Escape from Camp 14: life inside North Korea’s brutal labour camps
The thought of spending just one day with a full stomach compelled Shin Dong-hyuk to take the biggest risk of his life.
In 2005, he escaped North Korea’s Camp 14, a prison holding political enemies of the state. He was 23, and all he had ever known of life was the labour camp – its conditions likened to a Soviet gulag or Nazi concentration camp.
“I never felt resentful about the way I had to live. I never thought there could be another way of life,” Shin said at London’s Frontline Club where he appeared with Harden this week.
Shin was born in a “complete control district”, about 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, in the mountainous centre of the country, and grew up among an estimated 15,000 prisoners who were put to work in the camp’s coal mines, farms and factories.
“The first thing I remember being taught by the prison guards/teachers was that we should have been dead a long time ago, but we were very lucky to have been granted another chance to live,” Shin said, speaking through an interpreter.
“Because your parents were criminals and you were born from them, you had to redeem yourself and the sin of your family by working hard.”
South Korean intelligence and human rights groups believe Camp 14 is one of six labour camps in North Korea containing up to 200,000 people – many of them detained simply because they are related to individuals the authorities consider enemies.
Although Pyongyang denies the existence of the camps, Harden said the accounts of dozens of former North Korean prisoners and prison guards tell the same story – of the squalor, misery and near starvation, the long days of hard labour and early deaths, usually from malnutrition-related diseases.
“The camps have remained a very important part of the totalitarian state,” Harden said. “They are an instrument of terror and they have worked very well.”
Yet the camps have barely come up for discussion in talks with the West, partly because of the military threat North Korea poses to South Korea. Harden said almost all of Seoul is within range of the artillery North Korea has lined up near the demilitarized zone between the two countries.
“North Korea would lose a war but the cost to Seoul would be catastrophic in terms of casualties. This is one of the reasons why South Korea is so tolerant of intermittent craziness by the North Koreans,” Harden said.
In the book, filling his stomach is an obsession for Shin. He steals food from his mother, scours floors, roads and fields for grains of rice, beans and corn kernels, and eats rats he has caught and roasted to lessen his constant hunger.
Prisoners who break the camp’s 10 rules – which include edicts against escaping, failing to watch each other and reporting any suspicious behaviour – are threatened with death.
Children are not raised by their parents. Teachers are prison guards in uniform with pistols at their hips. Brutal acts are so commonplace, they are almost casual.
“The only thing that sustains the regime is fear,” said Shin, a slim, bookish-looking young man.
One day, Shin’s teacher carries out a surprise search, catching one of his classmates with five kernels of corn. The six-year-old girl he remembers as being exceptionally pretty was struck repeatedly over the head with a wooden stick, and died hours later.
“There’s one thing people in prison camps in North Korea do very well – and that’s dying. There are so many people dying in prison camps without knowing why they ended up there,” Shin said.
Two of those casualties are Shin’s mother and brother – taken to an underground prison in the camp and eventually executed for speaking of escape. Perhaps most devastating of all, the book reveals it was Shin who informed on them after overhearing their conversation.
“When his mother was hanged, she tried to catch his eye. He refused to look at her. He was angry with her because he felt she had betrayed him by talking about escape, by violating the camp rules, by violating the only code of behaviour that he had ever known,” Harden said.
“When she was killed and when his brother was killed, he felt no guilt for having snitched on them. That was not a relevant concept in his cosmology of being a human being.”
Shin was also arrested as a suspected collaborator. He was trussed up and held over a fire, interrogated and kept in an underground cell before telling the guards he was the informant.
Harden admitted it was difficult to fully corroborate Shin’s account of life in the closed country. However, Shin’s wounds were consistent with his story, he said.
“His body is a map of the story he tells,” Harden said. “He was burned on his back when he was 13. There are terrible scars on his back and buttocks. His legs are terribly scarred from electrical burns from when he escaped through an electric fence when he was 23. His middle finger is cut off (from) when he dropped a sewing machine and he was punished… He has scars around his ankles – it’s basically there to see on his body.”
Harden said Shin’s story shed light on two aspects of camp life that had previously gone unreported. “Reward marriages” were arranged by prison guards between single male and female prisoners, who were skilful or had worked hard. Shin’s parents were selected by the guards to “breed”, and he was raised very deliberately knowing nothing of the outside world to ensure his compliance.
Harden said the purpose of the book and of Shin going through the pain of reliving these memories was “to plant his story in the hearts of as many people as possible”.
“So that when North Korea is discussed people don’t fall back on three things: silly big hair, big glasses, funny suits, goose-stepping ridiculous people, or nuclear weapons or missiles,” he added. “(So) they understand that, at the very heart of this government, the reason for its longevity is this willingness to be barbarous with its own population.”
Shin, who suffers nightmares after every public-speaking event, said he had achieved pretty much everything he had hoped for when he got to South Korea.
“I wear the clothes I want to wear, I go to bed when I want to go to bed, I eat what I want to eat. I’m much, much better off physically but mentally, I’m under much more stress,” he said.
“I was lucky enough to have escaped, to live in comfort, but there are still so many people suffering in prison camps in North Korea, and when I think about them I can’t go to bed always with a peaceful mind.”
Photo caption: Shin Dong-hyuk speaks at the Frontline Club, London April 24, 2012. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Claudine Boeglin