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N. Korea holds 200,000 political prisoners: watchdog

North Korea operates six political prison camps holding some 200,000 inmates who suffer frequent torture and beatings, South Korea's state human rights watchdog said Wednesday.

world Updated: Jan 20, 2010 12:47 IST

North Korea operates six political prison camps holding some 200,000 inmates who suffer frequent torture and beatings, South Korea's state human rights watchdog said Wednesday.

Some inmates are executed without trial, the National Human Rights Commission said in its first report on political prisoners in the communist country.

Seoul previously took a low-key approach so as not to anger Pyongyang. But conservative President Lee Myung-Bak, who took office in early 2008, has said he would not shy away from raising the subject.

The US State Department estimates that 150,000-200,000 North Koreans are held in political prison camps.

"North Korea frequently violates international norms on human rights, although it is obliged to protect and promote human rights and freedom as a United Nations member," the South Korean commission said.

It said its report was based on the testimony of 371 defectors, including 17 people formerly held in the camps.

The inmates include not only political opponents but Christians and refugees who were repatriated by China, it said.

Vitit Muntarbhorn, UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, said in Seoul last week that human rights conditions in North Korea remain dire and punishment of people who try to flee the country has become harsher.

More than 17,000 North Koreans have fled to the South since the end of the 1950-1953 war to escape hunger or repression.

Virtually all cross the border to China before trying to travel on to other nations so they can make their way to the South. China repatriates those refugees whom it catches as economic migrants.