Shin Dong-Hyuk was born in Camp Number 14, fifty-five miles north of the North Korean capital of Pyong Yang, one of the Kimg Jong Il's archipelago of gulags, where the political prisoners tend pigs, tan leather, gather firewood and work in the in mines until they die or are executed, which ever comes first.
Shin's mother was given by the camp to another prisoner for his good work as a mechanic. Shin lived with her until he was twelve, when he was separated to live with the other boys, per camp policy. He feels no attachment to her. Says Shin, "She never hugged me, never."
Food was scarce. A young girl found with five grains of wheat in her pocket was beaten to death. Shin found three kernels of corn in a pile of cow dung, picked them out, cleaned them off on his sleeve, and ate them. "That was my lucky day," he writes.
The camp was savage. His cousin was raped by prison guards. His mother offered herself to the guards to survive. Public executions were common. The tip of Shin's middle finger was cut off at the knuckle to punish him for dropping a sewing machine. Shin writes, "I didn't think the world I lived in was wrong. I was born to it."
One day in 1995 when he was 14, Shin was dragged into interrogation for two days about his mother's escape plot. He knew nothing of it, having not seen his mother for two years. His interrogators revealed to him why he was in prison. Two of his uncles had sided with South Korea during the Korean War forty years earlier and fled south. His father was guilty because he was their brother. Shin was guilty because he was his son. Shin accepted that, "I thought it was only natural that I pay for my parents' sins with hard labor."
When Shin didn't tell them what he didn't know, he was hung upside down by ropes from the ceiling over a charcoal fire. To stop him from writhing, the guards stuck a hook in his gut. Shin passed out.
Shin was thrown into a cell with an older prisoner who gave him half his food ration and nursed him back to health. Finally, the guards fetched him from his cell where he was brought together with his father and marched to the public square where executions were carried out. He expected to be executed with his father. Instead, his mother was brought to the square and hung in front of him. His only brother was shot with her.
Shin: "I felt she deserved to die. I was full of anger for the torture that I went through. I still am angry at her."
Nine years later, Shin was paired up with an older prisoner who had seen the outside world beyond North Korea and told him about it. He taught Shin the first song he had ever heard. When the older prisoner plotted an escape, Shin went along out of curiosity. When the older man got caught in the electrical fence on the perimeter, Shin stepped on him and took off running, eventually making it to South Korea in 2005 where he lives now in Seoul. He is the only prisoner to ever escape from a North Korean concentration camp.
Shin is a bit at sea in the free South Korea: "I never heard the word 'love' in the camp. I want to have a girlfriend, but I don't know how to get one. Two months ago, I found myself without any money. It suddenly occurred to me that I had to go out and support myself."
To tell his story, Shin wrote a book, "Escape to the Outside World," which is available in limited edition in Korean only.
Shin, at 26 years of age, has just celebrated his birthday for the first time, which was a very moving event for him, bringing him a discovery, "I realize you really need a family... I have recently discovered that I am lonely."