Inside a North Korean gulag
US journalist uncovers horrors of world's toughest prison camp
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.