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Shin Dong-hyuk, one of the few known survivors of North Korea’s prison camps, travelled to London last week to share his experiences in Parliament at an event held by the Henry Jackson Society. Shin, born into Kaechon internment camp (Camp 14), endured twenty two years of punishment for the supposed crimes of his parents. He is the only person to have ever escaped from a ‘total control zone’ internment camp and beyond North Korean borders.
“Many of you in this room may hesitate to compare anything to the Holocaust”, Shin began. “Hitler killed people of different ethnicities and races. But Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il put their own people through starvation and horrendous torture. Just because people cannot see this, they find it difficult to believe that such things are going on at the moment. Many people think such things are a thing of the past that can be forgotten, but this kind of genocide is in progress.”
Unlike other North Korean camps, where prisoners are forced to submit to the regime’s ‘re-education’ programme of intense propaganda and brainwashing, those held in total control zones are considered to be sub-humans without any chance of release. They do not receive any teaching about the regime or its leaders, meaning that before his time of escape from the camp, Shin had never heard of North Korea’s ‘Juche’ ideology or the names Kim il-Sung or Kim Jong-il.
But Shin witnessed and endured extreme torture at Camp 14. While working in a garment factory, he was punished for accidentally dropping a sewing machine by a guard who hacked off his middle finger just above the first knuckle. At the age of 14, he was tortured for information about the attempted escape of his mother and brother – after having his hands tied and legs cuffed, he was suspended over a charcoal fire. He still has large scars showing where his flesh used to be, from the incision of a large hook forced through his belly to stop him from struggling to thick rings around his wrists and ankles from the cuffs and rope. He was forced to watch the execution of his mother and brother – two of the dozens of executions that took place every year. Shin witnessed the death of many young children during dangerous construction work, sometimes up to five deaths in a single day. Shin’s cousin died after having been raped by prison guards, her grieving mother disappearing soon after that.
Shin first heard about the world outside Camp 14 from a man named Park, whom he had been instructed to spy on for the guards. Park was to become Shin’s friend and regularly shared the little food he had with Shin. Those caught talking about their previous lives are shot on the spot, yet Park continued to tell Shin tales about the food he would eat back home until Shin could not bear it any longer. The two men decided to escape while out collecting wood in the forest. Though Shin managed to escape through the barbed wire, he turned back to see his friend lying motionless, having been electrocuted in the barbed live wire. Shin does not know the fate of Park, or his father, who remains in the camp. Though these memories were too painful for him to talk about, his book – ‘Escape from Camp 14’ – documents them in searing detail.
One of the aspects of Shin’s story that seemed to shock his audience in Parliament the most was the feeling he described of seeing life outside the camp, in North Korea. He compared the moment to being struck by lightning as he saw for the first time what he thought was total freedom or, in his words ‘paradise’. So deep was his shock at seeing people walking freely about, wearing the clothes they wanted and chatting to one another that for several minutes he was convinced he was back in the camp imagining things. It was only after he left North Korea that his perception of freedom was to be dramatically changed once again. ‘Here’, he said, ‘here in London, is paradise’.
Being sent to a prison camp in North Korea is, in many cases, difficult to avoid. The regime closely monitors its people, actively seeking out those who fail to meet its demand for total and absolute loyalty –from folding a newspaper so that the crease falls on the leader’s face or forgetting to wear the red pin. Those caught are immediately arrested and sent to an internment camp. Extended families vanish overnight – guilty, by association, of their relatives’ crimes. According to one escapee, Kim Joo-il, many living in Pyongyang – just seventy miles from Yodok, one the county’s most infamous camps – are vaguely aware of prison camps in the mountains, but do not know what happens inside the camps.
We have heard before how the regime lavishes itself with pomp and extravagance, yet we are guilty of neglecting its most grotesque expenditure of all – the monstrous investment of time and energy spent planning, constructing and maintaining the camps purpose built for the torture and extermination of its own people.
Shin is a living example of the widespread and systemic torture of political prisoners in North Korea. His drawings match satellite imagery of Kaechon internment camp, recently updated to show clear visibility of the camps’ wall of barbed wire snaking around buildings and public execution sites. His scars match his accounts of extreme torture and his tears for his father reflect the horror facing those remaining in the camps.
North Korean state officials continue to deny the existence of the camps. China sends North Korean refugees back to what it knows will be certain torture and execution. Yet, the international community has failed to act. The power to prosecute the North Korean regime through a formal commission of inquiry lies with a new resolution from the UN Security Council, as North Korea has not ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The Council members choose to do nothing – instead they continue to ignore the people of North Korea.