A Glimpse of Horror

Read extracts in English from Shin Dong Hyuk's unprecedented memoir of growing up in one of North Korea's most brutal prison camps.
Shin Dong-Hyuk
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Shin-Dong-Hyuk-305.jpg Shin Dong-hyuk speaks at a press conference in Seoul, Oct. 29, 2007.

Camp Rules: The 10 Commandments

1. Do not attempt to escape. The punishment is death.

2. Never gather in groups of over three people or move around without the guard’s authorization. The punishment for unauthorized movement is death.

3. Do not steal. If one steals or possesses weapons, the punishment is death. The punishment for failure to report the theft or possession of weapons is death.

4. Obey your guards. If one rebels or hits a guard, the punishment is death.

5. If you see outsiders, or suspicious-looking people, report them immediately. The punishment for abetting in the hiding of outsiders is death.

6. Keep an eye on your fellow prisoners and report inappropriate behavior without delay. One should criticize others for inappropriate behavior, and also conduct thorough self-criticism in revolutionary ideology class.

7. Fulfill your assigned duties. The punishment for rebelling against one’s duties is death.

8. Men and women may not be together outside the workplace. The punishment for unauthorized physical contact between a man and a woman is death.

9. Admit and confess your wrongdoings. The punishment for disobedience and refusal to repent is death.

10. The punishment for violating camp laws and rules is death.

Childbirth, vaccinations, and medical care

A couple of weeks before childbirth and about one month after, women get maternity leave. That simply means that they are assigned work that can be done from home, while looking after their babies. One month after childbirth, every mother has to return to her workplace, carrying the baby on her back. While planting rice, women have to lay their babies down by the paddy. While mothers are working, the elders also have to work. There is no child care in the camp, and this lack of care often proves lethal to the babies.

Resistance is simply unthinkable."

Shin Dong Hyuk

I remember getting my vaccinations when I entered school in 1988. That was the first and last time I was vaccinated against infectious diseases. There was one clinic inside the camp, with one doctor, assisted by a nurse, who was a prisoner herself.

Regardless of how badly hurt one may be, getting out of the camp is not an option. The doctor and nurse use a saline solution to clean wounds, and patients are asked to come back in a week. It goes without saying that the workplace supervisor’s approval is needed prior to the follow-up visit to the clinic, and refusal to grant that approval is rather common. After the guards cut off my middle finger, I was taken to the clinic and given medical attention, but without any anesthesia whatsoever.

Prisoners are not allowed to wear glasses inside the camp, not even those who wore glasses prior to being brought into the camp.

Marriage and family inside the camp

Inside the camp, there are fewer people in their 20s than before. Since they are short of young prisoners, young people inside the camp are assigned a lot of work. About 60 percent of people in their 20s are married. In my father’s time, only about 30 to 40 percent of people were married. Because they need more laborers, and because young people work well, more of them are matched with a spouse and ordered to marry. There are no single women in the village.

Having babies is allowed. Most married couples have one or two children, sometimes even three. It is hard to have more children, as spouses are not allowed to spend much time together.

Marriage is the only dream that prisoners have. Men above 25 and women above 23 are generally eligible, and since there is no standard procedure in place, permission to marry is entirely the work supervisor’s decision. Once the supervisor has decided on the names of the people who will be ordered to get married, the list of names is submitted to the camp commander, for his signature.

There are only a few days in the year when people can get married: Jan.1, Feb. 16 [North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's birthday], and April 15 [birthday of North Korea's late founder, Kim Il Sung].

Pregnant women 'disappear'

To be allowed to get married, people break their backs working and volunteer to perform the most dangerous of tasks. Working hard and distinguishing oneself are preconditions for the ultimate recognition, permission to establish a family. Nevertheless, diligence alone is insufficient. The successful marriage candidate has to strictly obey camp rules and regulations, and must also spy on the other prisoners, and report on their behavior.

Inside the camp, the ultimate reward is marriage, and the one who has the power to make that happen is the supervisor, so he is like royalty to the prisoners. Women try to win the supervisors’ favors, and they take full advantage of that, while the other prisoners have to turn a blind eye on the obvious and keep silent. If a woman becomes pregnant after having a relationship with a supervisor or a guard, one day she just vanishes.

If a man and woman like each other and have a relationship without camp approval, once their secret is discovered, they both disappear without a trace. While in the camp, I knew a couple of women who got pregnant and just disappeared.

I am sure that...people are still dropping dead from overwork, and are still being beaten savagely and vomiting blood."

No consideration is given to whether the marriage would be a good match or whether the newlyweds like one another or not. Whether they like their men or not, women have no choice but to get married, because they know that this opportunity will never come again.

Summary matchmaking

Many of these matches are not exactly made in heaven, and men are used to hitting their female co-workers anyway. If two co-workers are matched and ordered to marry, that kind of physical violence only gets worse.

