|Shin Dong-Hyuk (right) and interpreter Yoo Hui -Jin at TOZ in Jonggak, Seoul, September 22, 2012|
On September 22, I had the privilege, along with approximately 40 people from in and around Seoul to have the opportunity to meet Shin Dong-Hyuk, who is the subject of the nonfiction book Escape From Camp 14 by Washington, D.C.-based journalist Blaine Harden. The book was published earlier this year. The event was sponsored by 10 Magazine Book Club. (10 Magazine is a publication that is geared towards the expatriate community living in South Korea.)
Shin, who was born in North Korea's Camp 14 in 1982, was the child of two prisoners. With no knowledge of the world outside of Camp 14 (including North Korea's deification of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il), Shin grew up under hellish conditions. Early in 2005 at the age of 23, he crawled under the electrified fence that surrounded the camp and escaped, making his way to China and then following year into South Korea and eventually to the United States, where he worked for a non-profit organization that aids North Korean refugees. He is the only known person to successfully escape from one of these 'total control' camps.
At this time, Shin Dong-Hyuk is back in South Korea. He travels around Korea and the world, telling his story and campaigning for the international community to investigate human rights violations in North Korean prison camps. As Blaine Harden observed in his book, Shin is extremely handsome, and he looks much younger than his 30 years, which is surprising, given his life of hardship. The years of malnutrition, neglect and overwork show up in his physique. He is only about 5-and-a-half feet tall and looks to weigh somewhere around 125 pounds. His legs are slightly bowed.
Speaking through an interpreter, Shin opted to turn his allotted speaking time into a question-and-answer session, inviting the audience to ask him anything. Since most of the attendees seemed to have read Escape From Camp 14, they steered away from questions about his painful past and asked instead about his adjustment to a life of freedom, places he has traveled to (He said that Norway was the most beautiful place he's seen so far) and the international community's response to his experience. One of the attendees asked how she might make her government aware enough to address the human rights abuses in North Korea. After a brief hesitation, Shin said, "I don't know. I don't have the answer for that." He indicated that getting the world's attention has been slow and frustrating. "Important figures keep telling me that they need evidence. I remind them about the Holocaust." He did say that in the past six years, "There has been some change. It's slow, but things are changing."
Although he didn't discuss how he's been affected by his experiences in the prison camp, there are clues. When someone asked him what books inspire him, he said that he doesn't read (he *is* literate; the children born in the prison camp were required to attend school) and he "can't really respond to books, movies and music". He said that his friends have taken him to noraebang (singing rooms, karaoke) and tried to get him to sing, but he can't. The years of hunger seem to always be with him as well. Talking about a recent 3-day trip to southern California, he half-joked that he had a huge regret that he didn't have time to stop and eat at In N Out Burger.
When asked about his future plans, he said, "It's my destiny to tell about my life and my pain. I'll tell my story until I die." Hopefully, prison camps like the one he was born and grew up in will be eradicated long before that time.
Here is an interview in which Shin Dong-Hyuk discusses his life in Camp 14.