pyongan province.
The South's rights watchdog under previous administrations took a low-key approach on its neighbour's human rights record to avoid jeopardising an aid and engagement policy towards Pyongyang.
But conservative President Lee Myung-Bak, who took office in early 2008 and abandoned the policy, has said he would not shy away from raising the subject.
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