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Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008

Escapee gives glimpse of North prison camps

Staff writer

Shin Dong Hyuk had just turned 14 when he was forced to watch the executions of his mother and older brother for trying to escape from North Korea's "total control" prison camp No. 14, a Stalinist gulag for political prisoners. His mother was hanged; his brother was shot nine times.

News photo
Survivor's tale: Shin Dong Hyuk, an escapee from a North Korean prison camp, gives an interview in Tokyo on Oct. 28. ALEX MARTIN PHOTO

At the time, Shin, who was born and raised in the camp, felt no pity for them. Total control meant the political prisoners were in until they died.

"They tried to escape. Naturally, death was the price they had to pay," said Shin, who had absorbed the inhuman logic of the camp.

Now 25, Shin acknowledged to The Japan Times in late October that he has only recently begun to understand that this was an abnormal sentiment to harbor against one's kin.

"I suffered for their misdeeds, and I blamed them for bringing such pain upon me," Shin said through an interpreter, referring to the torture he suffered as retaliation for the failed escape attempt by his mother and brother. "But if I am ever reincarnated, I'd like to know what it feels like to be loved by your parents, and to love them back, like a normal person."

Shin is the sole known escapee born and raised in North Korea's prison camp No. 14.

Spending his first 22 years under intense persecution, working in factories, living on meager rations meted out by sadistic guards who would torture the captives at every possible excuse, Shin did not even consider bolting until he heard stories of the outside world from a new inmate brought to his section.

His curiosity aroused, Shin agreed to escape with him on Jan. 2, 2005. However, while Shin managed to get away, the man died stuck in the electrified perimeter fence.

Crossing into China a month later, Shin spent a year in hiding before being taken in by the South Korean Consulate in Shanghai. The mission arranged his defection to Seoul, where he lives today.

Speaking in late October during a weeklong tour of Tokyo, Shin said he feels it his duty to spread the word on the cruel realities the prisoners face.

"If talking about my experiences could hasten in any way the dismantling of the prison camps and the democratization of North Korea, I couldn't ask for more," Shin said.

A victim of the hermit state's guilt-by-association collective punishment of political criminals, Shin was born Nov. 18, 1982, in the camp situated near Kaechon, 75 km north of Pyongyang.

His father, a model prisoner the guards rewarded by granting him permission to marry, was initially captured and taken to camp No. 14 with his family in 1965 after officials discovered that two of his brothers had defected to the South during the Korean War — conduct that branded the entire family and descendants three generations down as "traitors of the country."

Born to work and die in the camp and considered unfit for any ideological training, Shin said he had not known who either Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il were until after his escape.

"From what I've learned in the past few years, Kim and his regime seem to me like a giant fraud ring," Shin said.

Gruesome mementos of Shin's past are engraved across his body: his back is covered with scars of severe burns he was administered when he was 13 — in retaliation for the attempted escape of his mother and brother. His right middle finger was lopped off as punishment for accidentally dropping a sewing machine, and both his shins are badly scarred, wounded during his escape, when his feet were temporarily tangled while he crawled through the electric fence that killed his fellow escapee.

In 2007, Shin published an autobiography titled "Escape to the Outside World" in Korean and later in Japanese. It offers a detailed portrait of the system maintained in these camps, where children like Shin — prisoners from birth — are dehumanized and isolated from their families as slave laborers to toil away in various factories that are reported to be providing a large-scale production base for the Kim regime.

Shin said he did not know the destination of the products they made, but believes he and his fellow inmates served as a wage-free, valuable workforce.

Human Rights Watch and No Fence in North Korea, which supported Shin's visit to Tokyo, said they were looking to publish his book in English to reach a wider audience.

American human rights investigator David Hawk's report on the North's concentration camps, titled "The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea's Prison Camps," says these institutions feature "forced labor colonies, camps, and prisons, where scores of thousands of prisoners — some political, some convicted felons — are worked, many to their deaths, in mining, logging, farming and industrial enterprises, often in remote valleys located in the mountainous areas of North Korea."

Shin said he still has much trouble adjusting to his new environment and is trying to grasp the concept of "freedom."

"My entire life was dictated by the rules of camp No. 14. Here I am in a democratic country, and I find myself experiencing difficulty making my own decisions," Shin said. He also has a hard time understanding emotions most of humanity usually take for granted — joy, friendship and love.

"I first learned of the term 'to have fun,' after I came to South Korea," he said. "When people ask me what I enjoy doing, the closest feeling I can relate to that is from memories of my childhood when I used to play simple games with other children of the camp. That's about it."

Today, Shin works part-time in Seoul restaurants when he is not busy with his human rights activities. He spends a lot of his time on his own, and doesn't interact with others that often.

"I've met a few other North Korean defectors in Seoul, but only for a quick chat. I'm learning how to use the Internet, but besides that, I don't have much to say about myself besides my past experience," he said, adding he hopes to someday have a girlfriend.

When asked what he would say if he had the chance to talk to the next U.S. president, Shin said he'd like to ask him to help terminate the concentration camps.

"My heart is still with the prisoners. We need to demolish that system," he said.

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