Prison Camp Survivor Shares Experience
Published: Friday, November 30, 2012
Updated: Friday, November 30, 2012 02:11
North Korean prison camp survivor Shin Dong-hyuk spoke about his experience dealing with torture and starvation in the Intercultural Center auditorium Tuesday.
Born in 1982 in Kaechon Prison No. 14, an internment camp located north of Pyongyang, Shin lived and worked there as an inmate until his escape in 2005. Shin is the only person known to have been born in one of these camps and escaped.
Shin shared personal details of his suffering as an inmate to help the audience understand the situation in the prison camps.
“What for you might seem horrible and unimaginable is very normal for political prisoners,” Shin said. “I witnessed the execution of my own mother and sister, and I was dragged away and severely beaten and tortured.”
But even while detailing his own suffering, Shin stressed that many other inmates faced worse conditions.
“[My story is] nothing compared to a 7-year-old girl who, for the crime of picking up a grain from the ground and hiding it, was beaten to death,” Shin said.
He added that for those born in the camp, there is no reality outside of living in a world where everything is regulated.
“The baby that is born to inmates carries the blood of criminals. This baby is an inmate from the moment he or she is born,” Shin said. “The moment these children open their eyes and look at the world around them, they see prison guards with guns.”
Shin stressed that inmates in these prison camps were treated as though they were not even humans.
“People in prison camps were not even taught the leadership of North Korea,” Shin said. “Because [the guards] thought that the inmates were there to work like animals and die, they did not need to be educated.”
Shin said he had never thought about escaping for the first 24 years of his life.
“The first thing children learn in school is that there is no way to escape, and if we are caught trying to escape, we will be executed,” Shin said.
When he was 24, he was paired with an inmate who had just arrived at the camp. According to Shin, hearing about the outside world prompted him to escape.
“For the first time, I started to hear about the world that existed outside the prison camp,” Shin said. “People living on the outside could eat whatever they wanted, wear whatever they wanted and basically do whatever they wanted to. Because I had never seen this, at first I couldn’t believe the things I was hearing.”
He explained that being able to eat freely was the greatest motivator for him while he was starving in the camp.
“The most fun thing that the inmates talked about was food,” Shin said. "I decided that even if I could just eat all the food [the inmate] was talking about, it would be worth being captured and killed."
Shin said that he aimed only to share the experience and suffering of North Korean prisoners, not suggest solutions.
“Using my own words, I can’t say, ‘If we do this we will be able to find a solution to the human rights problem in North Korea,’” Shin said. “Because if I knew the answers to those questions I would not have escaped North Korea, and I would not be here in front of you.”
However, he acknowledged that increased international awareness and relief efforts would help North Koreans.
“If you have the determination or the desire to help find the answer to the humanitarian crisis in North Korea … then we are already on our way to finding a solution,” Shin said. “The stories of my experience in the camp are truths — things that really happened to me in North Korea. These things happened in North Korea, but I think the solutions lie with each one of you here. I think all of us must work together to find the answer.”
Erin Leonard (SFS ’16) said that Shin was able shed a light on an issue that is not widely discussed.
“I thought it was fascinating to hear him speak about his experiences,” Leonard said. “It’s not something I knew about before this.”
Claire Suh (COL ’15) agreed, adding that she had a more personal perspective on the story because of her ability to understand Korean without relying on the translator.
“I think I got a cool perspective because I didn’t need to wait for the translation,” Suh said. “A lot of the things he said in the vernacular had so much emotion behind them, and some of that was lost in English.”
Suh also commended Shin’s courage.
“It’s really unsafe to speak out because the North Korean government keeps tabs on all of this. The fact that he is continuing with this is extremely brave,” Suh said.