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Escapee Tells of Horrors in North Korean Prison Camp

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 11, 2008

SEOUL -- In Camp No. 14, the North Korean political prison where Shin Dong-hyuk was born and where he says he watched the hanging of his mother, inmates never saw a picture of Kim Jong Il.

"I had no idea who he is," Shin said, referring to the leader whose photograph is displayed nearly everywhere in North Korea.

Inmates did not need to know the face of their "Dear Leader," as Kim is called. Behind electrified fences, they tended pigs, tanned leather, collected firewood and labored in mines until they died or were executed.

The exception is Shin, who is 26 and lives in a small rented room here in Seoul. He is a thin, short, shy man, with quick, wary eyes, a baby face, and sinewy arms bowed from childhood labor. There are burn scars on his back and left arm from where he was tortured by fire at age 14, when he was unable to explain why his soon-to-be-hanged mother had tried to escape. The middle finger of his right hand is cut off at the first knuckle, punishment for accidentally dropping a sewing machine in the garment factory at his camp.

There are 14,431 North Korean defectors living in South Korea, according to the latest government count. Shin is the only one known to have escaped to the South from a prison camp in the North.

Shin's story could not be independently verified, but it has been vetted and vouched for by leading human rights activists and members of defector organizations in Seoul. They came to know Shin when he arrived in South Korea in 2005 and was hospitalized with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"At first, I could not believe him because no one ever succeeded in the escape," said Kim Tae-jin, president of the Democracy Network Against North Korean Gulag and a defector from North Korea who spent a decade in another concentration camp there. The No. 15 camp where Kim was confined -- unlike Shin's No. 14 -- sometimes released political prisoners, as it did Kim, if they were "fully revolutionized."

"I saw too many prisoners executed before my eyes for attempting to escape," said Kim. "No one made it out, except for Shin."

The U.S. government and human rights groups estimate that 150,000 to 200,000 people are now being held in the North's prison camps. Many of the camps can be seen in satellite images, but North Korea denies their existence.

In recent weeks, Shin has been watching old films of the Allied liberation of Nazi concentration camps, which included scenes of bulldozers unearthing corpses that Adolf Hitler's collapsing Third Reich had tried to hide.

"It is just a matter of time before Kim Jong Il thinks of this," Shin said in an interview. "I hope that the United States, through pressure and persuasion, can convince Kim not to murder all those people in the camps."

Shin is the author of a grimly extraordinary book, "Escape to the Outside World."

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.

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.

Shin recovered in a cell with the help of a sickly older man who gave him half his food ration. Months later, when Shin walked out of the underground cell to the public square, he was joined by his father.

"When I saw that place, I thought my father and I would be executed," Shin said in the interview.

Instead, to his surprise, he became a spectator. His mother and brother were brought to the square.

Watching his mother being hanged, Shin recalls, he was relieved it was her, not him.

"I felt she deserved to die," he said. "I was full of anger for the torture that I went through. I still am angry at her."

Nine years later, Shin escaped. He was working in the camp's garment factory with an older prisoner who had seen the outside world and wanted to see it again. When they were collecting wood in a mountainous corner of the camp on Jan. 2, 2005, the two ran to an electrified barbed-wire fence. His friend got hung up and died in the fence; Shin stepped on his body and managed to get through.

"I could afford little thought for my poor friend and I was just overwhelmed by joy," he writes of his first moments beyond the fence.

He broke into a nearby house, where he stole clothes and rice. He sold some of the rice for cash and made his way north to the border with China. There, he bribed guards with cigarettes and ran across the frozen Tumen River. Shin says he is still amazed that he got out.

"I think God was helping me," he said.

Here in South Korea, Shin sometimes goes to church on Sundays. "I go to the church, but I don't really understand the words or the concepts," he said.

The concept of forgiveness is especially difficult for him to grasp. In Camp No. 14, he said, to ask for forgiveness was "to beg not to be punished."

Shin could not find his uncles in South Korea. He searched for them for a while, then gave up. He no longer has nightmares and sleeps soundly through the night. There is, however, a new kind of misery.

"I have recently discovered that I am lonely," he said.

In the prison camp, he and everyone else ignored his birthday. But now when his birthday rolls around, he aches inside.

"I realize you really need a family," he said.

Shin's birthday was Nov. 19, and four friends threw him a surprise party at a T.G.I. Friday's in Seoul. It was his first birthday party.

"I was very moved," he said.

Special correspondent Stella Kim contributed to this report.

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