As Shin Dong-hyuk crawled over his friend’s lifeless body, the 23-year-old North Korean could feel the electric current shooting through him.
Luckily, for Shin, the two pairs of pants he was wearing, coupled with his friend’s corpse, shielded him for the most part from the deadly voltage pulsing through the barbed-wire fences.
Those fences had trapped him since his birth inside Camp 14, a North Korean prison on the Taedong River in the hills, about 50 miles northeast of the capital city of Pyongyang.
But on this frigid afternoon, Jan. 2, 2005, something happened at the camp that had never happened before — someone escaped.
Shin’s friend, Park Yong Chul, made it to the fence first, pushing his upper body through the lowest two strands of electrified wire. The current, though, was so powerful that it glued Park to the fence, killing him within seconds.
As journalist Blaine Harden writes in “Escape From Camp 14,” the gripping account of Shin’s life in the forced labor camp, “The weight of his [Park’s] body pulled down the bottom strand of wire, pinning it against the snowy ground and creating a small gap in the fence.”
[Related: Letter from Shin Dong-hyuk]
Shin crawled through that gap, but not before exposing both of his legs to the wire, incinerating his skin. In terrible pain, he ran down the mountain away from Camp 14, becoming the first known person to have been born in and lived his whole life in a North Korean prison camp, and then to escape.
By evening, after traveling a few miles, he had found a few ears of dried corn, some cotton shoes and a worn military uniform that would allow him to ditch his prisoner’s garb and avoid unwanted attention.
Shin had no money but was trying to make his way 370 miles north, to the Chinese border, to freedom.
He was wary of running into police, but he was also thin and starving.
He blended perfectly into North Korea.
On a recent late November afternoon, Shin sat for an interview in the cafeteria of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C, recalling his own captivity and considering comparisons to the stories from the concentration camps of World War II. Now 31, Shin sat across from me as he happily dipped his three-cheese pizza into tomato soup between bites of a garden salad and sips of Dr Pepper.
It was a cold, windy and rainy day outside the museum, which the North Korean defector said he visits whenever he travels to Washington from his home in Seoul, the South Korean capital. This was his fifth time at the USHMM.
“It’s meaningful every time,” Shin said through a translator, as we walked through the exhibits of the Nazis’ rise to power. “The misery suffered by the Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust is so similar to what I saw in the [North Korean] prison camps.”
Slim still, and short — about 5-foot-6 — Shin’s frame has been permanently shaped by Camp 14.
His shoulders are slightly hunched from heavy labor; skin on his back and rear is scarred from torture by fire in an underground prison; over his pubis sits a scar from the steel hook that was used to hold him over a charcoal fire as his skin bubbled; both of his shins are disfigured from the electrified fence, and his right middle finger is cut off at the first knuckle — punishment he received for dropping a sewing machine at one of Camp 14’s factories.
Shin Dong-hyuk at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Photo by Jared Sichel
At the museum, Shin wore a red sweater, blue skinny jeans, a black Abercrombie & Fitch raincoat and bright blue sneakers. With sleek glasses; straight, long, black hair; and bangs, he seemed comfortable with a Western, or at least South Korean, look.
Reserved and unassuming, Shin spoke quietly throughout the day, both while walking through the exhibits and at lunch. He smiled occasionally but had a serious, thoughtful — sometimes even flat — look on his face when speaking with me.
Although when he spoke in Korean with his translator, he would occasionally chuckle or say something humorous, which would prompt his translator to tell me what he said.
He lives now in an apartment in Seoul, but Shin isn’t taking classes and doesn’t have a full-time job; he said he has friends and has even made enough money from sales of “Escape From Camp 14” to live comfortably. He has also established a nonprofit, Inside NK, which he wants to grow into a full-time job.
Shin’s translator said Shin refuses to accept payment for any of his speeches and appearances, but that when organizations want to pay, the money will sometimes be directed toward Inside NK.
At the museum, Shin sought the horrific images from 1945 of thousands of decomposing bodies from a liberated Nazi concentration camp being dug up by a bulldozer.
