North Korea

'I Escaped a North Korean Prison Camp'

An interview about life inside the Hermit Kingdom's gulag


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.  

NEXT: Sheldon Richman on Why World War II Spending Did Not End the Great Depression

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  1. Anyone interested can probably hire some of Shin Dong-hyuk former fellow prisoners at the Kaesong Industrial Region in business friendly North Korea.…..ial_Region

    1. Among the most pressing are U.S. economic sanctions against the North, prohibiting imports of key technologies and goods, such as computers.

      If the S. Koreans want to export computers into the North, what business is it of ours? I say let them at it, maybe more people will be able to escape.

      1. Not sure what you mean. Anything NK imports is going to the government, not to ordinary people.

  2. We’ve taken care of everything
    The books you read, the songs you sing
    The pictures that give pleasure to your eye

    It’s one for all, all for one
    We work together, common sons
    Never need to wonder how or why

  3. Stories like this one only serve to distract from the real problems that American wage slaves experience every day. Why is reason ignoring the everday heroes of the American working class?

    1. You go to work, they pay you. You are neither a slave or a hero.

        1. Not everyone is savvy enough to check the email address.

          1. It was still obvious sarcasm.

  4. I dunno man, sounds like a lot of he said, she said to me dude.

    1. I _knew_ the bot was North Korean!

  5. This shit is just sickening. It seems I shouldn’t need to be reminded that this stuff is happening every day in the world, but it seems I DO need to be reminded.

    Awful – turned in his own parents like a robot. God bless him for escaping – I hope the rest of his life is happy and worry free! Fuck…

    1. I just hope he makes enough money from his speaking engagements to afford some really good bodyguards. Because I doubt the N. Koreans are very happy about this guy going around telling everyone who will listen about what they really are.

      1. The North Korean government may not even care. I believe that the country has become collectively insane. Where the people all the way to the top actually believe their own propaganda.

  6. Proof that people can be sheep no matter how awful their life may be. In this persons case he knew nothing of the outside world and only what was deemed worthy to be learned. Sounds like our present school system and the the democratic party. You only need to know what we need you to know, so “what difference does it matter”

  7. So what does Reason plan to do about North Korea and it being one great big prison camp?

    1. Free lifetime subscriptions for all successful escapees!

    2. Lyle| 2.26.13 @ 11:33AM |#

      So what does Reason plan to do about North Korea and it being one great big prison camp?

      Use it as a model for our public education system! /ArneDuncan

  8. I think i’ve seen 3 interviews with this guy, and I never cease to be awed by his story…

    …that said = I think he’s given exactly the same canned interview every time I’ve seen him. Yeah, I know it was like ’10 questions’…but he does the closing ‘holocaust’ schtick every time. It would nice if the guy were a little more humanized in his interviews rather than just asked to repeat the same few lines. I’m reminded of the book by the former Sierra Leone child soldier…Ishmael Beah… at least there you got a sense of the actual person rather than just the horror of the ‘atrocities’

    just a thought

    1. Since he was raised in a prison camp and was probably only taught enough to get the slave labor job done since he was born then it wouldn’t surprise me that his abilities to project any type of character would be very limited.

      1. Yeah, I thought of that.

        And its not like I was expecting a stand-up comedy routine. Its just after 3 interviews i haven’t learned anything more than the basic facts of his internment, and his connection with the Holocaust.

        I’d be interested in his impressions of the decadent imperialist running dog sycophantic militarist capitalist warmongers who should drown in a sea of fire.

        i.e. does he watch TV?

      2. There is also no reason to believe the guy would be capable of doing so had he been educated at all.
        He was born of malnourished parents, certainly not well taken care of in his early youth. There’s a good chance he really isn’t all that bright.
        This guy is a prime candidate for a ghost-writer and a good one could make the story compelling and make the poor guy enough money to compensate for his grief.

        1. And maybe the book does that.

    2. Don’t believe this guy?

      You want the real horror of the NORK atrocities? Go to Amazon and start by entering “North Korea”.

  9. “And that question is something like: Why didn’t people bomb the railways that led to the Nazi prison camp?”

    I thought the allies DID bomb most railways, including the ones that led to prison camps. (Which was one of the reasons why POW camps and camps for political prisoners started suffering from typhoid epidemics and starvation as the war went on.)

  10. Does anyone doubt that Bloomberg, Emmanuel, Van Jones, Sibelius,and both Obamas carry the same totalitarian gene as the Dear Leaders of North Korea?

    After four years does anyone doubt?????

  11. 200,000 other forced laborers currently languishing under the regime

  12. 200,000 other forced laborers currently languishing under the

  13. in a political prison camp in North Korea. I was expected to

  14. by journalist Blaine Harden, Escape from Camp

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