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The Great Escape from North Korea's Camp 14: Shin Hyuk

Updated on March 26, 2012
Images of Shin's camp
Images of Shin's camp
Shin in South Korea
Shin in South Korea
Drawing of how he was tortured in 1994
Drawing of how he was tortured in 1994

North Korea continues to claim they do not exist, yet, satellite photos clearly show they are sprinkled across northern North Korea. Only 26 prisoners from those camps have escaped to the West, yet the most amazing story is that of Shin Dong-Hyuk. Not for his escape, which actually was fairly easy, but for the fact that until his escape, the camp was his world-literally. He was born in the Kaechon Penal Camp 14 in 1982. Until his daring escape, everything he knew of the world was what he was told or not told. He knew nothing of South Korea, China, America or other countries. He did not know what a computer or cell phone was and most amazingly did not know anything about North Korea's leader. He really did not understand what love was, or what freedom is, or TV, DVD. His whole essence had been molded by his life within the penal camp-in fact, he did not know why he was there.

Shin's camp contained 15,000 political and "nonredeemable" persons. Once assigned to the camp, most stay until death from hard labor. North Korea does this to retain control and prevent outside infections that may occur to its population.

Shin only found out in 1994 why he was in this prison. The reason reached all the way back to 1950 and the Korean War. His uncles sided with South Korea and fled. The father was caught in 1965, and in 1982, was given a woman for good conduct. That became Shin's mother who he did not know nor hugged. Shin was with his mom until age 12, yet she worked in the fields from 5 am to 11 pm, so there was no time to bond. In fact, when she planned to escape and was caught. Shin was interrogated and beaten also. He knew nothing about it. She and his brother were executed in front of him and his father.

Shin only saw his mother and brother a few times a year. Until age 11, he went to school and learned basic language, writing and math skills. After school, he was forced to work like other adults and after 16, in 1998, he was assigned to a pig farm to help raise 800 pigs and chickens.

In 2003, he was assigned to a garment factory with 2000 females and 500 males making military uniforms. Meals usually consisted of 900 grams of corn along with three pieces of cabbage, at times, or a bowl of soup. Shin's pretty cousin, was around 20 when two guards started to fondle her. Her mother attempted to intervene and found herself tied to a tree and forced to watch two guards brutally raping her.

It was at the garment factory met Park Chul, a much older man who had lived outside of North Korea. This is where Shin became intoxicated with stories he told of the world-precisely the "infection" NK tries to prevent. Chul had come from a privileged class and lived in East Germany and Russia. Chul and Shin planned for an escape. This was not a high tech escape, the worse part was bypassing the 10 ft. with eight strands of electric barb wire fences spaced a foot apart. It was January 2, 2005, when they were on a tree trimming detail near the border of China. The guard detail was sparse. When the guards were not looking, both men ran for the fence. Shin was first, but slipped, allowing Chul to reach it first and tried to slide under the lower strands but he had touched the high voltage wires. The weight of Chul allowed Shin to slip through easily without much current impact. However, Shin's foot slipped and hit one of the last wires causing much pain and burns. Shin kept going and fled down the mountain for two hours in freezing cold with no jacket. He found refuge in a vacant house with some food. Shin bribed the border guards to let me through the North Korean border to China with the money from that rice. In China, he earned $90 for a year's work at a logging company. In 2006, he took a bus to Quingdao and went to the South Korean Consular office.

He now lives in South Korea, pays $300 for a room per month out of his $900 monthly income. He admits that being free has been very hard for him to get use to.

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