The horror of that image, which he had viewed for the first time in South Korea, convinced him that he must do what he can to raise awareness of the plight of the prisoners languishing today in North Korea’s four concentration camps. Shin has become, despite his desire to remain private, a public face for what is a growing movement to shed light on North Korea’s totalitarian government and its unrelenting political imprisonment of its countrymen.
The international media coverage of North Korea tends to focus on anything but the country’s humanitarian crisis. We hear about the country’s nuclear program or the budding friendship between former American basketball star Dennis Rodman and North Korea’s 31-year-old dictator Kim Jong-un, or the latter’s recent execution of his uncle, Jang Sung-taek, formerly Kim’s No. 2 man.
But Shin is a living testament to the fact that attention must be paid to what is happening to a completely hidden population: Nearly seven decades after the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet forces on Jan. 27, 1945, North Korea’s concentration camps have now existed more than 12 times longer than the Nazi camps and twice as long as the Soviet gulag.
According to David Hawk, author of “The Hidden Gulag,” the camps hold between 80,000 and 120,000 North Korean political prisoners in a country with a population of less than 25 million people — that is, proportionally, the equivalent of 1.5 million Americans languishing in slave camps, without judicial review, for arbitrary “crimes.” Many estimate the number incarcerated in the North Korean camps at 200,000, but no one can know for sure.
Further, although the prison and torture network established by the North Korean government is modeled on the unending detentions and hard labor of Stalin’s gulag, not on the Nazi extermination camps, Shin fears the North Korean regime will one day take a page out of Hitler’s playbook and begin to execute its prisoners.
“The fate of the North Korean prison camp inmates — they can be burned, gassed like this, shot to death,” Shin told me during our visit to the Holocaust museum. “To think of what fate awaits them, that’s what fills me with fear.”
A Google Maps satellite view of Camp 14 on the Taedong River in North Korea.
A slave by birth
Shin had committed no sin, except by North Korean standards. He was born, in November 1982, at Camp 14, a kwan-li-so — a forced labor camp for “political prisoners.”
Shin was there because he committed the crime of being the son of his father, whose two uncles fled to South Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953). By dictatorial fiat, that meant that the uncles’ relatives had to be imprisoned, isolated from the public, for three generations. He never asked his mother, Jang Hye Gyung, how she ended up in the camp — and she never told him why.
Unlike Jewish families in Europe who’d had lives before the Holocaust, Shin knew only Camp 14. He was, by his own account, not fully human. The camp is 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, about the size of the city of Los Angeles, according to Harden. His home was a one-story building shared by four families, where Shin and his mother had one room to themselves and slept next to each other every night on a concrete floor.
Families at Camp 14 get just two hours daily of electricity — from 4 a.m. to 5 a.m. and from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. There are no beds, tables, chairs or running water. They use a communal privy, the waste from which is used as fertilizer for the camp farm.
Shin’s diet was corn porridge, pickled cabbage and cabbage soup, twice daily, for 23 years. There were no exceptions, except when the political police, the bo-wi-bu, withheld food as punishment.
He was starved, overworked as a farmer, construction worker and repairman, and only minimally schooled. His primitive life taught him little beyond survival — Shin had no concept of love, compassion or morality.
His mother was not his guardian — she was competition for food. For Jang, Shin was not a son to be loved and cared for — he was an impediment to survival.
As Harden writes, Shin would often eat his mother’s meals; it didn’t occur to him that she would go hungry as a result. When young, he would scrounge around the room as she worked the fields. If she came home to find that food was missing, she would beat Shin with a hoe or shovel, often severely.
Shin had an older brother, He Geun, but he barely knew him. When Shin was 4, He Geun moved out of the house — mandatory at age 12 — and into a dormitory near his worksite. Shin also had a father, Shin Gyung Sub, who lived in the camp but whom Shin also barely knew.
Shin’s parents’ “marriage” was arranged by the bo-wi-bu — as a reward to his father “for his skill in operating a metal lathe in the camp’s machine shop,” Harden writes.
