After spending 22 years in a North Korean political prison camp, Shin Dong Hyuk would like to make one special request of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il.
"I would suggest," says Mr. Shin, "he spend one hour in the camp."
More realistically, activists hope to arouse South Koreans' concern for the horrors of the North's prison system as told in Shin's story from his birth 25 years ago to political prisoners in Camp No. 14 until his escape through an electrified fence in January 2005.
"People are not so interested," says Kim Sang Hun, director of the North Korean Human Rights Database Center here. "The indifference of South Korean society to the issue of North Korean rights is so awful."
The center just published Shin's book, "Escape to the Outside World: From Total Control Prison Camp No. 14 in North Korea." The book has sold modestly despite its window on the harsh system enforced by the North as the South pursues rapprochement. Mr. Kim says the initial response has mirrored that for "The Aquariums of Pyongyang: 10 Years in the North Korean Gulag," by Kang Chol Hwan, who fled after his release from Yeodok prison camp. Mr. Kang's story gained wide attention only after its translation into Japanese and then into English.
Camp No. 14, says Kim, is considerably harsher than Yeodok, where political prisoners serve fixed terms. "You are sent to Camp 14 to die," says Kim. "Shin was the first one ever to escape." Kim expects Japanese and English editions of Shin's account to sell far more widely.
Shin began writing his story in the South's consulate in Shanghai, where he found sanctuary after working for a year at a logging camp while hiding out from Chinese police who would return him to certain death in the North. Diplomats negotiated to bring him to Korea.
South Korean officials acknowledge that President Roh Moo-hyun did not raise the issue of human rights when he met Kim Jong Il last month in Pyongyang. Foreign Minister Song Min Soon links better human rights to diplomatic ties between Washington and Pyongyang and an improved North-South relationship.
South Korea accepts those who manage to find sanctuary at a foreign diplomatic mission in China or make their way to a nearby country, such as Thailand, Vietnam, or Mongolia. Foreign Minister Song has formally protested China's policy of viewing all refugees as "economic migrants" and repatriating them.
Tim Peters, director and founder of Helping Hands Korea, dedicated to assisting North Korean refugees, says he hope China will let up on refugees in the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympics. "The Chinese are concerned about their image," he says. "It's the best and possibly last hope for China to change its policies."
Activists say South Korea has no clear policy of its own on refugees. "It's like a band-aid policy," says Erika Kang, director of the Good Friends Center for Peace, Human Rights and Refugees in Seoul. "We need a mid- and long-term strategy, but the government is not gearing up for that."
South Korean officials counter that they are increasingly sensitive to the needs of refugees after accepting nearly 12,000 of them – at a rate that now averages about 2,000 a year.
"We consider North Korean defectors as our people," says Kim Hyun Du, an official in the Unification Ministry. "We provide assistance in resettling them," ranging from a short course to acquaint them with life in a capitalist environment to grants until they find work to incentives to remain on jobs they often don't like.
South Koreans have heard so many "terrible stories," says Ms. Kang, that many people are inured to persistent reports of the horrors in camps believed to be holding some 200,000 political prisoners and family members imprisoned for "crimes of relatives."
"Everything people heard ... was quite bad," she says. "There's nothing new or so shocking."
Most refugees fled to escape famine, disease, and harsh rule; virtually none before had escaped camps to which political prisoners are consigned until they die, often because of beatings and poor health, sometimes by executions. "We deal with hundreds of defectors," says Kim Sang Hun, "but Shin is unusual in that he was born in a camp we had never heard of before."
Shin says he had no knowledge of the outside world – or of North Korea. He did not know that Pyongyang was the capital.
The only prisoner ever to get out of Camp No. 14 and make it to South Korea, Shin pulls up the legs of his pants, exposing scars from powerful electric currents and shows that a finger was cut off as punishment for dropping a load he carried. He does not reveal scars from severe mistreatment while interrogators ordered him to say what he knew about what they claimed had been an escape attempt by his mother and older brother. The two were later executed.
Shin says his curiosity about life elsewhere was piqued by another prisoner who had traveled abroad. That prisoner, he says, was apparently electrocuted while attempting to escape with him, leaving Shin to wander alone for 20 days, living off stolen food, before finally wading across the shallow Tumen River into China.
Shin says his motive for writing his book was simple. "I want to know, if our parents committed crimes, why the innocent children? I want to inform the world about them. Now, for the children in the camp, I wish to speak for them."