Author Interviews
3:08 pm
Thu March 29, 2012

'Escape From Camp 14': Inside North Korea's Gulag

Originally published on Thu March 29, 2012 8:09 pm

Until his early 20s, the only life Shin Dong-hyuk had ever known was one of constant beatings, near starvation and snitching on others to survive. Born into one of the worst of North Korea's system of prison camps, Shin was doomed to a life of hard labor and an early death. Notions of love and family were meaningless: He saw his mother as a competitor for food.

When he was 23, Shin managed to elude the guards and crawl through an electrified fence over the dead body of his friend to escape. He found his way to China, then to South Korea and eventually to the U.S. He is the only prisoner born and raised in one of North Korea's prison camps who is known to have escaped.

Reporter Blaine Harden has written an account of Shin's journey called Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. Harden talks to All Things Considered's Melissa Block about the deeply disturbing realities that Shin lived through.


Interview Highlights

On Shin's scars

"His body is, in many ways, a road map to his life. He was tortured over a coal fire, and there are some very serious burn marks all across his lower back and buttocks. When he was in a sewing machine factory shortly before he escaped, he accidentally dropped a sewing machine, which was very valuable. One of the guards took a knife and cut off part of [Shin's] finger as punishment. When [Shin] escaped, he crawled over the body of his friend, who was electrocuted on the fence on the way out of the camp, and his friend was a sort of insulator to the voltage from the fence. But just as Shin was about to get through, as he wiggled through ... his lower legs hit the wires, and it burned his legs on the shins from knee to ankle very badly. The scars are quite severe."

On how people end up in Camp 14

"At the top, it's people from the inner circle from Pyongyang, who have run afoul of the Kim family dynasty. But Shin, his family — their crime, he found out only after years in the camp, was that his father's brothers had fled to South Korea in the wake of the Korean War. That was the crime. In North Korea, still to some extent now, if I were to commit a crime against the Kim family dynasty — a thought crime, something that irritated the family — I would go to the prison, along with my parents and my children, unto three generations, is what Kim Il Sung, the country's great leader, dictated for punishment."

On Shin snitching on his own family

"He had heard his brother and his mother talk about a planned escape. His training was such that when he heard the word escape, he became completely alarmed; his heart started to pound; he felt that if his family was involved in an escape in any way, that he would be either beaten, tortured or killed. So immediately, when he heard this, he turned them in. He was then arrested the next day and tortured for seven months in an underground prison."

On witnessing the execution of his mother and brother at age 14

"He was brought to the front of the crowd, sat down, and his mother and brother were hauled out. And his mother was hanged, and his brother was shot in front of him. And what he told me, and what he has said many, many times, is that he refused to catch his mother's eye when she was hanged, and he was glad that she was dead, because she had threatened his survival in the camp. Now, that was when he was a child, and he hates to talk about this. He has now been out of North Korea for about seven years, and he now starts to feel guilty. But at the time, that was not part of the way he saw the world, and part of the agony of being free for him, is to have this sort of ex post facto understanding of what it means to be a human being, and to try to relate that to what he once was."

On corroborating Shin's story

"I talked to five people who've been in the camps; they said that no one could tell the story he has told unless they've been in the camps. And then there is almost an industry of human-rights investigators who have spoken at length to everyone willing to talk who has been in the camps. They believe Shin. They find his story consistent."

On a former North Korean labor camp guard who defected

"He had been involved, he said, in beating up crippled people himself in the camps. I asked him about Shin, and he said there were a lot of people in the camps who had it tougher than Shin. Shin had it relatively easy. That's why he was strong, and that's why he had the capacity to get out."

On the information available about human-rights abuses in North Korea

"There are more than 23,000 North Koreans living in Seoul who've recently fled the country. There are at least 26 individuals who've been in the camps who've told their stories in incredible detail to journalists and human-rights investigators. It's not a mystery; it's not a secret. In some ways, we haven't been paying attention. And what Shin's hope is, and what my hope is, is that his story will be the trick that will make people understand what's been going on there for half a century, and what continues to go on."

On why the camps have not become a greater international issue

"It's maddening. There seems to be a calculated policy to keep human rights off the international diplomatic agenda. One way they do this is by making the Korean peninsula a permanent flash point for very serious security issues. And because of the seriousness of those existential threats, human rights is often relegated to, you know, a tertiary issue. In any diplomatic forum, if ... the existence of the camps is brought up, according to American diplomats, the North Koreans go nuts and leave the room. I guess that's the explanation."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Now, a story of unspeakable brutality, survival and ultimate escape.

Shin Dong-hyuk is a North Korean who was born in a prison camp, a slave essentially, doomed to a life of hard labor and early death. It was the only life he ever knew, a life of constant beatings, snitching on others to survive and near starvation.

BLAINE HARDEN: Shin ate the same meal nearly every day for 23 years, corn, cabbage and salt.