The supervisor shows up and says: “You two, you’ve been matched. From today on, you’re married. Work hard and don’t waste your time. If you slack, I’ll split you up!” Until that day, the newlyweds have no idea who their spouse is going to be.

I once heard a camp story about a bride and groom who didn't like each other much, or didn't feel like getting married. One asked: “Sir, would it be possible at all to postpone our marriage a little?”

The supervisor replied: “Sure, if you don’t feel like it, just don’t do it. You ungrateful pricks can forget about marriage, I’ll never let you do it!”

From that day on, regardless of how hard they worked, no mention of marriage was ever made to them.

The young and the old

Most children born in the camp grow up without knowing parental love or care. These children are the offspring of political offenders, treated as political offenders themselves. The camp is their microcosm, and camp life is the only life they’ll ever know. Their parents don't have to teach them social skills, or how to behave in society, as they will never experience a normal social life.

Instead of parental teachings, parents tell their children about camp rules and regulations, and thoroughly instruct them on how to live and work inside the camp. Children learn about camp rules and regulations even before getting to know anything about their parents. The parents are to blame for the children’s having been born in a political prisoner camp, and children are painfully aware of that, growing up with very little affection for their parents.

In South Korea, May 5 is Children’s Day, and May 8 Parents’ Day. I often wonder if political prisoners in North Korean camps would even know how to honor their elders and amuse their young, if ever given this opportunity. I sometimes feel embarrassed because of my having grown up in a camp.

Parents report on their children, children on their parents, and neighbors on the people living next door..."

One day, I was on the subway in Seoul. I was sitting, and an elderly gentleman was standing nearby. Another young man, probably older than me, stood up and yielded his seat to the older man. I felt deeply embarrassed that day. In the camp, there is no seniority among prisoners, and no respect for the elders. From the first day of school to the day they die, prisoners are nothing but laborers, and there is no distinction, seniority, or hierarchy among them.

There is no difference between the young and the old, the sick and the healthy; they simply have to do their work, and if they fail, they are beaten and they bleed. I am sure that, somewhere inside that camp, people are still dropping dead from overwork, and are still being beaten savagely and vomiting blood.

Child labor

Little children under 10 are forced to work in dark coal mines, pushing heavy loads on coal carts. They never complain, and no one realizes how wrong that is, as everyone has been brainwashed, their consciousness distorted, all trained to be just one of the many laborers who spend their entire lives working. When asked to do dangerous work, they laugh, to show that they’re not afraid, and when they’re hurt, they cry, but no one is there for them, to listen to their laughter or crying.

The guards abuse the prisoners and see them as sub-human, and even the guards’ children look down on the children of prisoners, thinking of them as the offspring of traitors, traitors themselves, who do not deserve to be thought of as human beings. I would like to ask the tormenters’ children: “What would you be, had you been a prisoners’ child? Would that make you less of a human being?”

The unthinkable escape

The reason why prisoners don't resist or rebel goes beyond fear of the armed guards watching over the camp. All prisoners have been brainwashed to believe that they are in the camp for a good reason, that they have done wrong and deserve to be there, and the thought of escape hardly crosses their mind. Most prisoners, including me, believed that they were supposed to be in the camp. My escape wasn't an act of rebellion against the prison camp system; I was just tired of having to work so much, and I simply wanted to get away.

Parents report on their children, children on their parents, and neighbors on the people living next door, so an uprising would be impossible. Prisoners may be upset and have gripes against their guards and supervisors, but they never go as far as to think of opposing the prison camp system itself. All they do is suffer in silence. Resistance is simply unthinkable.

Extracts from "Escape to the Outside World" by Shin Dong Hyuk translated and published here with kind permission from the Data Base Center for North Korean Human Rights. Acting RFA Korean service director: Francis Huh. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Edited and produced in English by Luisetta Mudie and Sarah Jackson-Han.


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May 29, 2013 08:06 PM

There are no words really are there. Their suffering is indescribable. Lord Jesus come and release these souls from their pain. Come soon.

May 29, 2013 08:04 PM

Unbelievable. The worse thing in my view as a follower of Jesus Christ, is the denial of the Gospel to these people, so that they live and die without hope. Not only denied daily bread, but the very Bread of Life (God.) That is the cruellest part of it all. It hurts me so deeply for these poor souls. I read The Aquariums of Pyongyang. There are no words really are there. Their suffering is indescribable.

Aug 14, 2014 04:54 AM

In response to Daisy's comment - I hardly think the worst thing about this is the denial of faith to the prisoners. I think warmth, food, health, security and the lack of torture would probably be ranked as higher on the list for 100% of these people. I'm not opposed to Christianity, in fact I think it's fantastic that so many have found their life's calling and solace in their religion, but it's not exactly a necessity when you have all basic human rights stripped. I'm reading "Escape from Camp 14" right now (the book about this prisoner who escaped, Shin) and it will open your eyes.

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