Defector’s testimony shocks even veteran N. Korea watchers
SEOUL — He says he was tortured as a teenager. He watched as his mother and brother were executed, and until he was 20 years old, North Korean Shin Dong-hyuk had heard of neither Kim Il-sung nor Kim Jong-il.
In a testimony to stunned journalists on Oct. 29, Mr. Shin, the first North Korean defector to the South who was born in the North’s notorious gulag, revealed a nightmarish world in which inmates and their children suffer lifetime incarceration, are kept ignorant of outside society and undergo forms of torture that are medieval in their barbarism.
“In my heart, I thought: ‘Parents committed crimes, but why were innocent children punished?’ “ he said at a press conference introducing his autobiography, “Escape to the Outside World.”
“I want to tell the world of this.”
Slight, and with a humble manner, he shook as he showed cameramen his extensive scars. His story has shocked even analysts who monitor Pyongyang’s human rights abuses.
North Korea claims it is a “worker’s paradise,” and that it has no political prisoners.
But outside authorities have evidence it operates a vast gulag system thought to hold more than 200,000 political prisoners and their families.
“We didn’t believe it,” said Kim Sang-hun, head of Seoul’s Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, of Mr. Shin’s story.
“It took many months before we were convinced he was what he said he was,” said Mr. Kim, who debriefed and now cares for Mr. Shin.
Mr. Shin’s mother was imprisoned in “Total Control Camp No. 14” in central North Korea, for political crimes. As reward for good work, she was allowed to marry. The couple’s “honeymoon” was five nights together before being separated again. Mr. Shin was born in 1982.
There was no maternal affection: The camp’s 40,000 to 60,000 inmates were indoctrinated to spy on each other, including family members. His earliest memory is of following his mother to the camp farm to work; he has no recollection of being embraced.
Life consisted of work and criticism sessions. Remarkably, Kim Ilsung, the deceased founder of North Korea, and his son and present ruler, Kim Jong-il — deified elsewhere in North Korea — were unknown to those born in the camps and never mentioned by inmates imprisoned there.
When Mr. Shin was 13, his mother and brother attempted an escape, unsuccessfully. That day, a civilian car met Mr. Shin outside the camp school. He was driven to a secret, underground location.
There, guards demanded details of the plot. Mr. Shin was ignorant of it. He was suspended over a fire. When he screamed, a hook was hacked into his groin. Unconscious, he was slung into a cell with a skeletal old man.
The man cared for the child’s festering injuries and gave him his own meager rations. It was the first time Mr. Shin had ever received affection fromanotherhuman.“Iwillneverforget him,” Mr. Shin wrote. “I came to love him more than my parents.”
After seven months, Mr. Shin was released to witness his mother’s hanging and his brother’s execution by shooting. Mr. Shin noticed his father in tears, but he had only one emotion: “I was furious with them; as a result of their crimes, I was subject to torture.”
Life continued. His niece was raped and killed by guards. He dropped a sewing machine; guards chopped off a fingertip with a knife. Constantly hungry, he once found three corn kernels in a pile of cow manure, his “lucky day.” Unaware of any world beyond the wire, his dreams were to excel at work, gain permission to marry or become a team leader.
Then in 2004, he befriended a new prisoner who had escaped to China, wherehewasapprehended,returned to North Korea and sent to the prison camp.
Secretly, the inmate told Mr. Shin of the outside world. That knowledge consumed him. For the first time, work became intolerable.
On Jan 2, 2005, while collecting firewood in the mountains, Mr. Shin escaped, lacerating his legs on electrified barbed wire.
He reached China and found asylum at South Korea’s Shanghai consulate. There, traumatized by nightmares, he began writing about his life.
Now that his story is told, his life path is uncertain. “I have many choices, but have made no decisions,” he said.
Asked what message he would like to send Kim Jong-il, Mr. Shin thought for a moment then said quietly, “I’d ask him to take one hour to think about the situation in the camps.”