Aside from five nights per year when he could be with his wife, Shin’s father lived in a dormitory at the machine shop.
As was true at Nazi and Soviet slave camps, conditions at the North Korean ones are ripe for abuse by guards, who rape female prisoners and often use sex as a carrot for more food or less punishment. Of course, the women are not allowed to resist.
One night when he was 10, Shin went looking for his mother. He was hungry. He peered through a window into a guard’s office, which his mother was cleaning. A guard approached Jang and “began to grope her.” Shin watched as they had sex.
He never mentioned to his mother what he’d seen.
Luckily for Jang, she didn’t become pregnant. Women whose bellies begin to protrude have a knack for disappearing at Camp 14 if the pregnancy is unwanted by the guards.
An Myeong Chul, a defector who was a guard in the prison camp system, told Harden that “he had personally seen [unplanned] newborns clubbed to death with iron rods” by camp guards.
Camp 14’s ‘education’
Teachers at Shin’s school in Camp 14 were uniformed guards who always carried pistols. Shin saw one of them beat a 6-year-old classmate to death with a chalkboard pointer. Illustrations by Shin Dong-hyuk / Courtesy Database Center for North Korean Human Rights
One day, when Shin was 6, he was sitting in class when his teacher “sprang a surprise search,” digging through the pockets of all 40 students in class. The teacher, whose name was unknown by the students, found five kernels of corn, as Shin tells it, all of which belonged to a female classmate.
Ordering the girl to kneel in front of the class, the teacher repeatedly struck her head with his chalkboard pointer. After repeated strikes, lumps puffed up on her skull, blood poured from her head, and she collapsed, unconscious. Later that night, she died. The next day, the teacher was back in front of the class.
It wasn’t the first murder Shin witnessed, but it was the first informal one. Aside from the two or three annual executions that every prisoner has to watch at Camp 14, the bo-wi-bu have the green light to punish at will.
Unlike students in the rest of North Korea, prisoners are not fed the brainwash devised by the Kim regime of its own god-like benevolence. Rather, they are taught next to nothing.
Shin believes children born in the camp were intentionally kept ignorant. Classes for child prisoners brought in from the outside, who knew something about society in North Korea, or maybe even China or South Korea, were held elsewhere.
As the 13-year-old Shin listened through the kitchen door, he could hear his mother and brother speaking.
One word made him perk up — escape. He Geun apparently had left his worksite without permission, and he knew that he faced punishment if he returned, which Shin concluded he did not intend to do.
Knowing the rule, “Any witness to an attempted escape who fails to report it will be shot immediately,” Shin’s “camp-bred instincts took over,” as Harden writes.
Running out of the house and finding the school’s night guard, Shin did exactly what he had been raised to do — he ratted on his own mother and brother, explaining what he had overheard. That night, he slept at the dormitory, not at home.
The next day, guards came and found Shin in the schoolyard. Handcuffed, blindfolded, pushed into a car and taken to an underground prison in Camp 14, he was confused why he, an informer, was being treated like this.
Eventually, he realized that the night guard had taken all the credit for foiling his family’s escape plan — his mother and brother were both caught.
Unable to trust the son of attempted runaways, guards held Shin in the underground prison for eight months, initially subjecting him to brutal torture and feeding him just enough tasteless food to survive his dark cell, which he shared with a kind old man.
After the discovery of his mother and brother’s escape plan, Shin was held for seven months in a secret underground prison inside Camp 14. He was 13 years old.
In late November, upon his release, guards had Shin stamp an agreement that prohibited him from discussing the underground prison. Again, he was handcuffed and blindfolded, then driven to a field near his childhood home — the same field where he had witnessed several annual executions for most of his life.
A guard removed his handcuffs and blindfold and sat him down. Then, his mother and brother were dragged out and led to a gallows and wooden stake lodged in the ground. Facing execution, Jang Hye Gyung tried to catch her son’s eyes, but he refused to look. As his mother hung, he felt at the time that she deserved death for endangering his life with the escape plan.
