Author and journalist Blaine Harden reveals the story of a man who was born in a North Korean labor camp and survived to tell the tale.
While North Korea’s prison camps have existed for twice as long as those of Stalin’s Soviet Gulag did, no one born and raised in the camps is known to have escaped. No one, that is, except Shin Dong-hyuk. The Washington Post’s former East Asia bureau chief, Blaine Harden, says Shin’s story is the single most powerful and dramatic account he’s ever heard. Compelled to share it with the world, the author worked with Shin to produce a riveting tale in Escape from Camp 14.
What is it about Shin’s story that you felt the world needed to hear?
Shin knows things about how the camps operate that no one else has told the outside world. One is that people in their early 20s are chosen – based on their work and their ability to snitch on each other – for reward-marriages. Shin is the result of such a marriage. The guards bred him, like livestock, to be a slave in the camp. And that’s a very important disclosure – that in his camp, which has existed for more than five decades, they are breeding young slaves and then working them to death.
Shin didn’t want to do this book when we first met. But I said to him, “Your story can tell people around the world that these camps are really there, and dramatize what goes on inside so they’ll never forget it.”
As a journalist, you look for a compelling story, and his is the best I’ve ever heard in my life.
How does your book impact people’s understanding of North Korea?
A lot of Americans didn’t know the camps were there. They didn’t know how they operate, or why their long-term pattern of systematic human-rights abuses is integral to North Korea’s survival.
The most recent estimate puts 135,000 to 150,000 people in five camps – a relatively small portion of the population.
But most North Koreans know the camps exist. Many have had friends or relatives taken to the camps. The purpose of the camps is to scare the hell out of everyone else in the country so they keep their mouths shut and put up with the government. It’s a classic tool of totalitarian leadership. Similar camps existed in Nazi Germany for four years, and the Soviet Gulag for 25. They have been in North Korea for 50 years.
You’ve mentioned that it took a long time for Shin to open up to you.
Right. But when he did, he revealed something to me that I never expected.
While in the camp, Shin witnessed the execution of his mother and brother. He was told to sit and watch as his mother was hanged and his brother was shot. This is what he told officials when he first got to South Korea in 2006.
What he did not say – because he felt he could be arrested, or, at the very least, that he would be thought of as a terrible, terrible person – was that he had snitched on them.
He had heard them discussing a possible escape, and he immediately told the guards. And this resulted in their arrest, and their execution. He was 13 years old, born and raised in a terrible situation, and he had been programmed to snitch. He did it to get more food and to get an easier job so that he wouldn’t be beaten as much.
He’d been living with this lie ever since, and that’s what he decided to tell me.
He was programmed, as you say, to snitch, and to be loyal to the guards. So, what motivated him to escape?
He really was kept in the dark about the world outside the fence. He didn’t even know the world was round until he met Park, a Taekwondo instructor from Pyongyang who had traveled and been educated abroad before being sent to Camp 14.
Park started telling stories that Shin found irresistible. So Shin decided to keep them in confidence, and to trust him. It was really the first free decision of his life. He told the guards that Park had nothing interesting to say. And then they began to plot an escape.
Shin said that when Park began to talk about the outside world, something inside just came alive. He said, “You know, they tried for 23 years to turn me into a snitch and a person who was not curious and didn’t have love or trust, but just a few weeks with Park awakened my humanity and made me want to get out of there.”
Of course, when they tried to escape, Park got to the fence first and was electrocuted, and Shin crawled over his body and got out of there.
Was it difficult for you to believe any aspects of his story?
Well, yes, it’s very difficult to believe, and it’s very difficult to corroborate. But the evidence is there.
After his mother and brother’s planned escape, the guards thought he might’ve been a part of it, so they tortured him. He was burned over a coal fire, and was hung upside down by his ankles from ankle locks for a very long time. He showed me the scars – there are really awful burn scars on his buttocks and lower back, and he has severe scarring around his ankles.
Once, he accidently dropped a sewing machine that he was carrying up a flight of stairs for repair. As punishment, the guards hacked off part of the middle finger on his right hand. That finger is missing its first knuckle.
And when he escaped through the fence, he received severe electrical burns on both his shins, which continue to give him problems today.
So, his body is testament.
The second thing is that there are now 60 camp survivors and former guards who have been interviewed in depth by human-rights investigators and human-rights lawyers in Seoul. David Hawk, who has interviewed more of these survivors than anybody else, finds Shin’s story to be completely consistent with everything else that is known.
North Korea denies the camps exist, even though they are clearly visible on satellite images. Hawk says that until North Korea opens up the camps and brings investigators in to prove that these 60 people are all lying, their testimony stands. And that, I think, is the best answer.
Blaine Harden is a contributor to The Economist, a reporter for Frontline on PBS, and formerly served as The Washington Post’s bureau chief in East Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa. He is the author of Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent and A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia. His most recent book, Escape from Camp 14, is a New York Times bestseller. He lives in Seattle.