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North Korean Prison Camp Escapee Tells of Horrors, Worries About Those Left Behind

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It is illustrated with simple line drawings of his mother's hanging, the amputation of his finger, his torture by fire. There are black-and-white photographs of his scars, as well as drawings and a satellite photo of Camp No. 14. It is located in Kaechon, about 55 miles north of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

The book grew out of a diary he kept in the Seoul hospital while he was recovering from the nightmares and screaming bouts that were part of his adjustment.

It begins with the story of his birth in Camp No. 14 to parents whose union was arranged by prison guards. As a reward for excellent work as a mechanic, his father was given the woman who became Shin's mother. Shin lived with her until he was 12, when he was taken away to work with other children.

In the book, Shin describes the "common and almost routine" savagery of the camp: the rape of his cousin by prison guards and the beating to death of a young girl found with five grains of unauthorized wheat in her pocket. He once found three kernels of corn in a pile of cow dung, he writes. He picked them out, cleaned them off on his sleeve and ate them. "As miserable as it may seem, that was my lucky day," he writes.

Being the sole escapee in the capitalist South from the prison-camp horrors of the communist North has not made Shin a celebrity or afforded him much of a living. "Escape to the Outside World" has sold about 500 copies from its single Korean-language printing of 3,000. No edition in English is being undertaken, he said.

He is unemployed and worries about how to pay his $300-a-month rent. His defector stipend of $800 a month, which he had received from the South Korean government since arriving in Seoul 2 1/2 years ago, ended in August.

Making money. Saving money. Dating. Loving another human being. These are all strange concepts that Shin has struggled -- and largely failed -- to understand.

"I never heard the word 'love' in the camp," he said. "I want to have a girlfriend, but I don't know how to get one. Two months ago, I found myself without any money. It suddenly occurred to me that I had to go out and support myself."

Shin also struggles to understand why prosperous Koreans in the South seem so uninterested in and unmoved by the suffering of tens of thousands of fellow Koreans living in torment in the North's prisons.

"I don't want to be critical of this country, but I would say that out of the total population of South Korea, only .001 percent has any real understanding of or interest in North Korea," Shin said. "Only a few decades ago, the South Koreans had their own human rights issues. But rapid growth and prosperity has made them forget."

Shin may overstate the South's lack of concern about human rights in the North, but he has a point.

When South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was elected last year, only 3 percent of voters named North Korea as a primary concern. They were overwhelmingly interested in economic growth and higher salaries.


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