SEOUL—He’s written a book about growing up in one of North Korea’s most brutal prison camps, but press him for details and Shin Dong Hyuk speaks haltingly and reluctantly.
After writing Escape to the Outside World, “I thought I had rid myself of my scars—I felt uplifted, as if I’d gotten a big burden off my chest,” Shin said in an interview here. Even his nightmares stopped.
“The meaning of my book goes beyond my personal life experience. It’s about escaping Camp No. 14 and coming out into the real world, and the message it sends is that all prison camps must disappear.”
“My book is rather dreary, and I wish it had been somehow brighter,” he said ruefully when it was first published earlier this year.
Some were sympathetic, and others thought things described in the book were hard to believe."
Shin Dong Hyuk
Shin was born in 1982 in North Korea's Camp No. 14 in Kaechon, South Pyongan province, north of Pyongyang. North Korea uses guilt by association to keep the public in line, human rights groups say. Shin's father was sent to the camp because his relatives had escaped to the South.
A few inmates of Camp No. 15, in Yodok, have fled to South Korea after being released. A South Korean musical that traveled to the United States, "Yodok Story," describes life in the camp, which is charged with "re-educating" and then releasing offenders.
Shin is the first North Korean known in the West to have escaped from a prison camp, and his life was spent in the grimmest of circumstances: a total-control zone, where inmates are put to work until death.
From birth, Shin said, the prison camp was all he knew. He had never even heard of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital just 90 kms (55 miles) south, or of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
As a reward for being a model prisoner, his father was allowed to marry another inmate selected for him by guards, Shin said.
At 14, Shin was forced to watch as guards executed his mother and 22-year-old brother for trying to escape. During the months he and his father spent in a special section reserved for torturing inmates, guards beat and severely burned him because he belonged to the same family.
This is the least I can do to repay the fellow prisoners who saved my life, kept me alive, and helped me escape."
Shin Dong Hyuk
And yet he found, and remembers, moments of unique humanity—such as an elderly man who gave his own meager rations to the much younger Shin when they two men found themselves together in a special area for the worst political offenders.
'Pity the children'
Shin was sent to work in a factory as he reached middle-school age, and his book describes in detail the deaths of numerous child laborers in work-related accidents—and how they ate mice to quash the hunger pangs in their stomachs.
“More than adults, I pity children born in the camp most of all. I also identify with those children, because I was one of them,” he said.
“They’re allowed to live with their parents until they’re about 11, and then from age 12 on they have to live in the school dormitory. Knowing that’s the only life they have breaks my heart.”
“Children are forced to inform on their parents, parents on their children, neighbors on the people next door. If the wife has done something wrong, the husband has to report it before the people sitting in the same social re-education and integration class do, or else both spouses would be accused of covering up their perceived shortcomings and subsequently face punishment.”
“The crafts instructor teaches the students how to work. Once they reach middle-school age, children begin to work, and they keep working until they complete 6th grade. After graduation, they work in coal mines or in the fields, while living in dormitories attached to their workplaces. If they work so hard and so well that they receive recognition, they are granted leave, which means that they are allowed to go home and sleep there overnight.”
Resettling in the South
According to human rights groups, North Korea’s Stalinist regime maintains numerous prison camps for “political crimes.” It also uses public executions to intimidate its own people into backing the government, which demands the cult-like worship of Kim Jong Il.
Shin fled through a brutal stretch of barbed wire into China in 2005, leaving behind a fellow inmate who was trapped in the wire, presumably executed when guards found him there.
He ultimately bribed his way into South Korea in 2006. Resettled in the South, Shin now works to help effect change in his native country as part of the nongovernmental Center for Information on Human Rights in North Korea.
“I discuss with other defectors our possible role in bringing democracy to North Korea. We also consult with American NGOs. Our work aims to try to educate people living inside North Korea, to help them learn how to think for themselves, gather their strength, and stand up for their rights,” he said.
He has other goals too—ordinary by South Korean standards but inconceivable in the life he left behind.
“Life in the camp was terrible. When I was still in the camp, I often thought, if I died here, my father’s lineage would be extinct,” he said. “But now that I’m in South Korea, I would like to make good money, get married, and have children. All I want is to have a normal life, like all other people living in South Korea.”
“Your greatest hope, inside the camps, is to get married,” he said. “Up to the time I escaped, I knew only one person who earned recognition and was allowed to get married. Obtaining permission to get married was very, very difficult.”
Brides and grooms in the North Korean camps aren’t told whom they will marry until the day they wed, he said. Then camp officers permit them a honeymoon of five consecutive nights together—after which they are separated to live in dormitories annexed to their workplaces.
Now, he said, he wants to publish a new edition of his book in English to highlight the plight of North Korea’s political prisoners—elements of which, he said, many South Koreans find simply too grisly to believe.
“My wish is that an English translation of my book play a role, no matter how minimal that role might be, in the abolition of political prison camps in North Korea,” Shin said.
“Three thousand copies of my book were printed in Korean, and the readers’ reactions were mixed. Some were sympathetic, while others thought things described in the book were hard to believe,” he said.
“This is more than a personal issue, or a Korean issue. This has to do with breaching human rights, and therefore it is an international issue. If my book is published in English, the people of the world will be reminded of the existence of political prison camps in North Korea.”
“If the world knows about the camp and if this improves the situation of the people inside, this is the least I can do to repay the fellow prisoners who saved my life, kept me alive, and helped me escape,” he said.
Original reporting by Jung Young and JM Noh for RFA’s Korean service. Acting service director: Francis Huh. Additional editing by Soo-Il Chun. Translated for the Web in English by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.