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

South Koreans want reunification with the North, but not right away, polls show. They have seen the cost and messiness of German unification. They worry about political collapse in the impoverished North and are afraid that dealing with it would lower their living standards, according to government officials and independent analysts.

For most of the past decade, South Korea's official "sunshine policy" toward the North was all but silent on human rights issues. Seoul gave Kim's government large annual gifts of fertilizer and made major economic investments -- with few strings attached.

Lee's government, which took power in February, has taken a harder line with North Korea, but a substantial portion of the public remains reluctant to condition assistance on issues such as prison camps, slave labor and torture.

Shin does not want vengeance. He'll settle for awareness.

"Kim Jong Il is a gangster," he said. "If we kill him, we will be just like him."

Instead, Shin wants South Koreans and the rest of the world to pay closer attention to what is happening to people still in those camps.

To that end, he tells his awful story -- to anyone in South Korea who will listen, to human rights groups in Japan and, earlier this year, on a college tour of the United States.

An unforgettable -- almost unfathomable -- chapter of that story is about the execution of his mother, who was hanged in 1996, on the same day Shin's only brother was shot to death. Both killings, Shin writes in his book, occurred at Camp No. 14 in a kind of public square, a place where he had seen many others executed.

Before he was taken to the square and ordered to watch them die, Shin said, he had spent seven months in an underground cell, where guards used torture to force him to talk about a supposed "family conspiracy" to escape from the camp.

Since his mother hadn't told him about such a plan, Shin said, he was startled to hear of it. His torturers also surprised him by telling him, for the first time, why he and his family were in the camp. Two of his father's brothers had collaborated with South Korea during the Korean War and then fled to the South, the guards told him. His father was guilty because he was the brother of traitors. Shin was guilty because he was his father's son.

As for the escape plan of his mother and brother, Shin knew nothing. Still, the guards wanted a confession.

As described in the book, they built a charcoal fire. Shin was stripped of his clothes. Ropes were tied to his arms and legs and secured to the ceiling of the cell. He was dangled over the fire. When he writhed away from the flame, a guard pierced his gut with a steel hook to hold him in place. He lost consciousness.

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