Escape from a North Korean Prison Camp

The question has been asked many times: "Why didn't the Allies bomb the death camps or at least the railway lines leading to Auschwitz?"  According to classified papers released in 1978, American and British governments knew what was happening to the Jews in Europe and ignored the pleas of rabbis and others to destroy the Nazis' means of transporting Jews to their deaths.  The Allies were already bombing within a mile of the camp at the time, and yet nothing was done to stop the daily incineration of 20,000 people at Auschwitz.  Tragically, fighter pilots with excess, unused bombs from nearby bombing sorties dumped them into the North Sea to lighten their return trip.

Today, a similar situation exists in North Korea.  Thanks to satellite images and eyewitness accounts, we know that approximately 200,000 men, women, and children are enduring enslavement, starvation, and torture in that country's gulags.  Few survivors are ever released, and only one who was born and raised in a prison camp is known to have escaped.  His name is Shin Dong-hyuk, and he is now a human rights activist.

Escape from Camp 14, by PBS Frontline reporter and author Blaine Harden, chronicles Shin's life in the North Korean gulag, the events that led to his escape, and the piecing together of his life after he fled.  From interviews with Shin for more than two years, Harden exposes the depravity of life in North Korea and portrays Shin's gradual awakening to the possibility of a life outside the fence to a world he could never have imagined.

Shin was born into a desperate situation in a prison for political enemies of North Korea.  He knew nothing of life outside the walls of Camp 14.  When he was a teenager, he learned that his family had been sent to the prison 17 years before his birth, when two of his father's brothers defected to South Korea.  Such crimes against the state prescribe the fate that will befall at least three generations of family members in North Korea.  Many prison inmates are never informed of the reason for their incarceration and may be taken from their homes in the middle of the night and imprisoned for life along with their relatives.

Shin regularly witnessed beatings, torture, and murders of others, including his first execution at age four.  Like all prisoners, Shin was trained to inform on other inmates, even his family members, for rewards of extra food to supplement a meager diet of corn, cabbage, and an occasional rat, frog, snake, or insect.  In Camp 14 -- about the size of Los Angeles at 450 square miles -- prisoners work 15-hour days, sleep in filthy rags, and have no access to soap or toilet paper.  Fecal material production in sufficient quantities is required of all inmates, for use as at the only source of crop fertilization.  Dental hygiene is nonexistent, and most prisoners lose their teeth by the time they reach forty years of age.  Furniture and bathing facilities are nonexistent.  Shin slept on a concrete floor, had access to electricity two hours per day, and competed for food with other prisoners, including even his own mother.

Shin was born into a loveless environment surrounded by an electrified barbed-wire fence and guard tower patrols.  Family ties are nonexistent, as is any concept of G-d.  Marriages are arranged as rewards for hard work, and Shin's parents were selected for each other by guards and allowed to spend five consecutive nights together, with sporadic unions over the years.  Prison inmates are literally worked to death and survive by snitching on others.  When Shin was six years old, a teacher discovered a few kernels of corn in a classmate's pocket and proceeded to beat her to death in front of the class.  Shin remembers thinking that the punishment was justified and harboring no ill feelings toward the teacher.  At the time, he had no knowledge of or experience with the basic human emotions of sympathy and sadness.

When he was 13, Shin informed the camp guards of a conversation he overheard between his mother and older brother.  They were plotting to escape, and Shin hoped to win favor and extra food by revealing their plans.  He was forced to witness their execution and endured days of torture in which he was suspended over a coal fire to extract a confession about any role he played in the escape plan.  Today, he bears the burden of guilt for his part in their death.

Two pivotal relationships provided the impetus for Shin's escape.  Following his torture by guards, an older prisoner, whom Shin called "Uncle," cleansed his wounds and nursed him back to health for two months.  Shin had never trusted anyone before, nor experienced feelings of tenderness from or toward another human being.  From "Uncle," Shin first learned about foods he had never tasted such as chicken, pork, and beef, which became a key motivator for his daring flight.

The second relationship was with an educated prisoner from Pyongyang who had attended school in Europe and lived in China.  Park Yong Chul was the first person to tell Shin, who had never heard about the existence of Pyongyang, about all that he was missing.  He learned about life outside Camp 14 and outside North Korea.  From Park, Shin learned about China, South Korea, and the concepts of money, television, computers, and mobile phones.  Particularly compelling for him were the descriptions of food and eating.  He became intoxicated with the idea of eating to his heart's and stomach's content, and his expectations for the future changed as he fantasized about escaping.

Shin's relationship with Park transformed his way of relating to people, as he began to trust Park and view him as critical for his survival.  He and Park planned an escape together in 2005, but, sadly, Park preceded Shin to the electric fence surrounding the camp and was electrocuted by the high voltage.  Shin escaped and made his way to China one month later, despite knowing no one outside camp and having no plan for survival.  Two years later, Shin arrived in South Korea.  Four years later, he was living in Southern California and working as an ambassador for an American human rights group that advocates for the people of North Korea.

But Shin's imprisonment did not end with his escape.  He was tormented by his experiences inside Camp 14 and had difficulty trusting people and forming meaningful relationships.  He was wracked by survivor's guilt and deep shame for informing on his mother and brother.

Shin had to learn to absorb life in the outside world before he was able to understand and articulate what he had experienced and place it in a context that made sense.  His adjustment was difficult.  He was filled with self-loathing and described the process of adapting to his new life as "evolving from being an animal."  He had difficulty enjoying his life in freedom while imagining the people he left behind who were still suffering in the prison camps. 

Escape from Camp 14 is an extraordinary story of the triumph of the human spirit in the most inhumane of circumstances.  Shin's escape from a loveless existence of backbreaking labor, starvation, deprivation, deception, and cruelty was a remarkable feat.  His transformation into a champion in the fight for North Korean prisoners is a testament to his humanity despite his horrific past.

After all he has been through, Shin, above all, is dedicated to raising worldwide awareness of the plight of North Korea's prisoners and fighting for their freedom.  Hopefully, the world will heed his warnings and intervene before too many more people perish.  We must not repeat, with the North Koreans, the same deadly passivity that allowed the Nazis to murder millions.

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