Among the North Korean defectors testifying to the U.N. Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights in North Korea on Thursday was Kim Hyuk, 32, who at the age of seven after his mother’s death became a “ggotjebi” ― the North Korean term for street children, mostly orphans, who beg, scavenge and steal to survive.
As children began to die in the streets, Kim said special police units were set up to round up all the ggotjebi and send them to shelters and orphanages, where many still died of starvation. “There was no food at all,” Kim said of the orphanage where he spent three years. “Just powdered corn husk which left you constipated. I caught and ate lizards, snakes, rats and grass.”
Of the 75 children in the orphanage, 24 died. “The officials said it was due to disease, but it was malnourishment. They became too weak to walk. Their bodies were buried in the backyard,” Kim said.
Kim ran away but was then arrested for making smuggling runs across the border with China and served 20 months in a re-education camp where the conditions were as bad as the orphanage. “There were 24 of us who entered the camp on the same day. Only two survived,” he said.
Released from prison, Kim sneaked across the Tumen (or Apnok) River into China in December 2000 and arrived the following year in Seoul, where he now lectures on his experiences on behalf of the Unification Ministry.