Human rights groups believe North Korea holds as many as 200,000 political prisoners in a half-dozen labor camps across the nation. Some serve four or five years and are released. Many spend their lives there, often dying from malnutrition and mistreatment. Only one man born in one of the brutal camps has managed to escape. In a new book, an American journalist tells the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk - how he was starved, tortured and forced to witness the execution of his mother and brother, and how he ultimately found his way to freedom. Guest host Tom Gjelten of NPR speaks with the journalist, Blaine Harden, about Shin's remarkable story and life in a labor camp under North Korea's dictatorship.
Shin Dong-Hyuk grew up with no concept of freedom and no idea of love. Born in a North Korean prison camp, he knew almost nothing about the outside world until, at the age of
23, he managed to escape from the camp. When journalist Blaine Harden first heard about Shin, he was intrigued. When he learned what Shin had endured, he was horrified. In his new book titled "Escape From Camp 14," Blaine Harden tells Shin's story.
The Nature Of The Camps
The U.S. estimates that there are about 200,000 people living in North Korean prison camps today. The camps seem to be a pervasive part of life in that country, Harden said. "They are sort of a part of a totalitarian state's tool kit to terrorize the population," he said. "It's not so much because everybody in North Korea goes to them, but everybody in North Korea knows they exist," he said.
Harden thinks one of the most tragic elements of Shin's story is that because he was born inside a camp, he had no notion of any other life. He compares Shin to somesurvivors of Nazi concentration camps, like Ellie Wiesel. Before being rounded up and forced in to the camps, people like Wiesel knew about love, God, and normal life. But Shin was born inside a camp, and "didn't know it was hell," Harden said. "He accepted it as his home," he said.
A Life Of Near-Starvation
Shin's mother beat him and he viewed her as a competitor for food. He received a very minimal education, but he didn't learn about the existence of any kind of life outside the camp until he was about 23 years old and he met a new prisoner named Park. Park told him that China, the U.S., and South Korea existed, and told him about telephones, television, and other things he had never experienced. "But what motivated Shin to want to get out of the camp is that Park also talked about food, particularly grilled meat that one could eat if one went to a restaurant in China. And it was the idea of having your stomach filled full of grilled meat that any person could enjoy that sparked dreams and aspirations and the willingness to try to get out of there," Harden said.
After Shin met Park, when he was about 23 years old, he was able to make a miraculous escape from the camp. Park and Shin planned to escape together, but Park got to the fence first and was electrocuted. Shin had to crawl over Park's body to get out, which Harden said acted as a kind of insulation. But Park was supposed to have been Shin's guide on his escape to China, and now Shin was on his own. He found out there were traders in a town he made it to who were moving towards China, and he joined them. Harden said it's a testimony to Shin's luck and remarkable intelligence that he was able to escape and survive.
You can read the full transcript here.