Shin in Seoul in 2008 (Photo courtesy of Blaine Harden)
Next week the Bush Center will welcome North Korean political prison camp survivor Shin Dong-hyuk. Shin Dong-hyuk is the only known person to be born and raised in North Korea’s infamous gulags and to escape to freedom. The story of his escape was first told to the world by journalist and author Blaine Harden in his book Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. Shin was later featured on 60 Minutes.
Shin was born into Camp 14, one of North Korea’s most brutal gulags. Life inside the camp was devoid of any real human bond, including with his parents and brother. At the age of 14 he was forced to watch as his mother and brother were publically executed for trying to escape. Inmates were treated as animals, and school children were taught the “values” of dishonesty and cruelty.
In spite of this, Shin was befriended by a man who had lived outside the camp’s walls. He told Shin tales of dinner tables overflowing with food and delicacies that were beyond his imagination, as inmates in the camp were severely malnourished and subsisted on a diet of primarily cabbage and corn. Shin was 23 years old when he and his friend carried out their escape plan. Shin succeeded and made his way to China and then South Korea. His friend was electrocuted by the prison fence and died. The adjustment to life outside of the camp has been difficult at times, and even Shin himself states that “I am evolving from being an animal.”
An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people continue to languish in North Korea’s gulags. Most will die inside the confines of the camp of malnutrition, abuse and exhaustion from forced labor. Most will never taste freedom. Today Shin Dong-hyuk works to raise awareness of the camps and hopes the North Korean regime will relent under public scrutiny and begin to dismantle them.
To ask Shin a question about his ongoing efforts, or to find out what you can do to help, post your question to our Facebook page or send us a tweet using #AskShin. We will select a handful of questions to ask Shin next Wednesday and record his answers to share with you.
Elizabeth Hoffman is Program Manager, Freedom Advocate Initiative.