Shin Dong-hyuk, the only North Korean to have been born in a notorious prison camp and escaped to freedom, and who was responsible for the execution of his imprisoned mother and brother, said he had no concept of love or family until his resettlement in South Korea.
Shin Dong-hyuk, 30, was born in Kwan-li-so (Prison-labor camp) No. 14, in North Korea’s South Pyongan province as the second child to two prisoners who had been paired as part of a marriage reward for good behavior.
Growing up as part of the penal colony, Shin said he was taught allegiance to the State above and beyond all else, including to his “family” members. In 1996, at the age of 14, he informed authorities that his mother and brother had tried to escape the camp, causing their execution.
“I reported my mom and brother’s plan to escape because I was supposed to report everything about political prisoners, including coworkers and even family,” Shin said at a conference on the North Korean prison camp system in Washington last week.
“Camp 14, where I lived, had an ‘Exemplary Marriage System’ where well-behaved inmates were given the chance to get married as a reward. That is how I was born, and how my brother was born seven years earlier,” he said.
“But the families there are not like real families in any sense. We are just all inmates. I just called [my parents] ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ because they were the names of those people.”
‘Simply other people’
Shin said that, to him, his family members were simply other people eating the same food and wearing the same clothing that the camp provided them.
“The camp rules said that you have to report even the smallest things that look suspicious—even if it is an act committed by your family. So I did,” he said.
“I did not even feel guilty at that time, because I was just following the rules.”
But instead of being rewarded by camp authorities for informing on his family members, Shin was brutally tortured for “guilt through association,” a policy by which the mother, children, and sometimes grandchildren of an offending political prisoner are subject to punishment for their actions.
He was suspended from the ceiling of his cell in chains, with a hook put through his flesh to prevent him from struggling, and lowered over a charcoal brazier, causing him to suffer extreme burns.
Later, he was forced to watch while his mother and brother were publicly executed on the camp grounds.
Escape from Camp 14
In the following years he endured other forms of torture and abuse, including having part of his middle finger hacked off at the age of 20 for dropping a sewing machine in the camp textile factory.
By the time Shin was 22, he had befriended a man named Park who would tell him during their work together about the foods he had eaten and the luxury items he had seen while living in the capital Pyongyang and while studying abroad in Eastern Europe.
Together, the two hatched a plan to escape Camp 14 by crawling through a gap in an electric fence where guards were rarely stationed. Shin was able to fit through, but Park was electrocuted and died on the fence.
Shin then made his way to the northern border, bribing members of the military with food and cigarettes to look the other way until he was able to cross the Tumen River into China’s Jilin province. From there, he made his way to South Korea and resettled in Seoul, where he works as an activist raising awareness about the North’s kwan-li-so system.
At the end of 2008, he began to work with Washington Post correspondent Blaine Harden on a book detailing his experiences growing up in a labor camp, but said it was extremely painful for him to recount the memories of his previous life.
After being convinced of his “sense of duty” to his fellow North Koreans, he went ahead with the project. Escape from Camp 14 was published in March this year.
“To tell the truth, I hid some facts in the Korean version of the book because I was afraid of how people would react,” Shin said.
“When my mom and brother were publicly executed, I said in my Korean version that I did not know and was being beaten [by camp authorities]. But in the English version … I revealed the truth that I not only knew about the public execution but also that I was the reason for their execution, as I was the one who reported them to the prison camp,” he said.
The value of family
Shin said that he learned the value of family only after resettling in South Korea, where he saw parents expressing love to their children through actions like feeding them and embracing them—things he was never allowed to experience in the camp system.
“I felt ashamed of what I did, so I hid [the truth] … I want to apologize and show how North Korea makes people report on their family members,” Shin said.
“Many people who are born through the ridiculous marriage system in the camps don’t get any education other than what the labor camp requires,” he said.
“I believed it was right to report my own mom. When I saw people getting beaten or killed, I thought they deserved it because they had violated the rules in the camp.”
Shin stressed that his book talks about only a fraction of what goes on in North Korea’s labor camps and called on the international community to press the regime on its rights record in the vast penal system.
North Korean state security agency officials who have defected to South Korea estimate that the camp system holds between 150,000 and 200,000 people.
“In the prison camp where I spent my life, public executions take place twice a year, in March and in November. Many people are required to watch it. I think this means North Korea can kill everyone in the camps at once if [they feel threatened],” he said.
“There is nothing these inmates in North Korea can do right now. They know too well the pain and sufferings that North Korea inflicts and they are too scared to do anything … Please do not just watch them die.”
Reported by Joshua Lipes.