Shin Dong-hyuk was born inside Kaechon #14, one of the world’s harshest labor camps. His parents were North Korean prisoners, allowed to be together a few times a year as a reward for hard work. Shin was so steeped in the values of the camp that when he heard his mother and brother planning to escape, he reported them to the guards and then watched, untroubled, as they were executed. He was tortured and starved until he broke out of the camp at age 23. His reason for risking his life at the camp’s electrified fence wasn’t freedom; it was food.
Today Shin travels the world, telling his story and trying to draw attention to the estimated 200,000 other forced laborers currently languishing under the regime of Kim Jong-un. A recent book by journalist Blaine Harden, Escape from Camp 14 (Viking), tells his story.
reason: Where were you born?
Shin Dong-hyuk: I was born in a political prison camp in North Korea. I was expected to do manual labor and to work. I had no rights. I had no concept of what human rights were. I was only destined to live and die in this prison camp.
reason: What was daily life like?
Shin: We woke up early in the morning before sunrise and we worked all day. It was manual labor all day well into night until the prison guards deemed fit for us to go to sleep. It was a process repeated day in and day out. And it was something that I thought was very natural. I never questioned or doubted what my life was all about in the prison camp.
reason: Did you know anything about the world outside the camp?
Shin: There was no way for the prisoners to know what was beyond the electrified fence, whether it was a world of prison camps or whether it was a different society. We never even thought about what was outside the prison camp fence. And the prison guards certainly didn’t teach us about what was outside the prison camp. My own mother and father never talked to me about the outside world.
reason: Who were your parents? Why were they there?
Shin: I really don’t know the answer to that. I know that my mother and father met and were quote-unquote “married” in the camp. But my guess is that they themselves were sent at a very early age to the prison camp. I could not know what their crime was and I actually had no interest in finding out what their crime was at that point in my life.
reason: Do you mind telling us the story of what happened to your parents?
Shin: I witnessed my mother’s public execution in the camp at the age of 14. A result of that was that I was very severely mistreated and went through terrible suffering. At the time of my escape from the prison camp in 2005 my father was still alive. Regarding whether he is still alive now I have no information.
reason: In America, there’s been hope that the new regime in North Korea will change things. What is your opinion?
Shin: We all know the new, young leader Kim Jong-un came to power. He and I, we are the same age. In many media outlets we have seen instances of Kim Jong-un showing a new side of the regime. What is certain, in my opinion, is that Kim Jong-un is a dictator just like his grandfather and his father. No matter [what] shockingly different view he might show of himself through the media in North Korea, I have no expectation that he will rule differently from his father or grandfather.
reason: What can be done about the human rights issue in North Korea?
Shin: As I travel throughout the world I meet a lot of different politicians, many leaders. Unfortunately I really haven’t been able to find a clear-cut answer from these people.
One of the things that I always do when I visit these cities—whether it’s L.A. or cities in Europe—is I try to find and visit any museums that are related to the Holocaust. The reason why I visit these museums is to try to find solutions to the North Korean human rights issue. Yesterday, I had the chance to visit again the U.S. Holocaust museum here in Washington, D.C. In one of the displays there was a huge banner and there was one question on the wall. And that question is something like: Why didn’t people bomb the railways that led to the Nazi prison camp?
That question pertains to what happened in the past, 60 years ago in during World War II. But my opinion is that that question still applies to what is going on as we speak. I believe the true answer or solution to that question lies with the world community at large.
I myself am not an expert enough to come up with an answer as to what the international community should do to address the human rights situation in North Korea.
reason: Are you optimistic about the possibility that the world might do something?
Shin: If we do not deal with this issue soon then the question that is raised on that wall in the Holocaust Museum will continue to be asked through history. If we work harder to find a solution then perhaps that question will be answered, as it applies to not only the North Korean human rights situation but to any other violations of human rights that occur in the world.