“Compared to Other Inmates, My Suffering is Nothing”: An Evening with an Escapee from Camp 14


On November 19th, 2012, our North Korea Study Group at HKS hosted Mr. Shin Dong Hyuk to be a guest speaker for over 225 students, professors, and community members. For over an hour, Mr. Shin shared stories and lessons from being born and raised for 23 years in a North Korean total-control zone concentration camp.  In this post, I will share with you the stories that he shared with us that night.  I've added links to articles, a new book, and new film about his life at the end of this post as well.

Mr. Shin was born in Camp 14, a North Korean total-control zone political prison camp, just 50 miles north of Pyongyang, the country's capital city. Estimated to have been built in 1959, the camp's purpose is to imprison North Koreans deemed to be politically unreliable, classified as the "irredeemables," and exploit them of hard labor until their deaths. Whether a prisoner is born into, or sentenced to, this camp, one is destined to die in the camp.  There is no hope for release.

Prison guards, on their own accord, pick productive inmates and reward them by permitting them to spend a few evenings together.  Mr. Shin likened this prison marriage to a forced mating between a pair of beasts in heat in a zoo.  Offspring of these marriages are born in the absence of hospitals, nurses, OBGYN doctors, or conditions that are remotely sanitary.  Later on in the speech, Mr. Shin said there is only one freedom in this camp, which is the freedom to be born.  A child is permitted to depend on her mother only when inside the womb.  Once a child exits the womb, she must survive on her own.  The first thing a baby sees upon opening her eyes is armed prison guards.  Since infancy, a baby is trained to know, and know only, the prison camp regulations. The worst crime a prisoner could commit was to attempt to flee the camp.  This was ingrained in his mind and body since childhood.

In addition to the camp regulations, he was taught simple arithmetic, and how to read and write. Mr. Shin and the other children raised in the camp were not even deemed worthy of learning about the regime's royal family. After all, they were destined to provide slave labor until their deaths in the camp.  He never heard of Kim Il-Sung, or Kim Jong-Il during the 23 years he lived in Camp 14.  Only after escaping the camp and reaching free lands did he learn that what he experienced—a life stripped of every freedom and basic human right—was a harrowing aberration of human existence.

He said to the crowd, "What you think is so horrific was so normal for me in the camp. It was absolutely normal to see public executions and casually watch beatings of prisoners that led to their deaths." He recalled one of his earliest memories; at the age of 5 or 6, he went to a public execution, which all camp prisoners were required to attend. He was so curious as to why thousands of people were gathering, so he elbowed his way to the front of the crowd. He vividly remembers falling backwards from the shock of the sounds of bullets spraying the prisoner.

There were two executions annually, one in March and the other in November. Each event comprised one to three cursed protagonists. With the exception of some rare special occasion, all inmates were required to attend and watch the executions of their fellow prisoners. The goal of these camp events was to scare other inmates from "straying."

Mr. Shin recalls not flinching or shedding a tear when his mother and brother were executed. Mr. Shin even sat in the front row of the audience. Not crying at executions was not only normal, but was also the acceptable response. When Shin overheard his mother and brother planning to escape the camp, he instinctively responded by finding the nearest guard and repeating to him what he had overheard. (Readers, remember that attempting to flee the camp is the worst crime an inmate could commit.) Shin knew that the punishment for NOT turning in an inmate who was planning to escape was the murder of the overhearer's entire family, himself included.

Shin was taken to a secret underground prison inside the camp, and was extensively tortured for days to extract more information from him. The guards wanted to make sure he was telling the truth, and that he was not co-plotting with them.  Tortures included having lit charcoals under his back while being hung from his four limbs, and having thick metal hooks pierced through his groin to keep him from writhing.  Mr. Shin said he called his biological parents "Mom" and "Dad" only because these were arbitrary terms designated to these people. He never had a concept of family, filial piety, or any sense of love and obligation.

Mr. Shin says that his story could be "nothing, compared to the experiences of other inmates. Compared to theirs, my suffering is nothing." He recalls one time, he dropped a heavy machine while working, and a guard sliced part of his finger off as casual punishment. Mr. Shin said, that he could've had an arm or a leg cut off. Or even have been killed. He shared with us that he was "grateful that I could survive and talk to you today and merely have a finger severed."  He felt deeply grateful that he didn't die from the extensive tortures he experienced, and has been living in a free world for six years since his escape.

In 2010, he met with an ICC member in London who said that she had no way to help Shin because she had no evidence to help people in North Korean camps. Mr. Shin said that he heard the same sentiment from many people.

"Where is the evidence of your story?"

At this point of the lecture, Mr. Shin flipped through a few Power point photos that showed millions of emaciated corpses in massive graves at various Nazi concentration camps, and rows of skulls that formerly belonged to over 2 million people who were exterminated by the Khmer Rouge in killing fields.  Mr. Shin said, with the evidence of dead bodies, the ICC punished Nazi leaders and Khmer Rouge ringleaders. "We think of Cambodian killing fields as history that took place forty long years ago. 'Never again,' we think."

He pleaded, "We're mistaken!

"If we have such evidence from North Korea, I wouldn't be standing before you today."  So many people cried throughout the world when seeing the photos taken of those killed throughout Europe, Kosovo, Cambodia, and other places. Must we wait for polished photos in nice, published reports from the UN to circulate until we act?  My activism is NOT to induce tears for the dead, but to save the dying and keep them alive."

"What can you do to help?" Shin asked the audience. "I want to share my heart tonight and ask you to please save North Korean people before such massive evidence will ever exist.  Heart-wrenching photos do not change dictators.  The genocides and massive killings that happened 60, 40, 20 years ago is not mere history. It is happening today, and will continue to happen until we bring change.

Readers, check out some photos from that night. Also if you’re interested in learning more about his story, please check out the following links:

[BOOK] Escape from Camp 14:One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

[Interview] Anderson Cooper interviews Shin Dong Hyuk

[clip with Anderson Cooper] One of my favorite foods now: In-N-Out burgers from California

[Google Tech Talk] Born and Raised in a Concentration Camp
Shin Dong Hyuk and me after the event

After the talk, we took him a mini surprise birthday celebration. It was his 30th birthday that day, and his first birthday cake. After blowing out the candle, he said “I’m happy.” When someone asked him what he meant by “happy,” he said, “it’s something you say when your face feels it ought to smile.”

Shin Dong-Hyuk’s birthday cake! (Dong is his first name)

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