Born and Raised in a North Korean Prison Camp

Ex-prisoner speaks out about life spent in brutal, harrowing conditions.

ByABC News
January 8, 2009, 1:43 AM

Oct. 30, 2007 — -- The first two days of torture started with threatening questions about his family's conspiracy. Shin Dong-Hyuk had no answers because at age 14, he was required to live in the dormitory with other teenagers in North Korea's notorious political prison camp No.14, north of Pyongyang. He had not seen his parents and brother for weeks.

The next morning, Shin was hung upside down with his ankles cuffed, all day long. He wondered why his mother and brother tried to escape, if what the authorities claimed was true. Surely, they should have known that anything short of being out of place in this camp is punished by death.

On the fourth day Shin was dragged into cell No.7, the secret underground torture chamber. Completely stripped, legs cuffed, hands tied with rope, his legs and hands were hung from the ceiling. The torturers lit up a charcoal fire under his back. He struggled. But they pierced a steel hook near Shin's groin to keep him from writhing. Amid the sounds and smells of flesh burning, Shin then blacked out.

Eleven years after that day, Shin Dong-Hyuk is now standing high in Seoul, South Korea, signing autographs in his recently published book "Escape to the Outside World," which is about his life in the North Korean prison camp. He's spreading the word about the brutal North Korean regime and making plans for a new life of freedom.

But none of it would be possible if not for a daring, tragic escape.

In 2005, Shin successfully escaped the prison camp where he was born, raised and repeatedly tortured. It took a month for him to sneak to the border where he bribed his way into China. After 17 months of seeking refuge, he was granted defector status by the South Korean government last year.

Shin's parents were granted marriage inside the camp for being model prisoners. They spent five days together as an award, and separated again in accordance with the prison rule. Shin has little memory of his father and brother because everyone above 12 years old was to live in separate dormitories of same age and sex. He lived with his mother until age 12, but he has no attached feelings.

"She never hugged me, never," he recalled.

Shin's schooling involved reading, writing and simple adding and subtracting. Children were beaten to death in front of others for stealing five grains of wheat out of hunger. Girls were raped and protesting mothers disappeared. He witnessed his own mother offering sex to guards. Teenagers were buried under cement while being forced to build power plants. Shin's middle-finger knuckle was cut off as punishment for dropping a sewing machine. And he watched the public executions of his mother and brother after their failed escape.

But for Shin, that was the way it was. "I didn't think the world I lived in was wrong. I was born to it," he said.