Friday, December 12, 2008

Shin Dong-Hyuk

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."

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Blogger robert verdi said...

tough stuff in north korea, did you ever read the book Fish Bowls of Pyongyang?

Mon Dec 15, 04:43:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Tantor said...

Haven't read "Aquariums in Pyongyang" yet. Not quite up to it. I still have "The Tears of My Soul" teed up to read.

Mon Dec 15, 04:51:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Cas said...

The worst part is, no one in South Korea can ever trust him. Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) have sent numerous "plants" or agents into the south to spy for them, and even Koreans can't tell where you were born. So many families have been disrupted, it's not at all uncommon to have familiy members on the other side of the border, so who can tell if someone is lying about it?
How will the people of North Korea, who do not know even the simple bonds of emotional love or family ties, possibly be able to live anything approaching a "normal" life, even after the regime is destroyed? How can anyone possibly think that they could overthrow such a regime by themselves? Even before the Korean War, and the beginning of the DPRK, the peninsula was ruthlessly opressed by the Japanese; these people have known nothing but depotism for almost 100 yrs, since 1910. AND, they have nuclear weapons and missiles...

Fri Dec 19, 08:50:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Tantor said...


It may be that North Korean spies in North Korea will do more damage to their masters than their targets. After all, the Achilles heel of the North is that they must indoctrinate their people in a totally bogus view of the world in which North Korea is a great success while the rest of the world lives in poverty. The North must keep its people isolated to keep them in ignorance of reality. Any contact with the outside world, even spying, undermines that.

The Soviets preached that their system was superior for decades but the truth leaked in and destroyed the faith of the people in their system. Likewise, the reports the spies make back must undermine the faith of their spymasters. It is a shock for the spies themselves to wander about South Korea and discover everything they've been told is a lie.

A fish rots from the head. The leadership of North Korea can't help but become cynical about their own state, just like the Soviets did. And the East Germans. And the Hungarians. The knowledge that their system is outperformed by the South is a corrosive knowledge which will eventually bring them down.

Fri Dec 19, 10:13:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Grace Explosion said...

It's so understandable why there were no bonds of affection. They were in hell. Somehow, though, they were more free than their captors. Their captors decided freely to be in hell as tormentors. But the tormented were not there by choice... and that made them more free of the evil of that place.

Backwards thinking... maybe rightside up. I think to choose to do such evil to people and to be on the "upside" of the power structure in so deprived and cruel and tormenting a place... is to be truly evil. That's true soul captivity.

It's reprehensible and shocking to a person's system just to hear about it. His poor mother was afraid to form attachments and in such traumatic stress she couldn't... and that's what he was born into as well.

Sat Dec 20, 11:33:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Tantor said...

The captors were prisoners, too. They just didn't know it. One guard who defected to the South said that he had no empathy at all for the people he killed, feeling that they deserved it for being enemies of the state.

Take a look at Lisa Ling's "Inside North Korea" on the National Geographic and you can see how brainwashed these people are from total immersion in Kim Jong Il's totalitarian state.

Some of it is here on YouTube at
Part 1 ,
Part 2;
Part 3;
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

When North Korea finally crumbles and the people learn the truth, they'll be broken.

Sun Dec 21, 12:09:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Miss T.C. Shore said...

This truly is a part of the "Axis of Evil". Americans on the left laugh and believe such things do not exist. This story needs to be told.

Wed Dec 24, 09:35:00 AM 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quote:"It is a shock for the spies themselves to wander about South Korea and discover everything they've been told is a lie."

I guess it depends on how loyal the spies are, and how well paid.

I wonder if after living under such fear of their own government and being beat down for decades, the people would even have the gumption to attempt to overthrow their oppressors. One would hope they would.
Or they unfortunately might be like a domestic abuse victim whose will has been taken through years of intimidation and violence from her abuser, and will even go so far as to defend him out of some misplaced loyalty and not thinking that they can have anything better.


Tue Dec 30, 05:59:00 PM 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, no one even in South Korea doesn't trust him. Maybe because he's blatantly lying. What about his uncles in South Korea? If his family were considered "enemies" any prison guard that has "unsanctioned" contact with them, to say nothing about sexual such will be imprisoned or executed. It's absurd that his mother was putting out to the guards. If "his cousin" was male that makes things twice as absurd as homosexuality is a crime there. His escape is BS and so is his whole story, not that it's unlikely to have political prisoners there simply he's not the one to tell the real story.

Tue Jun 09, 01:19:00 AM 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I realize this is years after this was posted, but in response to the Anonymous comment posted about Shin Dong-Hyuk's story being BS, you have got to be joking. The man has the physical scars on his body to prove his story well enough.

Also, his mother was not "putting out to the guards". She was given to another prisoner who was rewarded for good behavior.

Sat Jul 17, 05:13:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Something is very wrong with this heart rendering story. I visited the DPRK in 2010. I saw a very benevolent society educating healthy looking children and well dressed responsible looking adults working and relaxing in free time. There were no hustlers nor prostitutes evident. Building and infrastructure looked surprisingly good. While every society needs some form incarceration for those that just don't get it, I find it impossible to believe the level of depravity in this book. Then, Is this book so important as to be translated in 22 languages??? This even beats Cuban Gusano Blogger, Yoani Sánchez' "Generation Y" translated into 17 languages. Its no secret where her support comes from!!!

Fri Jan 04, 11:26:00 AM 2013  

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