By Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro, 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published April 24, 2014
OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea --
An escapee of a North Korean prison camp spoke about his experience of physical and emotional isolation in the secluded country at a special event April 23, 2014, at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea.
Shin Dong-hyuk, subject of Escape From Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden, was born in one of several "total-control zones" in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, but escaped in 2005 to become a singular voice in raising awareness of the conditions of North Korean internment camps for political prisoners.
"There are some words I've learned that can describe what we lived like in the prison camps in North Korea," said Shin via translator to a standing-room only audience at the base theater. "There's a word, slave. There's a word, animal. Yet even animals on the camps lived a better life than we did. The guards who owned the dogs and cats in the camp fed them better than we were fed."
Shin recounted his own history to the audience, explaining that his parents were sentenced to live in the internment camp at 15 and 16 years old for conspiring against the state, a common charge in North Korea. Born in 1982, Shin inherited the charges against his parents and became a prisoner and political enemy of the state by virtue of being born there.
"There are no real political offenders in these camps," said Shin. "They made me a prisoner just because I was born there. How can a newborn be a political offender?"
Shin said the conditions inside the camp are comprehensively tyrannical, and prisoners become desensitized to brutality and inhumane conditions at a young age.
"My first memory is when I was 5," said Shin. "My mom took me outside to a gathering of prisoners. I was very small so I couldn't see what they were doing on the stage. After going between people to see what was happening, I noticed there were people tied up on a wooden stake. Soon after, I was astonished by the sound of a gun. I saw the military camp guards use the guns to execute the people who were tied up."
In the camps, the social hierarchy is simple, said Shin. There are prisoners, and there are guards. Guards must be treated deferentially by prisoners at all times, any form of disobedience or resistance to an order is punishable by beating or execution. It never occurred to Shin that this might be unjust; it was just the way life was.
"As I was growing up, I realized the only people I could see were either people with guns or people like me, prisoners," said Shin. "It was natural to think that officials in uniform could treat us however they wanted to. When a prisoner got beat up, they didn't even question it, they took it as it was, as part of their life."
The totality of authority over prisoners extends to all ages. The camps have their own schools, which children begin attending at age 6. The teachers in the camp are armed military guards. It's in school that the children learn their first lesson about the camp's rules.
"The very first rule was the criminals are not allowed to escape," said Shin. "Anyone who attempts to escape will be shot immediately."
Other rules include complete obedience to authority and submitting to random searches for contraband against the state. Even though many people think of children as rebellious by nature, Shin said kids in the prison camps naturally conform to the camp's laws, namely because those who violate the laws, even small children, are punished swiftly and harshly.
"When I was 6, there was a girl who found food on the ground, picked it up and brought it to school," said Shin. "During a random search for contraband, our teacher found the food. Our meals were rationed in the camp; we could only eat what was given to us at meal time and nothing else. The teacher started to beat her with his wooden stick."
After being flogged for several minutes, the 6-year-old girl fell to the ground unconscious. When the girl didn't show up to school the next day, Shin and his classmates went to check on her.
"When we went to her house, her mother told us that she had been executed," said Shin.
Such a revelation would shock most, but Shin said he had no emotion, he and his classmates accepted that the girl had been punished for committing a crime.
"I look back now and remember the teacher's face while he beat the girl," said Shin. "It was a horrible face and I hate thinking about it. It wasn't angry, his face, but he looked like a man trying to kill her. This is what happened and still happens in these prisons in North Korea."
Shin described the treatment of prisoners in the camp as sub-human. Prisoners are conditioned to have no emotions or familial ties.
"The word family to you all is precious and important," said Shin. "Inside the prison, it means nothing. Even my own father and mother were just other prisoners. Inside the camp, if your parents do something wrong, you have the responsibility to report them like you would anyone else."
That's what Shin did when he found out his mother and brother were planning to escape the camp. After reporting their plans to the guards, Shin watched his mother and brother be promptly executed.
"I feel very sorry and I'm shocked that I don't have the emotions to justly tell you how I did this to my own family," he said. "In North Korea, it's a very righteous act to report on your own family."
After his speech, Shin was asked by the audience for details about his escape. He said he first thought of escaping due to an eccentric story told by a fellow prisoner who experienced life outside the camp.
"He told me that if I escaped from camp, there would be food available right in front of me, that I'd be allowed to pick it up and eat as much as I wanted," said Shin.
The thought of chicken, pork and beef - luxury items in the camp eaten by guards but forbidden for prisoners - allured Shin.
"After that, I thought about it and made up my mind that I wanted to escape, eat as much chicken as I could, and get shot the next day," said Shin.
He and a fellow prisoner plotted their escape when they were given an assignment to work on the top of a mountain in the camp in January of 2005. The mountain was as near to the camp's high-voltage, barbed-wire fence as Shin was going to lawfully get.
"We got scared the day we were supposed to escape," said Shin. "I kind of forced him to escape with me."
As he and his partner were running, Shin slipped on the snow around the fence. When he got up, he noticed his partner trying to go over the fence and getting caught on the electrical wire.
"He didn't make it, but I used his body to go over the fence," said Shin. "The spaces between the wire are very tiny, hard to fit anything between, but his body made it just wide enough for me to slip through."
Shin realizes he only made it out of Camp 14 due to his partner's unwitting sacrifice.
"If I would have tried to go over first I know I would have been electrocuted," he said. "I noticed after running for a while there was blood on the snow. There were burns on my legs, too."
After escaping, Shin found out there was no cornucopia of food, which is the only reason he kept running and is still alive. He survived by scrounging or stealing food and eventually made it to China. Since then, he has lived in the United States and the Republic of Korea, while speaking around the world about conditions in his native country.
"When I made a speech at the U.N., the representative of North Korea was very angry," said Shin. "They immediately began criticizing what I said. They denounced all of the speakers at the U.N. as criminals, they even called me a terrorist."
Post-prison life has been a shock to Shin, who could only explain the contrast of life in Camp 14 to the outside world with a broad metaphor.
"Life in the prison is like a hell," he said. "Seeing the rest of the world, I was very shocked. In one word, it looked like a heaven."
As he finished his speech, Shin said since he escaped and has begun speaking publicly about his experience, nothing in North Korea has changed. The Kim dynasty still maintains a totalitarian regime, preserving a life of exorbitant affluence for a few by virtue of the suffering and dehumanization of prisoners like himself.
"They still maintain their complete dictatorship, and unfortunately there's nothing the prisoners can do to make the country change," said Shin. "I hope that by telling large audiences like you all and increasing awareness of these conditions, something can be done to help the suffering people.
Shin thanked the audience for their time and was greeted by a standing ovation and round of applause. Col. James Clark, 51st Operations Group commander, thanked Shin for sharing his story and stressed its relevance for United States and RoK forces.
"I can't think of anything that would be more enlightening about what we are doing here than what we have just heard from you," said Clark. "For our service members, we may only be here for one or two years, but the words you've shared with us today will last a lifetime."