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Escape from a North Korean Prison Camp

Updated on December 30, 2020
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I enjoy writing on a wide range of topics, including science, history, social issues and much more.

Witness Number One: Shin Dong-Hyuk
Witness Number One: Shin Dong-Hyuk | Source

North Korea Today

North Korea regularly makes it into the headlines with updates on its missile program and nuclear bomb tests. A far more pressing issue would be the brutal oppression of its people by the Kim dynasty and, in particular, North Korea's prison camps. While the regime has always denied the existence of these camps, satellite pictures have long shown evidence of extensive labor camps throughout the country where some 200,000 are imprisoned under gruesome conditions. Due to the country's isolation very few personal testimonies leak out from reclusive North Korea. One of these stands out as the only (known) testimony coming from an escapee who was born inside a camp.

An Unfortunate Place to Be Born

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in 1982 at Kaechon internment camp Kwalliso no. 14 out of a so-called 'reward marriage', i.e. a male and female prisoner who due to good behaviour were allowed to sleep together for a couple of nights. Being a prisoner in North Korea doesn't mean you're a criminal. Minor offences against the state suffice to lock you up in a camp for life and punish your family for generations to come. In our case Shin's crime consisted of being the son of a man whose brother had fled to South Korea in the 1950s.

Not the latest technology
Not the latest technology | Source

Life Inside the Camp

Treatment of prisoners in North Korea's camps is so cruel that Shin didn't establish affectional bonds with his mother and brother whom he mainly saw as competitors for the insufficient food rations. He seldom saw his father who lived in another part of the camp.

In North Korea's camps all the time inmates are dying of starvation, disease, torture or work accidents. Prisoners, including children, are regularly beaten to thwart off any disobedience against camp rules. For the same purpose inmates are forced to watch public executions on a regular basis. The first camp rule is that escapees are shot without warning. It goes by itself that any escape attempt must be immediately reported.

Spying for the Bad Guys

When Shin was 13 he overheard his mother and brother planning an escape attempt and promptly reported it to the guards, hoping to be rewarded for good behaviour. Instead he was suspected to be part of the plot and tortured as the guards tried to get more information out of him. After months of isolation he was sent back to the main camp blindfolded together with his father, only to witness the public execution of his mother who was hanged and of his brother who was shot.

Being brainwashed from childhood, at the time Shin thought they had received the right punishment for their behaviour. When he himself accidentally broke a sewing machine and part of his right middle finger was cut off as punishment, Shin was just thankful for not being executed.

POW camp: It would get worse
POW camp: It would get worse | Source

Dreaming of Freedom

Later in the textile factory Shin met Park, an official who had fallen out of favour with the regime and who had travelled outside North Korea. He told him about the world outside, the freedom to move, an invention called TV, a huge nearby country getting rich, all things Shin had no idea of and that made him curious. But what appealed most to him about Park's stories and what he was really thrilled about was the prospect of having available all the food he desired. Having suffered from hunger throughout his entire life, plenty of food sounded like real freedom. Shin and Park began planning their escape using Shin's inside knowledge of the camp and Park's knowledge of the outside world.

The Escape

Finally the opportune time came while they were assigned a work unit to collect firewood on a mountain ridge near the border camp. Observing the long intervals between the patrol guards Shin and Park decided it was the right moment for their escape. Unfortunately Park was electrocuted while climbing the electrical fence and died there, but Shin managed to surpass the fence using Park's body as a shield to ground the current. Now Shin, for the first time ever outside the camp, was to go it alone. He broke into a nearby farm and stole an old uniform which allowed him not to be immediately recognized as an escapee. Through cunning and luck Shin survived by stealing food and eventually reached the border to China. Shin passed it by bribing destitute guards with cigarettes and food. After working some time in China Shin eventually made it to the West.

A Plea to End North Korea's Camps

Today he lives in South Korea as a human rights activist campaigning for the eradication of North Korea's prison camps. In 2013 he testified before the first UN commission inquiring human rights abuses in North Korea where he was referred to as 'witness number one'.

Shin is also the subject of the biography ' Escape from camp 14 - one man's remarkable odyssey from North Korea to freedom in the West', written by former Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden.

Though today free and having plenty of food Shin finds it hard to adapt to the new life. Understandably he still suffers psychologically from what he went through. While he is, in his own words, gradually evolving from an animal into a human, he is plagued by guilt because of how he behaved towards his mother and brother.

Shin also wrote an open letter to former NBA star Dennis Rodman who visited North Korea on diverse occasions and who considers the countries current leader Kim Jong Un his friend.

Help the people of North Korea by supporting human rights NGOs and spreading the word about the atrocities of the North Korean regime!

Shin Alters His Story (January 2015)

In an interview in early 2015 Shin suddenly admitted parts of his previous story were inaccurate. On January 17, 2015 the Washington Post published an article detailing the changes. Now Shin says, although he was born in camp 14, at age 6 he was transferred to camp 18 together with his mother and brother. It actually was there, and not in camp 14, that he overheard their escape plan and later had to watch their execution. Shin furthermore now says to have escaped from camp 18 twice, the first time in 1999 being caught after a few days, the second time in 2001 aged 19 when he managed to escape to China for the first time. There he was caught by the police after four months and sent back to North Korea. He was then sent to the more draconian camp 14 where he was tortured as punishment for his escape. It was then that guards mangled one of his fingers when pulling out nails. In his previously account Shin had claimed to have been tortured at age 13 and that his finger had been cut off because he accidentally had dropped a sewing machine.

Confronted with the previous story he had partially made up, Shin said he made a compromise in his mind not to relive his painful experiences. He furthermore said he thought the details after all were not that significant.

Human rights defenders point out that much of his revised testimony is still consistent with his previous account and the testimony he gave before the U.N. commission inquiring human rights abuses in North Korea.

Author Blaine Harden and his publisher are working on a revision of 'Escape from Camp 14' in light of the latest developments. The first edition had been published in 2012 and has been translated in 27 languages.

Shin realized his altered story puts his credibility in question: "I'm asking for forgiveness" he said. But the very fact that Shin came up with the new details shows he is concerned with the truth, more than saving his image. In light of the reclusiveness of the North Korean regime, who but him could have proved the previous story wrong?

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Marco Pompili


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