In a day and age where we take freedom for granted I was profoundly touched by Shin Dong-Huyk’s story. My father was a fighter pilot in the Korean War and though never a prisoner of war, he was a tremendous story teller of this escapades… The silence that surrounded that timeline left a question mark in my understanding.
Dad had several comrades that were shot down and died in prison camps. One friend of Dad’s that escaped from prison and made it home, visited us when I was a teen and shared a brief account I will never forget.
Our limited understanding of the mental an physical torture they endured in these prison camps can only be imagined with a terrifying shudder. I have a photo album of Dad’s that catalogs some of the atrocities. My stomach churns in remembrance.
As I read this I experienced a wrenching admiration for Shin Dong-Huyk. The legacy he will leave for us by sharing his story will educate us to the depths and heights the human spirit can endure….achieve…and over come.
Shin Dong-huyk is 29 years old. He loves Mexican food and going to baseball games. But any similarities between Shin and other young men ends there. Shin Dong-huyk is the only person known to have escaped from a North Korean prison camp. He was born into a life of enslavement and torture inside Camp 14, where he was starved, beaten and forced to watch the executions of his mother and brother.
He existed within the camp’s concrete walls, which had no running water or furniture, until aged 23, he escaped. He spent one month on the run before sneaking over the border into China, and eventually reaching the safety of the South Korean embassy.
Last month, a book about his life — Escape from Camp 14 — was published, taking its place at the top of the bestseller lists. I met him in London as he prepared to speak at a House of Commons meeting to raise awareness about North Korean prisoners.
Six years on from his escape, Shin — now based in Seoul — can’t describe the worst thing about life in the camps. “Every single day was the worst possible. You live every moment under the intense fear of being beaten and the guards fault every single movement,” he recalls.
Often, the key to survival was looking after number one. Blaine Harden, the author who transcribed Shin’s story, knew his mother and brother had been executed but wasn’t sure why. During conversations, Shin referred to himself as a worthless individual and a snitch. Eventually, Shin revealed the terrible truth: he was responsible.
Aged 14, Shin overheard them discussing plans to escape. Institutionalised from birth and in exchange for food and fewer beatings, he told a school teacher. He describes feeling no emotion as he watched his mother being hanged and his brother shot — he’d been brought up to believe rules must be obeyed.
Prisoners go to desperate lengths for food: eating rats or eating their own vomit to alleviate hunger. “Everything we ate was horrendous,” says Shin. “But the worst thing was corn kernels picked out of cow dung.”
His father, whose fate is unknown, became a prisoner for being the brother of two young men who fled south during the Korean war. What is known is that Kim Il Sung had his own interpretation of the power of three, stating that “enemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations”. His mother’s name was Jang Hye Gyung. She never told her son why she was imprisoned.
Shin’s conception had been arranged by the guards. They chose his mother and father, Shin Gyung Sub, as prizes for each other in a “reward” marriage. The couple were allowed to sleep together for five nights and then Shin’s father was allowed to visit his family only a few times a year. Their eldest son, Shin He Geun, was born in 1974, Shin arrived eight years later.
Park Yong Chul was a well-travelled North Korean who’d enjoyed a life of relative luxury before arriving at Camp 14 in 2004. Shin was instructed to befriend Park — and extract a confession. Through him, Shin learned about the existence of other countries, televisions, computers but mostly, he learned about food.
Park described chicken, pork and beef, leading Shin to make his first free decision: he chose not to snitch on Park, instead hatching a plan for them to escape together. “Hearing about the food he’d eaten in the outside world was the main trigger,” recalls Shin. “I wanted to eat that kind of food — things unimaginable within the camp.”
Park was electrocuted during the escape as he squeezed through the electric fence. Shin suffered only burns, a small price after years of torture. His body bears many scars — his finger was chopped off by guards who also stuck a hook through his stomach and suspended him over a fire.
Why don’t more people escape? “People don’t know about the outside world. There’s also the systematic brainwashing — ‘I’ve been born as a criminal, I have to live as a criminal until I die and that’s my fate’.”
“When I was hospitalised in South Korea with psychiatric problems I considered suicide once or twice. But I thought about how I’d escaped and been through such difficult times, and decided I should live on.” This mental illness was due to the new-found guilt he felt over his mother and brother. “That guilt will last until my death,” he adds.
Shin’s response to the outside world shows just how institutionalised he’d become. “The most shocking moment came the day after I escaped and saw North Korean society for the first time. I thought it was paradise! People were walking around without guards. This was the moment that changed my understanding of the world.” He couldn’t believe how the impoverished North Korean villagers lived; how they moved freely without being beaten.
Shin doesn’t tell his story for himself. “It’s not therapeutic,” he admits. “I want the camps eradicated — that’s my driving force. I urge people to sign petitions and write to MPs, and keep raising the human rights issue. Holding talks and events will put pressure on the North Korean government.”
When Shin spoke at the meeting in the House of Commons it was also his first visit to our capital. “I love what I’ve seen so far — especially the House of Commons, which is one of the most stunning buildings I’ve come across.”
Campaigners like him want the world to know while other conflicts take center stage, North Korea goes about expanding its prison camps — satellite images show several have grown dramatically in recent years.
It’s estimated that up to 200,000 people are held within them, and Shin feels it’s his mission to highlight the suffering of those he left behind. “People often take an interest only once something horrible has happened, such as the Holocaust. I want the world to know what’s happening because that same thing could easily happen there. What’s the point in doing something afterwards? I see raising awareness as my responsibility.”
What are his hopes for the future? “I can’t even predict what will happen in one year’s time,” he says. “Of course I have hope that in 10 years’ time people will no longer starve to death, that they’ll be better off and that one day I’ll be able to return. But that’s wishful thinking.
30 April 2012
More blogs on escape from prison camps:
Escape from Camp 14 life inside North Korea’s brutal labour camps
Escape from a North Korean prison camp
Behind the wall of secrecy Escape from Camp 14. Little is known about the prison camps of North Korea where it is estimated that 200000 are imprisoned. Many are born in the camps and generations of families are.…