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Interviews : Shin Dong-hyuk

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Shin Dong Hyuk is the only known person to be born in a North Korean gulag and escape to freedom. In North Korea, whole families are incarcerated for the offenses of a single family member. As many as 130,000 men, women and children are imprisoned in North Korea’s vast system of gulags.

Shin was born in 1982 in Camp 14, the product of a “reward marriage” between two prisoners. He lived with his mother until the age of 12, though they never formed a true familial bond. Shin received a basic education before being pressed into the camp’s labor force. During this time, he witnessed fellow children being beaten, executed and killed in work-related accidents.

In 1996, prison officials brought Shin to a separate detention facility where he was tortured. He had no idea why this was happening to him. Finally, the guards explained that his mother and brother had attempted to escape and they wanted more information. After being held in an underground cell for seven months, Shin was forced to attend the public execution of his mother and brother.

In 2005, Shin and another prisoner were assigned to work on a mountain. Driven by hunger, the two decided to escape over the electrified fence enclosing the camp. Shin’s leg was caught in the fence and scarred, but he managed to get through; the other prisoner was electrocuted and died. From there, Shin managed to cross the border into China where he worked as a laborer for several years until connecting with a journalist who brought him to the South Korean Embassy. From there, Shin escaped China.

Shin’s incredible story has been shared with the world in the book, Escape from Camp 14, by American journalist Blaine Harden. Since escaping, Shin has become a leading voice on North Korean human rights and the country’s gulag system, including providing testimony at the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). 

As a person born as a prisoner in the prison camp, I had somebody that I called “Father” and “Mother.”

[Shin Dong-hyuk’s birth was the result of a “reward marriage” orchestrated by prison officials. These “marriages” were granted to prisoners for being a good worker.]

Those were the words that I knew to use to describe these two people in my life, but there was no love, no desire to give them things, or desire to help them.

There was nothing in the sense of a familial relationship between my parents and me.

My mother and brother were caught attempting to escape from the prison camp.

As a result, my father and I were beaten and tortured for a long period, and I still bear the scars from that horrible experience.

In the prison camp, if one person in the family commits a crime or is found guilty of something, then the entire family is punished.

Unfortunately, my mother and brother were publicly executed. Luckily, my father and I were not. 

North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a country of 23 million people in northeast Asia, ruled by Communist dictator Kim Jong-Un. His deceased predecessors—father, Kim Jong-Il, and grandfather, Kim Il-Sung – respectively retain the titles of “Eternal President” and “The Great Leader.”

The Korean War began in 1950, when Kim Il-Sung, backed by the Soviet Union and China, attacked South Korea. The conflict ended in a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty, and the border between the two Koreas remains tense and heavily militarized.

Kim Il-Sung employed harsh tactics to consolidate his power and propagated an extreme personality cult that has been continued by his successors. A blend of communist doctrine, state terror, xenophobia and hyper-nationalism has given North Korea its unique ideology. Despite some recent openings, North Korea remains largely isolated from the rest of the world.

With the end of Soviet communism and withdrawal of economic support, North Korea’s economy collapsed in the 1990s. A massive famine, aggravated by the regime’s indifference, killed as many as 2 million people between 1994 and 1998. While conditions have improved, even today, North Korea faces problems of malnutrition and insufficient access to food.

Tensions between North and South Korea remain high. In 2010, North Korea sank a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors and attacked a South Korean island, killing four civilians. North Korea has developed and tested nuclear weapons in contravention of several international agreements. The country withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 in order to test ballistic missiles and eventually a nuclear device. Multilateral negotiations have so far failed to constrain North Korea’s arms buildup and nuclear program.

North Korea is among the world’s most repressive states, engaging in widespread and systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, torture, forced abortion, arbitrary detention, and denial of the rights of expression, association, assembly, and religion. The government pervasively regulates all aspects of the lives of its citizens, each of whom is categorized as “core,” “wavering,” or “hostile,” according to the history of his or her family’s relationship with the regime. Access to housing, employment, education, and other social and economic goods depend heavily on these security classifications. The government determines where each citizen will live, and travel within the country is strictly limited.

Emigration is prohibited. Refugees who have escaped to China have frequently been forcibly returned to North Korea where they are imprisoned, subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, and sometimes executed. The government operates a network of forced labor camps for an estimated 120,000 political prisoners. While persons convicted of ordinary crimes serve fixed sentences, those convicted of political crimes are confined indefinitely. Punishment is extended to three generations – the offender’s parents, siblings, and children are also incarcerated, as a way to pressure North Koreans to conform. Political offenders are often denied food, clothing, and medical care, and many die in prison.

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report classifies North Korea as “not free” and as one of nine nations whose lack of political rights and civil liberties are considered the “worst of the worst.”

More from Shin Dong-hyuk

Shin Dong-hyuk: Child of Reward Marriage “There was no love, no desire to give them things or help them.” Shin Dong-hyuk: The World Must Take Action Shin Dong-hyuk pleads for the world to challenge North Korea’s depravity. Shin Dong-hyuk: Responsibility of Freedom “I’ve struggled to cope with the options and choices that one has in a free society.” More + Shin Dong-hyuk: Escape “Having eaten what I wanted, it would be worth getting killed.” Shin Dong-hyuk: Helping North Koreans “If human beings look at another suffering person and ignore it, then we have no conscience.” Shin Dong-hyuk: Born in a Gulag “I was born in a political prison camp where I lived for 24 years.” Shin Dong-hyuk: What is Freedom? “There are dictators that would starve their citizens and deny what is in every person's soul and DNA: Freedom.” Shin Dong-hyuk: Message to the North Korean People “Even though you are suffering horribly, always look for the light of hope.” Shin Dong-hyuk: China Repatriates Refugees “I constantly feared being found out, arrested, and repatriated.” Shin Dong-hyuk: Life of a Slave “The one word I would use to describe these prison camps is ‘hell.’” Shin Dong-hyuk: Learning from Dissidents Shin Dong-hyuk discusses the value in learning from other activists. Shin Dong-hyuk: The Kim Dynasty “It is a completely evil and terrible situation happening in North Korea.”