photo from www.ned.org
Shin Dong-Hyuk is the only person to have ever escaped from Camp 14, one of North Korea’s most notorious prison camps. Dong-Hyuk was born in Camp 14, where he endured 23 years of hunger, punishments, and brainwashing.
Hunger was omnipresent in Camp 14 for its prisoners. Dong-Hyuk and the other prisoners were given very little food (a gruel of cornmeal and cabbage), and had to rely on insects and rats for sustenance. The guards explained this hunger by saying, “through hunger you will repent”. The “crime” that Dong-Hyuk was “repenting” for dates back to the Korean war, when two of his uncles defected to South Korea. The reason Dong-Hyuk received his punishment is Kim Il Sung idea of 3 generations of punishment, which Kim Il Sung hoped to use to eradicate the entire family of every political criminal. Post WWII, North Korea is the only country with such a practice. Many of the prisoners in Camp 14, including Dong-Hyuk, are sentenced to a life of harsh labor and punishment in the camp without any connection to the crime other than family relations with a political criminal. It is not uncommon for people to be born and to die in Camp 14.
In addition to hunger, Dong-Hyuk was educated since birth with a very strict code of rules. In school, Dong-Hyuk witnessed teachers beating children to death for even minor misdoings. Later in life Dong-Hyuk witnessed dozens of executions every year.Prisoners would be shot for trying to escape, planning to escape, and not reporting attempts to escape. Through these personal experiences of violence, Dong-Hyuk learned the code of rules by heart.
The rules were so ingrained in Dong-Hyuk’s that he reported his mother and brother for attempts to escape hoping for food as a reward. Both his mother and brother were executed, but instead of a reward, Dong-Hyuk was hung upside down in an underground chamber and tortured with hot coals on his back. He still bears the scars of the burns today. Dong-Hyuk admits he did not feel any emotion when he saw his mother and brother get executed, and even felt that they deserved their punishments, but today his guilt is a major inspiration for his constant activism for human rights in North Korea.
After 23 years, Dong-Hyuk escaped from Camp 14 with Park, a political prisoner who was educated and has traveled outside of North Korea. From Park Dong-Hyuk learned about the outside world. Before meeting Park, Dong-Hyuk believed that life was no different outside Camp 14 and believed that his harsh life as prisoner was normal. Dong-Hyuk also did not know of the existence of other countries or even that the world was round. Interestingly, Dong-Hyuk’s main motivation to escape was Park’s stories of the assortment of foods that Park had eaten during his travels. One day, when Park and Dong-Hyuk were stationed to work near the electric fence to gather firewood, they crawled through the fence while the guards were not looking. Unfortunately, Park was electrocuted by the fence. Dong-Hyuk was only able to crawl through the fence because Park’s body acted an insulator from the electric current, but Dong-Hyuk also suffered sever burns on his shin and ankles when his leg touched the tip of the fence.
North Korea’s conditions, especially in rural civilian areas are very bad because of very severe famine and constant government oppression. Famine is so bad in these areas that there are reported cases of cannibalism. However, Dong-Hyuk described his first experience outside of Camp 14 in a rural town as “heaven”, which puts into perspective how bad conditions really are in North Korean Prison Camps. Dong-Hyuk was able to escape from North Korea to China and made his way to a South Korean Consulate in Shanghai. After his escape, Dong-Hyuk lived in South Korea and California and has American foster parents in Ohio.
Dong-Hyuk is an inspirational individual, not only for his escape against many odds and enduring of personal tragedies, but also for his activism after his escape. He spends much of his time working with North Korean Human Rights Organizations and raising awareness of North Korean prison camps. Dong-Hyuk says that while he gets to eat all he wants and earns money, he is only momentarily happy, because he is always worried about the people that are still suffering in prison camps. For Dong-Hyuk’s dedication to North Korean Human Rights and also his remarkable enduring of hardships, Dong-Hyuk has been awarded the United Nation’s 2013 Moral Courage Award.