BLOCK: That's reporter Blaine Harden, who tells Shin's story in a deeply disturbing and riveting new book. It's titled "Escape from Camp 14." The escape came when Shin was 23. He managed to elude the guards and crawl through an electrified fence. He is the only prisoner born and raised in North Korea's prison camps known to have gotten free. He went first to China, then South Korea and then the U.S.

HARDEN: His body is, in many ways, a roadmap to his life. He was tortured over a coal fire and so there are some very serious burn marks all across his lower back and buttocks. When he was in a sewing machine factory shortly before he escaped, he accidentally dropped a sewing machine, which was very valuable, and one of the guards took a knife and cut off part of his finger as punishment.

And, when he escaped, he crawled over the body of his friend, who was electrocuted on the fence on the way out of the camp and his friend actually was a sort of insulator to the voltage from the fence. But just as Shin was about to get through, his legs - his lower legs hit the wires. It burned his legs from knee to ankle. The scars are quite severe.

BLOCK: You say that Camp 14 is the worst of the worst among these prison camps. It's for people considered irredeemable, people with iniquitous blood. Who are these people? Why are they there?

HARDEN: Well, it's a mix. At the top, it's people from the inner circle who have run afoul of the Kim family dynasty, but Shin, his family, their crime was that his father's brothers had fled to South Korea in the wake of the Korean War.

In North Korea, still to some extent now, if I were to commit a crime against the Kim family dynasty, a thought crime or something that irritated the family, I would go to the prison, along with my parents and my children on to three generations is what Kim Il Sung, the country's great leader, dictated for punishment.

BLOCK: Well, Shin, growing up in this camp, didn't even know his brother, saw his mother as a competitor for food in this fight for survival where there was no food to go around. The notion of love or family has absolutely no meaning to him whatsoever. And you describe the moment when Shin, at age 14, is brought to witness the execution of his mother and his brother. What had happened?

HARDEN: He had heard his brother and his mother talk about a planned escape. His training was such that when he heard the word escape, he became completely alarmed. His heart started to pound. He felt that, if his family was involved in an escape in any way, that he would be either beaten, tortured or killed. So he immediately, when he heard this, turned them in.

He was then arrested the next day and tortured for seven months in an underground prison, then he was taken out of the prison, along with his father, to an execution ground. When the blindfold came off his eyes, he looked and saw a stake for somebody to be tied up against and shot and he saw a gallows and he was convinced that he was going to be executed.

But he was brought to the front of the crowd, sat down and his mother and brother were hauled out and his mother was hanged and his brother was shot in front of him. And what he told me and what he has said many, many times is that he refused to catch his mother's eye when she was hanged and he was glad that she was dead because she had threatened his survival in the camp.

Now, that was when he was a child and he hates to talk about this and he's now been out of North Korea for about seven years and he now starts to feel guilty, but at the time, that was not part of the way he saw the world and that is part of the agony of being free for him is to have this sort of ex post facto understanding of what it means to be a human being and to try to relate that to what he once was.

BLOCK: How did you corroborate or try to verify the things that Shin was telling you?

HARDEN: I talked to five people who've been in the camps. They said that no one could tell the story he has told unless they'd been in the camps. And then there is an almost industry of human rights investigators who have spoken at length to everyone willing to talk who's been in the camps. They believe Shin. They find his story consistent.

BLOCK: One of the people that you interviewed for the book was, in fact, a former North Korean guard at a labor camp who defected and he told you: We were taught to think of these people as dogs or pigs, not as human beings.

HARDEN: Yeah. He had been involved, he said, in beating up crippled people himself in the camps. I asked him about Shin and he said there were a lot of people in the camps who had it tougher than Shin. Shin had it relatively easy. That's why he was strong and that's why he had the capacity to get out.

BLOCK: You say in the book, Blaine, that the camps have barely pricked the world's collective conscience. South Koreans, you say, are largely indifferent. It doesn't seem to be a particular focus of U.S. foreign policy. How do you explain that?

HARDEN: Well, it's maddening. There seems to be a calculated policy by the North Korean government to keep human rights off the international diplomatic agenda. One way they do this is by making the Korean peninsula a permanent flashpoint for very serious security issues, and because of the seriousness of those existential threats, human rights is often relegated to, you know, a tertiary issue, and in any diplomatic forum, if the existence of the camps is brought up, according to American diplomats, the North Koreans go nuts and leave the room. I guess that's the explanation.

And there is a lot of information now available about the camps. There are more than 23,000 North Koreans living in Seoul who've recently fled the country. There are at least 26 individuals who've been in the camps who've told their stories in incredible detail. It's not a mystery. It's not a secret.

And what Shin's hope is and what my hope is is that his story will be the trick that will make people understand what's been going on there for half a century and what continues to go on.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Blaine Harden. His book is "Escape from Camp 14." That's the story of Shin Dong-hyuk. Blaine Harden, thanks very much.

HARDEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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