Tied to a wooden pole, his brother was next: Three guards each fired three shots, killing him instantly, which, Shin felt he also deserved.
When Shin initially shared with Harden the account of Jang’s and He’s executions, he left out the part where he turned them in. But living in freedom, learning basic values such as honesty, made him “want to be more moral,” which made him feel guilty, as he told Harden.
“I was more faithful to guards than to my family,” Shin said. “We were each other’s spies. I know by telling the truth, people will look down on me.”
‘Pointers from Hitler’
“Perhaps Kim Il-sung took pointers from Hitler himself,” Shin wondered aloud as he studied exhibitions detailing the Nazis’ rise to power.
If any of the North Korean dictators, their families and their minions have studied the 20th century’s most notorious villain, it would be no surprise.
Exhibit after exhibit, Shin described how similarly Camp 14 operates to the Nazi concentration camps — the humiliation, the beatings, the starvation, the utter lack of human dignity.
At Camp 14, he said, “There was a special section where all the bodies were dumped, because the graves that were dug were very shallow,” Shin said. “When it rained, the bodies would come out of the ground.”
Looking at pictures of Germans humiliating Orthodox Jews in the streets of Berlin, Shin said that at Camp 14, the children of the prison guards often would taunt and throw rocks at Shin and his fellow prisoners.
Sometimes, Shin said, “The prison guards would strip the inmates of their clothes and make fun of them.”
Unlike the Nazis, however, the North Korean government does not have a policy of mass extermination — although, as Shin points out, the combination of starvation, torture and slave labor can be a protracted death sentence.
Like its Nazi counterpart, though, the North Korean government sometimes uses prisoners as lab rats to test the potency of certain chemicals. Shin remembers when guards gave 15 inmates chemical solutions to rub on themselves. Shortly thereafter, they developed boils on their skin.
As Harden wrote, “Shin saw a truck arrive at the factory and watched as the ailing prisoners were loaded into it. He never saw them again.”
According to The Guardian newspaper, prisoners and guards from Camp 22 in Hamgyong “described watching entire families being put in glass chambers and gassed.”
Kwon Hyuk, who was chief of management at Camp 22, told The Guardian, “Normally, a family sticks together and individual prisoners stand separately around the corners. Scientists observe the entire process from above, through the glass.”
One official document smuggled out by a defector said that 39-year-old Lin Hun-Nwa was transferred from Camp 22 “for the purpose of human experimentation of liquid gas for chemical weapons.”
In the underground prison, guards tortured Shin over a coal fire, seeking to find out his role in the planned escape of his mother and brother.
In 2004, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, traveled to Seoul to speak with three defectors who alleged having been involved in those experiments.
Cooper sits on the board of directors of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and has worked actively in recent months to shame and pressure Rodman regarding his “basketball diplomacy” with North Korea.
“I will never forget the anguish of a second defector who years after the fact broke down describing how he supervised the slow killing of parents and their child in a glass-encased chamber,” Cooper wrote in a December op-ed in this newspaper. “Shocking details of how long the agony went on and the efforts of the doomed parents to breathe air into the lungs of their dying child were duly written down and forwarded for analysis to those in charge of the production and upgrade of North Korean poison gases.”
At the Holocaust museum, passing slowly from section to section, Shin was drawn to an exhibit detailing the Nazis’ use of kapos, Jewish prisoners who the Germans assigned to supervise their fellow Jews.
For Nazi guards, giving Jews positions of relative power was not only a matter of efficiency; it turned Jews against one another, as kapos were often as brutal as the German guards — a tactic Shin saw employed at Camp 14.
“Certain prison inmates [are] the section leaders among the prison inmates,” Shin said, describing the camp’s hierarchy. “They, themselves, would control, under the orders of the prison guards, the other inmates.”
Observing the images of faces of Polish Jews who were moments from execution, Shin was awed by what he termed “faces of defiance.”
He said there was no corollary in Camp 14, where, before a public execution, guards would beat and torture a prisoner before filling his or her mouth with pebbles, making it impossible for them to yell out anything defiant in their final moments.
