February 17, 2006

N.Korean cheerleaders sent to prison camp: defector

SEOUL (Reuters) - Some North Korean cheerleaders who took
part in athletic events in the South have been jailed at a
prison camp after returning home, a survivor of another camp
said on Friday, quoting recent defectors from the communist

Twenty-one young women were accused of revealing their
experience in the South against a code of silence to which they
swore, said Kang Chol-hwan, who himself escaped the North in
1992, quoting North Korean defectors now in China.

Kang is the author of the book "The Aquariums of Pyongyang"
about his own experience of torture and forced labor in a North
Korean prison camp.

He had a personal audience with U.S. President George W.
Bush last year during which they discussed human rights abuses
in the North.

"I heard that the women violated the oath not to disclose
what they saw and heard in the South," Kang quoted one of the
defectors who had served in the camp as saying in an article he
wrote for the major daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo.

Authorities could not verify the report.

The group of cheerleaders grabbed attention in South Korea
last year at an Asian athletics event near Seoul with their
precision choreography and endless smiles.

The camp in Taehung had been known to hold financial
criminals but more recently began taking political prisoners,
Kang later said by telephone. The camp is located in rugged
mountains in the northeastern part of North Korea.

Kang quoted another North Korean defector as saying the
cheerleaders were picked from elite college graduates and
propaganda troops.

North Korea is one of the world's most reclusive states
where, human rights groups say, violations are rampant.

Survivors of prison camps have given testimony about
torture, relentless propaganda sessions, forced labor and in
some instances biological testing on live human beings.