Born and Raised in a North Korean Prison Camp

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

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.

Born Behind Barbed Wire

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.

He has known no other alternative. He also did not even know of the Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il nor the late-founder Kim Il-Sung.

"People are surprised when I say I didn't know about them. I really did not hear those names inside the camp," said Shin.

Human rights activists say the political prisoners condemned to die in those prison camps are not considered fit to be trained ideologically. "They are simply not treated as one of the people," said Tim Peters at Helping Hands Korea.

"I thought it was only natural that I pay for my parents' sins with hard labor," recalled Shin.

An Escape Born of Curiosity

His hope in life was to be a model prisoner and be granted marriage like his father -- that is, until he learned another world existed outside camp No.14. A new inmate who had been in China and other Asian countries told him stories and taught him his first song. Shin had never heard a song, let alone music of any sort except the bells that rang to signal time of day.

So when he agreed to escape the barbed wires of his prison camp with the new inmate, it was not that he felt injustice or anger. Shin said he was "just curious, that's all." His fellow escapee died burnt and stuck to the electric wired fences -- a tragic twist, but for Shin it created an opportunity. He was able to safely crawl over the dead body as protection from getting electrified.

Crawling through, his legs got caught temporarily, leaving another unforgettable scar in addition to his burnt back and cut knuckle. But as he ran bleeding to find the new world, he did not imagine where he stands now.

In South Korea, Shin is telling the world about the secret atrocities of the North Korean regime and the political prison camp No.14. He gave testimony at Britain's House of Lords this year and hopes to do the same in the United States Congress. Privately, he dreams of going to college and becoming a policeman.