Elisabeth Braw wrote this article for
and the Huffington Post.
To the outside world, the inner workings of North Korea are a mystery. But Shin Dong-hyuk has frightening first-hand information. The 26-year-old is the only surviving escapee from a North Korean prison camp.
Shin was born at Camp No. 14 as the child of two prisoners; they had been allowed to marry in reward for good behavior. The camp is situated in Kaechon, 55 miles north of Pyongyang. Life as an inmate was brutal: Shin's mother - he barely saw his father - worked from 5 am until 9:30 pm, and work was followed by a mandatory 90 minute "Ideology Struggle Session".
"Our school teachers were prison guards, so I quickly understood that I was a prisoner", recalls Shin. One day, he remembers, a girl was beaten do death by a teacher for having five grams of wheat in her pocket. "Violence was a part of life at the camp", says Shin. "Guards beat prisoners; prisoners beat each other. There was no concept of friendship."
Shin himself was tortured after his father tried to escape the camp. When he was twelve, he was forced to witness the hanging of his mother and brother, who were also accused of trying to escape. Several years later, guards cut off one of his fingers because he had accidentally dropped a sewing machine.
At age 23, Shin decided to escape. "The most difficult part of escaping was accepting that I'd probably be killed", says Shin. Using a corpse as a ladder, he scaled the prison's electric fence. Food found in an empty house served as bribes for border guards; miraculously Shin made it to China.
Today Shin is a refugee in Seoul. "Adjusting to life in the free world is hard", he says. "I'm like a three-year-old trying to attend college. And because of my life in prison I'm always suspicious. It's hard for me to understand that someone would just want to be nice to me."
Recently dictator Kim Jong-Il, who suffered a stroke in August, has appeared healthier. "But people are too interested in Kim Jong-Il", says Shin. "I think that's exactly what he wants. Then they won't pay attention to what's happening in the country."
Given North Korea's extreme secrecy, there is no way of corroborating Shin's information, but human rights organizations like the Democracy Network Against North Korean Gulag call it credible. There are no official figures regarding North Korea's prison population -- not even the Red Cross is given access to its prisons - but Human Rights Watch estimates that the country has several hundred thousand political prisoners, including children.
Here are some of Shin's drawings. They show his mother and brother on their way to their execution, Shin being tortured and guards cutting off Shin's finger as punishment for dropping a sewing machine.
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