Shin said he knows of no silver bullet for the North Korean crisis. But what he does know, and what disappoints him, is the world’s ignorance of and seeming indifference to the 21st century’s gulag — the same kind of indifference that allowed Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot to carry out similar political persecutions and mass imprisonments.
“There was an opportunity to bomb this area, to try to save these prisoners,” Shin said, pointing at satellite images of the train tracks leading to Auschwitz, which the United States declined to strike. “The same thing today — we see through Google Earth, we know where these prison camps are in North Korea.”
Yet, a war with the North is not in the cards, according to author Hawk.
“It will never happen, simply because the North Koreans have the ability to destroy Seoul,” North Korean expert Hawk said in a recent interview. With thousands of long-range artillery guns and missile batteries built into the mountainsides near the border, North Korea could, as it has threatened, turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.”
“That will always deter military intervention by the South Koreans, or the United States, or anybody else,” Hawk said.
As is true for most North Koreans, who live near starvation, almost anything at Camp 14 is viewed as edible. Shin and his fellow prisoners ate frogs, snakes, insects, rats —anything.
In the winter, when food is scarce, prisoners try to abate hunger pangs by not defecating, regurgitating and re-eating food — nothing is off limits, but none of it changes the fact of starvation.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Kim family lost crucial subsidies from its communist ally — free fuel and cheap fertilizers. A massive famine in the 1990s is estimated to have killed 1 million North Koreans, whose country was unable and unwilling to feed its own citizens.
Despite the government’s near complete control over what information leaves North Korea, some photos and videos have reached Western media that look like the liberation footage from the Nazi camps in 1945 — young children, devastatingly thin, with their ribs visibly protruding.
And those photos are of North Koreans who live outside the camps.
According to Kang Chol-hwan, author of “The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag,” food shortages in the 1990s were so bad that ordinary citizens “had to resort to boiling tree bark and the roots of rice plants to make the tough fibers digestible.”
Kang was released from Camp 15 in 1987 and fled the North in 1992. Now a journalist in South Korea, Kang has interviewed more than 500 refugees and defectors from the North. He writes in the preface to his book that after hearing defectors’ testimonies of mass starvation in the North, he wondered, “Has the entire country turned into a gigantic gulag?”
“Life in the camps,” as Washington Post blogger Max Fisher wrote in The Atlantic, “is an exaggerated metaphor for life on the outside.”
In March, the United Nations reported that 25 percent of North Korean children are stunted from chronic malnutrition. In April 2012, professor Daniel Schwekendiek from Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul told the BBC that, due to malnutrition, North Korean defectors to South Korea are between one and three inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts.
The North’s totalitarian dictatorship faults natural conditions for the country’s unending food shortage, but it has only itself to blame. The government denies market incentives to farmers, centrally manages the country’s agriculture and lacks the cash to purchase modern farm equipment. Meanwhile, North Korea’s elite government officials live in luxury — Kim’s collection includes his own private island and a personal yacht.
Today, Shin says, the variety of food now available to him is his favorite thing about freedom. After going through the main exhibition at the Holocaust museum, he abruptly decided he had had enough and announced that it was time for lunch.
Knowing the diet he subsisted on for 23 years, who would argue with him?
“To be able to go to a restaurant and choose to eat delicious food and not eat not-so-tasty food,” Shin said, “that’s the best expression of freedom that I can have.”
At the cafe, Shin visibly enjoyed his meal and was curious at my choice of soup — matzah ball, which he had never seen before. Told that it’s part of Jewish cuisine, Shin asked whether his own tomato soup “is also a Jewish soup.”
The Korean Peninsula
Founded in 1953 as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the most secretive country on earth lies on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula.
Once the brutal Japanese occupation ended with the empire’s fall in 1945, at the end of World War II, the peninsula was divided into two zones, somewhat arbitrarily, along the 38th parallel. The north was occupied by the Soviet Union; the south by the United States.
