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One man's escape from Camp 14 and North Korea

Only one prisoner born in North Korea's gulag is known to have escaped to tell his story. A Q&A with Blaine Harden, the journalist who wrote about Shin Dong-hyuk.

By , Staff writer

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    Shin Dong-hyuk (seated, l.) was born in a notorious North Korean prison camp, from which he escaped. He’s shown being interviewed on French TV last year.
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There is only one prisoner actually born in one of North Korea's infamous prison camps known to have escaped alive. His name is Shin Dong-hyuk.

Mr. Shin was raised in Camp 14, reported to be one of the cruelest in a system of hard labor prisons.

His parents didn't know each other before their brief conjugal marriage arranged by guards. Shin grew up with no idea of a world other than the beatings, torture, and snitching that were part of everyday life at the camp. He betrayed his mother and brother over a meal of rice, sending them to their execution, saw his father as an acquaintance, and roasted rats to stay alive. Yet he also was able to catch his first glimpse of life outside the camp's fence through the unexpected, simple kindness of a fellow inmate.

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Shin made his improbable escape at age 23 in search of food; if caught he faced execution. But after a harrowing trip to China, he made it to Seoul, South Korea.

Washington Post correspondent Blaine Harden's book "Escape from Camp 14" has made Shin the best-known advocate for exposing the North's hidden prisons. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton mentioned Shin at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Mr. Harden spoke with the Monitor in late April.

(Read the Monitor's article about the new UN inquiry into North Korea's gulag system)

Are these like the camps in Nazi Germany?

No, these are not death camps; the authorities do not execute people as a matter of course. They work people to death, but that happens over a number of years.

Probably a better analogy is Stalin's Gulag. The camps were set up under Kim Il-sung, an acolyte of Stalin, as a mirror of the Soviet Gulag. What is different in the North Korean case is that they seem to be crueler and have lasted twice as long.

Camp 14 has a reputation for housing high-level Pyongyang people that run afoul of the regime. It is a completely no-exit camp, with no rehabilitation; guards treat it as a military front line. There is less sleep, more work, more brutality.

Shin is born in a dark place, a product of the camp. But this doesn't last forever?

Yes, he speaks of an awakening. He had the first inklings of it after his mother's execution. He was 14 and in an underground prison with a man who was kind to him, treated his wounds after he was tortured. The kindness of that man, "Uncle," was something to him utterly new. The guy shared his food. He basically lavished attention and love on Shin in a way he had never experienced. So when he got out, went back to normal camp life, got pushed and bullied, it hit him hard. He went into a funk. He said he started to see the camp for what it was, just a really miserable, filthy, stinking place.

Tell us about Shin's turning point after meeting an educated prisoner named Park.

Shin is assigned to snitch on Park but in the end didn't do it. Park starts telling him stories. At one point Park asks where Shin is from. Shin says, "I am from here." Park tells him, "I am from Pyongyang, the capital." Shin had never heard of the place.

But instead of laughing at this ignorant young kid, Park gave him a primer on what it means to be a citizen of the planet, he talked and talked. Before that it never occurred to Shin that people lived outside the fence.

But talk of grilled meat finally got Shin's attention. He started to dream about food, got a spring in his step, and surprised himself by asking Park to escape with him. Shin was interested in finding his next meal, above all. His focus as a feral creature of the camp was self-preservation and maximizing calories. That was everything, the essence of his escape. He wasn't after the bill of rights.

What is Shin like?

He's really smart. It has also been a bumpy ride. But he has friends he trusts now.

He's kind of a jokester, not adolescent, but gets real joy being with friends, especially when they are all eating dinner together.

He pulled out a huge Galaxy phone the last time I saw him. Smart phones are no more recent to him than the concept of friendship or of love. They are both part of this new existence, and I think he has an easier time with technology than with human emotions.

But he seems to know his role is to tell the world through his life what is going on in these camps right now, and the kind of kids they are raising there.

We have had public satellite images of the camps for more than a decade. Where is the outcry?

Three main things have occluded our vision of the human rights catastrophe:

No. 1, by far, is the comic element of the regime. Particularly Kim Jong-il, his appearance, his puffy hair, big glasses, and funny suit. Jon Stewart and "The Daily Show" highlight the risible nature of the images coming out of the North's propaganda machine. It is fun and funny, silly and ridiculous, over the top. It is so funny that it takes up all the oxygen in our perceiving of North Korea. No. 2 and 3 are the nukes and missiles.

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