US journalist uncovers horrors of world's toughest prison camp
Former North Korean prisoner Shin Dong-hyuk is now a free man. Shin, left, and U.S. journalist Blaine Harden, author of “Escape from Camp 14,” pose outside a Louis Vuitton shop in Seoul. / Courtesy of Penguin Group Korea
By Do Je-hae
The international community has been concerned with the dire human rights conditions in North Korea.
But the Communist state has been in adamant denial, as seen from an announcement from its state broadcaster. “There is no ‘human rights issue’ in this country, as everyone leads the most dignified and happy life,” according to the North Korean Central News Agency on March 6, 2009.
Former North Korean prisoner Shin Dong-hyuk’s story is a convincing testament to the falsity of Pyongyang’s position.
During a forum in Washington D.C. this week, Shin spoke on his experience in a North Korean concentration camp and urged more international support for the political prisoners in his former homeland.
But even before the forum, his story has been gaining press attention, following the
publication of the book “Escape from Camp 14.” The book will be released Sunday.
The publication date coincides with the April 15 centennial of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the late North Korean leader.
Former Washington Post correspondent Blaine Harden penned the book based on extensive interviews and meetings with Shin.
Blaine contends that Shin’s story is unlike any other from North Korea, in that he was born and raised in one of the prison camps in the North. So prison is the only world Shin knew, until he made his escape to South Korea at age 23.
Shin’s case is also unique in that he’s the only North Korean prisoner known to have escaped what is called the “special control zone,” a special system within the prison camps where inmates are expected to spend their whole lives. He’s the only one who managed to come out alive out of there and has been able to tell his story.
Uncovering political implosions
Shin had previously published a Korean-language memoir, but it failed to gain much press attention here.
But Blaine’s version of Shin’s unique odyssey to the free world has gripped some international media, policymakers and human rights organizations.
“Escape from Camp 14” is a BBC Radio 4 “Book of the Week” selection and Foreign Policy named it one of the 21 books that will matter in 2012.
Behind the early success of the book is the utmost professionalism of the writing of a vivid, detailed and credible account of a North Korean prisoner.
The author personally visited North Korea, talked to many officials and experts and sat down with Shin on many occasions over a span of two years to complete this book.
For more than 30 years, the focus of Blaine’ journalistic career has been political implosions in failed states. His career is a fine example of in-depth journalism.
“Political implosion had become my specialty. For the Post and for the New York Times, I spent nearly three decades covering failed states in Africa, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the slow-motion rot in Burma under the generals,” Blaine wrote. “From the outside looking in, North Korea seemed ripe — indeed overripe — for the kind of collapse I had witnessed elsewhere. In a part of the world where nearly everyone else was getting rich, its people were increasingly isolated, poor and hungry,” Blaine wrote in the introduction.
The author currently serves as a reporter for PBS Frontline and a contributor to The Economist.
Privilege and privation
To make the plight of the likes of Shin more vivid for readers, Blaine makes an interesting comparison between Shin and Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and new leader of the Communist state.
“Shin is roughly the same age as Kim Jong-un, the chubby third son of Kim Jong-il who took over as leader after his father’s death in 2011,” Blaine said.
Of Kim, Blaine wrote: “Because of his parentage, he lives above the law. For him, everything is possible. In 2010, he was named a four-star general in the Korean People’s Army despite a total lack of field experience in the military.”
But about Shin, Blaine says: “Because his blood was tainted by the perceived crimes of his father’s brothers, he lived below the law. For him, nothing was possible.”
The 31-year-old said he had been forced to witness the public execution of prisoners twice a year, while trapped in Camp No. 14, about 88 kilometers north of Pyongyang.
His parents had met in prison. Shin has confessed his mother and brother were executed in Camp No. 14 because he tipped the authorities of their wrongdoings.
As an inmate, Shin suffered horrendous conditions, including back-breaking labor, starvation and no education, for 23 years before jumping over electrified fences and escaping to China. He settled in South Korea in 2006.
North Korean prison camps have been in operation for more than five decades and have existed twice as long as Stalin’s Soviet gulags and 12 times as long as the Nazi concentration camps. Twelve-to-fifteen-hour workdays are mandatory until prisoners die, usually of malnutrition-related illnesses before the age of 50.