While the two superpowers had originally hoped to create a unified Korea, that quickly became impossible. In the Soviet-led communist North, Kim Il-sung, a ruthless, nationalist dictator, had his eyes set on controlling the entire peninsula. In the South, the authoritarian, anti-communist and American-backed Syngman Rhee desired the same.
On June 25, 1950, after receiving support from both the Russians and Chinese, Kim Il-sung ordered the North Korean People’s Army to cross the 38th parallel, launching a war that would engulf the two Koreas, along with America and China, and kill nearly 3 million soldiers and civilians. It would also leave both countries with their borders unchanged following a 1953 truce.
Still divided at the 38th parallel, North and South Korea have become models for radically different worldviews.
The North, led today by Kim Jong-un, grandson of Kim Il-sung, denies citizens freedom of movement, freedom of speech and even, as philosopher Hu Shih described China under Mao, the “freedom of silence.”
“Residents of a communist state are required to make positive statements of belief and loyalty,” Hu said. In North Korea, images of citizens publicly wailing when Kim Jong Il died in 2011 made outsiders wonder whether they were genuinely heartbroken or just fearful of not appearing loyal.
Although North Korea is portrayed as a comically evil regime in films like “Team America: World Police” (2004), the reality is anything but funny.
In something Americans might find familiar from the horrors depicted in Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” novels. the North Korean government installs government-operated radios in every home — they can’t be turned off, and outside signals are jammed. Schools double as indoctrination mills, teaching students songs like “We Have Nothing to Envy in the World.” The government occasionally launches massive national work campaigns, with slogans such as “Let’s Breed More High Yielding Fish!”
According to Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times reporter and author of “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” every town has its own movie theater, but the state-run Korean Feature Film Studio produces all the films. Without any information from the outside world, the government’s propaganda — that North Korea is the greatest country on earth, and that the American imperialists wish to destroy it — is difficult to counter.
The Kim family regularly orders public executions and uses political purges as a form of intimidation against would-be agitators. Being caught with a Bible or a South Korean DVD can land one in a prison camp or in front of a firing squad.
The government is so concerned about the increased trickle of outside culture reaching North Koreans that, according to Harden, the state will sometimes cut electricity to specific neighborhoods and raid apartments — “to see what tapes and discs were stuck inside the players.”
You don’t want to be the one caught holding the DVD.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimates that North Korea’s GDP (gross domestic product) — one measure of an economy’s size and wealth — was $40 billion in 2011, only $1,800 per citizen. The CIA describes North Korea as “one of the world’s most centrally directed and least open economies.”
South Korea, meanwhile, is a leading economic power, exporting everything from ships to electronics. Seoul, the nation’s capital, is a sprawling metropolis, home to nearly 10.5 million Koreans.
For Justin Wheeler, an activist for opening up North Korean society, South Korea’s dynamism is an example of what the trapped citizens of the North could achieve if its government allowed them to.
Wheeler is the vice president for Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a Torrance-based group that not only advocates for the North Korean people, but directly helps them, employing “protection officers” who smuggle North Korean refugees out of China, where North Korean agents are said to hunt down defectors. Additionally, China regularly repatriates North Korean defectors to their home country.
In fact, as revealed in a recent PBS documentary, “Secret State of North Korea,” the Chinese government has installed a barbed-wire fence on parts of the border, making it harder not only for North Koreans to sneak out, but for activists with thumb drives and DVD players to sneak in.
“Fifty years ago, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world,” Wheeler said in an interview at LiNK’s offices, located in an industrial park. “Today it’s one of the most dynamic economies. The North Korean people have that exact same potential.”
In a search on Google for a nighttime satellite image of East Asia, lights dot the landscape from Japan to Vietnam to China, and South Korea, particularly Seoul, is a blob of light.
But between the 38th parallel and China is complete darkness. That is North Korea —where 23 million people survive with barely any electricity, cut off from the outside world.
After his escape from Camp 14, Shin spent about a month making his way through North Korea, making friends with the homeless underworld and hopping on and off trains between cities. Eventually, he reached the Tumen River, bribed a border guard and crossed the river into China.
