A Child of the North Korean Gulag
By Joseph A. Rehyansky
April 30, 2012 4:00 A.M.
‘Because I am surrounded by good people, I try to do what good people do. But it is very difficult. It does not flow from me naturally. . . . I am evolving from being an animal. But it is going very, very slowly.” Shin Dong-hyuk was speaking to Blaine Harden, a reporter for Frontline and a contributor to The Economist who has served as the Washington Post’s bureau chief in East Asia. Harden has recently authored the gripping memoir Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West.
As Harden recounts, Shin was born in 1982 in Camp 14 in North Korea, a “no exit” political camp largely populated by entire families. It is one of six camps that may hold a total of 200,000 prisoners, the biggest of which occupies an area larger than Los Angeles. These camps are clearly visible in satellite reconnaissance photos, but North Korea denies that they exist.
Shin is believed to be the first person born in such a camp ever to escape. His family was there because his father’s two brothers fled south during the Korean War. Until his escape, Shin was always infested with lice. There was never any water for bathing or even a way to brush one’s teeth. Everyone smelled like a farm animal, so no one else was bothered by the odor. The camp diet was corn, cabbage, and salt. Pellagra was a common cause of death. To this day, the only fertilizer generally available in the camps and in the country as a whole is human excrement. In 2008, South Korea halted donations of chemical fertilizer in response to provocations from the North.
In the camp, children go to school to learn the most basic of skills — reading, writing, addition, and subtraction, which are judged to be all they need to know to prepare them for a life of backbreaking labor. Shin’s teacher was a uniformed guard with a pistol. During his first 23 years, Shin saw only one book, a Korean grammar. One day his teacher found five kernels of corn hidden in the filthy clothes of a student, a six-year-old girl. She was made to kneel on the concrete floor while the teacher beat her over the head with his pointer. Bumps on her skull appeared, blood flowed from her nose, and she collapsed. Several students were ordered to carry her home, where she died that night. Shin and his classmates were indifferent to what was happening before their eyes. She had broken the rules; she deserved her punishment.
Shin felt differently when, at age 14, he watched as his mother was hanged and his brother faced a firing squad: He hated them. She would beat him when he stole her food, and he had seen her cooking rice, an unheard-of delicacy, for his brother. When Shin overheard his mother and brother planning an escape, he dutifully reported it to a guard, but the guard took credit for uncovering the plan, so Shin and his father were tortured in a hidden underground dungeon for months in the certainty that they had known of the plan and had not reported it. Shin was suspended by ankle and wrist shackles over hot coals. When he writhed away from the heat, his torturer slammed a hook into his pubic area to hold him in place.
When the guard’s duplicity was discovered, he disappeared and Shin and his father were released to witness the executions. His mother and brother deserved their punishment, he believed. He had not deserved his.
In the camp regime, women especially are at the mercy of guards and foremen. When a pregnancy results from an unsanctioned relationship, the pregnant woman vanishes and it is assumes that she — and her fetus — are secretly killed. If the woman is a sexual favorite, an extraordinarily hard worker, or simply lucky, her baby’s brains are bashed in at birth and she is allowed to live and return to work. Shin did not suffer this fate at birth because his parents’ union was sanctioned as a reward for hard work and the authorities permitted them to have children. They spent five nights together and, thereafter, five nights per year.
Shin says that South Koreans as a whole are too occupied with getting and spending in their prosperous, stressful, competitive society to be concerned with the fate of North Koreans. They want only to avoid war. But the South Korean government treats the refugees well: cash payments, education, socialization, housing, job training and placement, bonuses for companies that hire them.
Human-rights organizations, in particular Amnesty International and the South Korean Bar Association, have done much to document and publicize the horrors in the North, but the crisis-management approach to dealing with the North amounts to a hands-off philosophy in terms of human rights. We’ll discuss missiles and nuclear tests, but, says David Straub, a senior State Department official under Clinton and Bush 43, “they go nuts when you talk about [human rights].”
The North Koreans lack “good video” and have “no Nobel Prize winner” speaking out in their behalf. The author quotes activist Suzanne Scholte: “Tibetans have the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere, Burmese have Aung San Suu Kyi, Darfurians have Mia Farrow and George Clooney. . . . North Koreans have no one like that.” The 169 detainees at Gitmo evidently merit a larger outcry than 200,000 North Koreans condemned to slavery, brutality, and an early death.
It was not a yearning for freedom that prompted Shin’s escape, Harden reports. It was a yearning for “grilled meat,” which Park Yong Chul, a new arrival at Camp 14, described to Shin. Except for an occasional rat, Shin had never eaten meat. Park explained to him as well that North Korea was one of many nations, that its capital was Pyongyang, and that they needed to get to China. He also told the incredulous 23-year-old that the world was round. This was 2005.
Their plan was half-baked and seemingly doomed to failure. For Park, it did end in disaster: He tentatively touched the fence in an isolated area and was instantly electrocuted. The weight of Park’s smoldering body on the wires made a gap in the fence wide enough for Shin to wriggle through, clambering on top of his dead companion. Park’s corpse provided insulation that reduced the force of the electric current, but Shin’s lower legs were nonetheless badly burned. They bled for three weeks.
Shin had escaped at the right time. Famine was an ally. Ten percent of the population of Hamhung, North Korea’s second-largest city, had starved to death. Another 10 percent wandered away in search of food. Even in Pyongyang, the home of the “privileged,” people were found dead of starvation in their apartments. Even in the capital, rice is a precious commodity. When a group of government agents presented Kim Jong Il with duffel bags stuffed with $20 million in cash swindled from Western insurance companies, he rewarded them — with apples, oranges, DVD players, and blankets. They were ecstatic.
When universal malnourishment periodically deteriorates into famine, the government tolerates wandering “traders” who practice “vagabond” free-market principles, and the border with China is less rigorously policed. This proved a boon for Shin, who managed to blend in with the ragged, ill-fed, wandering population. He broke into empty homes and stole clothes, food, and money. Walking and occasionally riding, he covered 370 miles in a month. At the Chinese border, he paid North Korean guards pitiful bribes — cigarettes, candy, crackers — and they allowed him to proceed. He found work with two farmers. A journalist eventually helped him find sanctuary in a South Korean consulate that harbored him for 18 months before officials made arrangements to fly him to Seoul.
Shin’s emotional adjustment to freedom has been painful and difficult. It took him years to experience guilt, which he now feels for informing on his mother and brother. He is in remarkably good health — and he has adapted to the absent last joint of his right middle finger.
It was chopped off with a butcher knife when he was 20, as punishment for dropping a sewing machine.