High-resolution satellite photographs, accessible on Google Earth to anyone with an Internet connection, show vast fenced compounds sprawling through the rugged mountains of North Korea, according to Blaine.
Amnesty International has mentioned construction of new camp sites in 2011 and expressed concerns that the inmate populations may be increasing, perhaps to deter possible unrest due to a sudden power shift from Kim Jong-il to his young son.
Through his book and a recent book tour, Harden has urged more interest from the international community to the issue of North Korea’s human rights. Blaine has been on a five-city book tour in the U.S., which will conclude in Portland, Oregon, on April 16.
“After Shin’s plight was first made public through Blaine’s story in The Washington Post, the paper ran an editorial saying that the brutality Shin endured was horrifying, but just as horrifying was the world’s indifference to the existence of North Korealabor camps,” Blaine wrote.
Seoul estimates that there are between 150,000 and 200,000 people currently being held in prison camps in North Korea.
"60년전 홀로코스트(나치독일의 유대인 대학살)는 지나간 게 아니라 북한에서 지금 벌어지는 일입니다."
미국 북한인권위원회(HRNK)가 10일(현지시간) 워싱턴에서 개최한 북한 정치수용소 세미나. '14호 개천수용소'에서 태어나 이곳에서 자란 뒤 2005년 24세의 나이로 탈북한 신동혁(31)씨가 자신이 직접 겪은 고초를 생생하게 증언해 참석자들의 눈물을 자아냈다.
워싱턴포스트의 동아시아 특파원을 지낸 블레인 하든이 최근 발간한 <14호 수용소로부터의 탈출> 실제 주인공인 신씨는 자신의 신고로 어머니와 형이 공개 처형됐다는 사실을 공개했다. 그는 "4년전 내가 한국어로 출판한 책에서는 엄마와 형이 처형당할 때 몰랐다고 했는데, 사실 그 원인은 나한테 있었다"면서 "지금도 밝히고 싶지 않지만 내가 수용소 안에서 신고를 해서…"라며 말을 제대로 잇지 못했다.
그는 "정치범수용소에서는 가족이라도 잘못을 하면 신고하도록 돼 있었다"며 "그래서 당시에는 수용소 법을 지켰을 뿐이었고 아무런 죄책감이 없었다"고 설명했다.
신씨는 또 "내가 살던 수용소에는 죄수끼리 결혼시키는 '표창 결혼제도'라는 게 있어서 내가 태어났다"면서 "그러나 가족 개념이 없었고, 모두가 죄수일 뿐이었다"고 증언했다. 이어 "한국사회에 살다 보니 '가족이라는 게 서로 사랑하고 먹을 것을 입에 넣어주고 따뜻하게 품어주는 것이구나' 하는 것을 처음 느꼈고, 그래서 그(신고) 부분이 부끄러웠다"고 토로했다.
신씨는 "워싱턴에 올 때마다 홀로코스트 박물관을 가본다"며 "연합군이 홀로코스트로 희생된 사람들의 시체를 불도저로 묻는 영상을 보면서 북한에 있는 정치범 수용소의 앞날을 상상했다"고 말했다.
그는 특히 북한의 장거리로켓 발사 계획을 언급하며 "몇억달러를 써서 미사일을 날린다는데 많은 사람이 굶어 죽고 있다"면서 "공포와 고통으로 아무것도 할 수 없는 그들을 내버려두지 말고 국제사회가 큰 소리를 내서 북한을 압박해 달라"고 호소했다.
이날 세미나에는 글린 데이비스 미 국무부 대북정책 특별대표, 자유선진당 박선영 의원, 황준국 주미한국대사관 정무공사 등을 비롯해 정부ㆍ의회 관계자와 사회단체 대표 300여명이 참석했다. 로버트 킹 국무부 북한인권대사는 "북한 인권문제를 국제사회에 부각시키기 위해 대북방송의 역할을 강화해야 하며 중국의 탈북자 강제송환 문제에 대해서도 관심을 기울여야 한다"고 강조했다.