He spent more than a year laying low in China. Well fed but working for measly pay in people’s homes, he was wary of attracting attention from the government, which typically repatriates North Korean defectors, claiming they are “economic migrants.” If the Chinese government were to recognize defectors like Shin as humanitarian refugees, it would be prohibited, under international law, from returning them to North Korea.
In February 2006, after moving around much of China, Shin ran into a Korean-born journalist in a restaurant in Shanghai. The journalist listened to — and believed — Shin’s story, then smuggled him past Chinese police and into the South Korean consulate, which provided Shin diplomatic immunity.
After six months living at the consulate, Shin was flown to Seoul; soon thereafter, he moved to a government-run resettlement center 40 miles south. He struggled to adapt to life in the free world. He frequently had nightmares of Camp 14, worrying about his father’s fate in the camp. He also stopped eating.
After a few months in a psychiatric ward at the resettlement center, he moved into a government-owned apartment in Hwaseong, 30 miles outside Seoul, where he still struggled with his new life, but eventually learned about South Korean life by venturing out into the city. His growth was, as he told Harden, like the “slow growth of a fingernail.”
In the West, as news spread of a prison-camp escapee living in South Korea, Shin was invited to speak in spring 2008 at UC Berkeley and at Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. At the same time, he came to believe that his story, and the plight of his fellow North Koreans, was simply not of interest to most South Koreans, who he says are more concerned with economic growth.
In 2009, he accepted a position with LiNK and moved to Southern California.
The South Bay may seem like an odd place for a Korean-based nonprofit to headquarter, but there’s logic to the choice. In the Korean diaspora, there’s no better place than Southern California for a Korean to feel at home — more than 300,000 Korean Americans live in greater Los Angeles.
Founded in 2004 in Washington, D.C., LiNK initially approached the North Korean problem from a policy angle, trying to make the humanitarian crisis a priority in meetings with congressional members.
But as its vice president, Wheeler, said during a meeting in LiNK’s office, “It was somewhat of a stalemate at the high politics level,” with nuclear talks crowding out the Kim regime’s oppression.
So the group refocused, reorganized and relocated to California in 2008, deciding that advocacy wasn’t enough — especially when there were still North Korean defectors hiding in China, on the run and often exploited.
Since 2010, LiNK’s anonymous “protection officers” in Asia have helped bring 204 refugees to freedom through its 3,500-mile underground railroad, with most ending up in South Korea after being smuggled, free of charge, through China and various countries in Southeast Asia.
When I recently visited LiNK, 15 nomads — volunteers who travel the country, speaking about North Korea at high schools and colleges — had just returned from a semester of touring the United States, where they spoke to 27,000 people at more than 430 venues, according to LiNK’s tour manager, Chelsea Quinn. Crowded into a rec room, they shared with one another their experiences educating Americans about life in the Hermit Kingdom.
Josh Lee is a 22-year-old LiNK nomad, part of a team that spoke at venues throughout California. A child of South Korean immigrants, Lee reflected on his Korean heritage.
“It was my pure luck that my grandfather settled south of the border,” Lee said.
A recent graduate of Syracuse University, Lee became a LiNK activist while in college, disturbed by the ignorance and apathy surrounding the humanitarian crisis.
“They said, ‘Never again,’ right?” Lee said, emotionally, referring to his middle school classes about the Holocaust. “They told us that it would never happen again.”
So far, high schools, colleges and churches have been happy to invite LiNK’s nomads, both Wheeler and Quinn said. They said that they aim to speak at more synagogues and Jewish high schools, too, but, so far, there hasn’t been much traction.
“The Jewish people have such a good understanding of what it means to be oppressed; what it’s like to be systematically tortured,” said Quinn, whose mother is Jewish. “I just assumed that temples would be totally down, that synagogues would totally jump on this.”
Yet, Wheeler remembers being told by an influential local Jewish businessman, “It’s hard for the Jewish community to get around because they haven’t seen a ton of support from the Korean community.”
Shin echoed a similar sentiment, clearly expressing annoyance at what he senses as apathy in his home country.
