Choe Sang-Hun, “ Born and raised in a North Korean gulag”, New York Times July 9, 2007
SEOUL — On Nov. 29, 1996, 14-year-old Shin Dong Hyok and his father were made to sit in the front row of a crowd assembled to watch executions. The two had already spent seven months in a North Korean prison camp's torture compound, and Shin assumed they were among those to be put to death. Instead, the guards brought out his mother and his 22-year-old brother. The mother was hanged, the brother was shot by a firing squad.
"Before she was executed, my mother looked at me," Shin said in a recent interview. "I don't know if she wanted to say something, because she was bound and gagged. But I avoided her eyes. "My father was weeping, but I didn't cry," he said. "I had no love for her. Even today I hate her for what I had to go through because of her." Shin's story provides a rare glimpse into one of the least-known prison camps in North Korea.
Shin, now 24, was a political prisoner by birth. From the day he was born in 1982 in Camp No. 14 in Kaechon until he escaped in 2005, Shin had known no other life. Guards beat children, tortured grandparents and, in cases like Shin's, executed family members. But Shin said it did not occur to him to hate the authorities. He assumed everyone lived this way.
He had never heard of Pyongyang, the capital city 90 kilometers, or 55 miles, to the south, or even of Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader. "I didn't know about America, or China or the fact that the Korean Peninsula was divided and there was a place called South Korea," he said. "I thought it was natural that I was in the camp because of my ancestors' crime, though I never even wondered what that crime was. I never thought it was unfair." Since 1992, about a dozen former North Korean prison camp inmates have fled to South Korea. But most were held in the "revolutionizing zone" at Camp No. 15 in Yodok in eastern North Korea. This means that the emphasis was on "re-educating" the prisoners. If they survived long enough to complete their sentences, they were released. Shin is the first North Korean who came south who is known to have escaped from a prison camp. Moreover, he was confined to a "total-control zone." According to a report released in June by the government-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul: "Prisoners sent to a total-control zone can never come out. They are put to work in mines or logging camps until they die. Thus the authorities don't even bother to give them ideological education. They only teach them skills necessary for mining and farming." Thanks to the stories of former Yodok inmates, the camp's name has become synonymous with human rights abuses. But there are at least four other prison camps in North Korea, including Camp No. 14 in Kaechon. These others are far less known because so few have emerged to describe them. Shin "is a living example of the most brutal form of human rights abuse," said Yoon Yeo Sang, president of Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul, where Shin is taking temporary shelter. "He comes from a place where people are deprived of their ability to have the most basic human feelings, such as love, hatred and even a sense of being sad or mistreated."
A North Korean named Kim Yong who came south in 1999 and now lives in the United States said he spent two years in Kaechon, but some refugees have questioned his claim. Ahn Myeong Cheol, who worked as a driver and guard at four camps before reaching South Korea in 1994, has no doubts that Shin was in a total-control zone. Ahn said that when he met Shin in June, he immediately noticed the telltale signs: the avoidance of eye contact and arms warped by heavy labor from childhood. "An instruction drilled into every guard's head is: Don't treat them like humans," Ahn said. According to Shin, the prison authorities matched his father, Shin Kyong Sup, with his mother, Chang Hye Kyong, and made them spend five days together before separating them. This sort of arrangement was known as "award marriage," a privilege given only to outstanding inmates. An exemplary worker might be allowed to visit the woman chosen as his wife a few times a year.
Shin's brother was born in 1974 and Shin in 1982. Young children lived with their mothers, who worked from 5 a.m. to midnight. Once they turned 11, children were moved to communal barracks but were allowed to visit their mothers if they excelled at their work. "I got to visit my mother only once or twice a year," Shin said. "I never saw my whole family together. I don't think I saw my brother more than a few times." There were up to 1,000 children but no textbooks in the school at Valley No. 2, the part of the camp where Shin lived. Pupils were taught to read and write, and to add and subtract, but little more. After school, children worked in the fields or mines. In most of North Korea, villages are decorated with Communist slogans and portraits of Kim Jong Il. Valley No. 2 had only one slogan carved into a wooden plaque: "Everyone obey the regulations!" Inmates were fed the same meal three times a day: a bowl of steamed corn and a salty vegetable broth. They scavenged whatever else they could find: cucumbers and potatoes from the fields, frogs, mice, dragonflies and locusts. Shin said he once ate corn kernels he found in cow droppings. When a teacher found a girl had hidden wheat grains in her pocket, he beat her on the head with a stick. She died the next day. Shin's life changed in 1996, when his mother and brother were accused of trying to escape. Guards interrogated him in an underground torture cell about a suspected family plot to flee the camp. They stripped and hung him by his arms and legs from the ceiling, and held him over hot charcoal. During the interrogations he learned for the first time that his father's family belonged to a "hostile class" - a category that entailed punishment over three generations - because his uncles had collaborated with the South Korean Army during the Korean War. Shin owed his unusual escape to two friends: an older cellmate who helped him recover from his torture wounds, and a man he met in the garment factory where he worked in 2004 who told him about life beyond the camp.
"Everything he told me about the outside world - the food, China - was fascinating," Shin said. "I loved his stories. Once I heard about the outside, I thought I would go crazy. I wanted to get out. I couldn't focus on work. Every day was an agony." On Jan. 2, 2005, when Shin and his co-worker were collecting firewood near the camp's electrified fence and could not see any guards, they ran.
Shin is still struggling to understand what happened next: his friend fell against the high-voltage fence, his body creating an opening. "I climbed over him, through the hole," Shin said. "I ran down the hill like a madman. I looked back and he wasn't moving."
In July 2005, Shin reached China. In February 2006, a South Korean helped him seek asylum at the South Korean Consulate in Shanghai. He arrived in Seoul last August.
Today, Shin bears burn scars from the torture and the electrified fence, and walks with a slight limp. He says he has recurring nightmares about being back in Camp No. 14. Awake, he wonders what happened to his father and about the man he left behind at the fence. Did he sacrifice himself to help Shin escape?
Now in Seoul, he said he sometimes finds life "more burdensome than the hardest labor in the prison camp, where I only had to do what I was told." His limited vocabulary has caused him to fail twice the written driver's license test. And there is his struggle to reconcile with his dead mother.
"However I try, I can't forgive her," he said. "She and my brother severely hurt me and my father by trying to escape. Didn't she think what would happen to us?"
Shin said he sometimes wished he could return to the time before he learned about the greater world, "without knowing that we were in a prison camp, without knowing that there was a place called South Korea."