A criminal fate in North Korea

By Rosie Scammell

Shin Dong-Hyuk is the only known person born in a North Korean prison camp to escape. On Tuesday night he told a packed audience that they must help the 200,000 remaining:

“The first thing that I remember being told by the prison guard was that we were supposed to be dead a long time ago, but we were very lucky to have been granted another chance to live,” said Shin.

While information from the outside world has gradually filtered into North Korea, Shin was kept in ignorance, and felt no resentment:

“My fate was to live the life of a criminal, forever. I was never taught about the life outside of the prison camp, and the world in my thoughts consisted only of prison guards and prisoners.”

Journalist Blaine Harden, whose book Escape from Camp 14 tells Shin’s story, spoke of the “hideous cruelty” endured by Shin:

“His body is a map of the stories he tells. He was burnt on his back when he was 13, and has terrible scars. His legs are terribly scarred from electrical burns when he escaped through an electrical fence when he was 23. His middle finger is cut off, from when he dropped a sewing machine and was punished.”

The camps are used as “an instrument of terror”, Harden said, but also serve a second purpose:

“His parents were selected by the guards to breed, and he was bred very much like a farm animal, to be a slave in the camp. This is a story of a systematic dehumanisation that Shin brings to the world that no-one else has told.”

Shin’s upbringing by the guards was so carefully orchestrated that at the age of 13, he told them of his mother and brother’s talk of escape. The family were kept in an underground prison for seven months, before Shin’s mother was hung and his brother shot dead, in the execution ground he had first been taken at the age of four:

“When his mother was hung, she tried to catch his eye, and he refused to look at her,” Harden said, “He was angry with her because he thought she had betrayed him by talking about escape, by violating the camp rules – the only code of behaviour that he ever knew.”

It was only after crossing the North Korean border that Shin began to understand – and feel guilty about – the decision.

Shin said that while he is much better off physically since leaving Camp 14, he is under much greater stress mentally. He has learnt about the world’s history, and said he saw North Korea’s future at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

In publishing Escape from Camp 14, Shin hopes he can promote action that sets aside diplomatic spats:

“My wish is that this time the international community can prevent further genocide from happening. When I give interviews and talks like this, I have nightmares for about a week afterwards. But I feel that this is the only thing that I can do to help them.”