“They do not want to care about what is going on in North Korea,” Shin said. “South Koreans treat North Korea as if it’s just another separate country, not land of the same people, the same blood.”
During South Korea’s 2007 presidential elections, Harden writes, “Just three percent of voters named North Korea as a primary concern. They told pollsters that their primary interest was in making higher salaries.”
Change from within
Faced with the realization that diplomats, politicians and even Koreans have not taken up the cause of the North Koreans, LiNK takes the position that, if the Hermit Kingdom will open up, it will be due to North Korea’s citizens.
What will be the cause that breaks the silence? One word: food.
After the Soviet Union’s collapse, when it became clear the Kim regime was incapable of feeding its citizens on its own, illegal food markets popped up.
“Those black markets have emerged and have grown,” Wheeler said. “If you are not a part of those markets today, you’d starve to death.”
Although these markets started with food, they are now offering far more. Electronics, radios, flash drives, DVDs — all are increasingly reaching North Koreans, bringing information from the outside world and slowly breaking down the attempted brainwash of the Kim government.
In the PBS documentary, illegal footage from inside North Korea showed some citizens secretly watching South Korean movies and TV shows on DVD players. One woman cursed at and pushed a soldier who tried to shut down her makeshift private bus service. Another, when told by soldiers that she was breaking the law by wearing pants, protested. They put an armband on her to mark her offense.
“People’s willingness to confront or ignore authority has become more and more common,” Japanese journalist Jiro Ishimaru said. “People around the world have this image of North Koreans as being brainwashed, but that’s very mistaken.”
Moses and Pharaoh
Although Shin quit LiNK in early 2011, moving abruptly from Los Angeles to Seattle to live with a girl he was seeing, he said over lunch in Washington that, while living in Southern California, he was particularly fond of In-N-Out Burger, which he “liked,” and Chick-fil-A, which he “loved.”
Now living in Seoul, Shin visits the United States a few times per year. He still has not taken classes in remedial English or even elementary mathematics, a bit of which he learned in Camp 14.
“I would say things are sometimes difficult for me in terms of adjusting, settling into a life of freedom,” he said. As he suggested, he is, for obvious reasons, not yet as intellectually or emotionally developed as anyone who grew up free.
Among defectors, Shin is not alone in his adjustment issues. According to Harden, government career counselors in South Korea say that people resettled from the North “often depend on the South Korean government to solve their problems and fail to take personal responsibility for poor work habits or for showing up late on the job.”
Chuckling, Shin said, “I would consider myself 8 years old.” At the time of our interview, he was eight years out from his escape. When I told him a story about my grandmother, who was advised by a rabbi to subtract from her age the number of years she spent at Auschwitz, Shin responded, “Maybe I shouldn’t count the 23 years in prison camp.”
Dogged by his own desire to be left alone, to no longer be the face for freedom in North Korea, Shin said he thinks about leaving public life “more than 12 times a day, [but] when I think about my father or other fellow inmates who are in the prison camp, that compels me to push forward.”
He’s intrigued by Israel, and by the Jewish people, by their ability, as he put it, to survive the Holocaust, rise up, resettle their homeland and become a “powerful nation.” He says he wants to visit the Jewish state and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem but hasn’t yet had the opportunity.
As lunch wound down, Shin’s translator said that they had to leave soon for another interview. So I asked him if we could discuss a light topic — God.
Shin responded that although he isn’t entirely convinced of God’s existence, he does believe he received help from above. “I believe that there was a higher being, a higher power involved with my life, for me to be where I am right now,” he said.
Like all of North Korea, Camp 14 was devoid of any religion, of anything that could challenge the Kim family’s throne.
Today, Shin attends an Evangelical church in Seoul whenever he can, and, in fact, finds solace in Moses and the story of the Exodus — a self-doubting leader who helped an enslaved people escape a tyrant.
“When I look at North Korea now,” Shin said, “It reminds me of ancient Egypt and the Pharaohs.”
To contact Liberty in North Korea, visit www.libertyinnorthkorea.org.
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