By Nathaniel Villano
Take a moment and ask yourself where you were eight years ago. Eight years ago Shin Dong-hyuk was escaping North Korea after living in a political prison camp for 23 years. He is the only known man to have been born into political prison internment camp in North Korea, escape, and live to tell the story. He was born in Kaechon internment camp (camp 14) a slave labor camp where prisoners are detained for life and on average die by the age of 45. On Thursday, November 14, Skidmore College had the opportunity to meet him as he told his story of torture and escape. He was accompanied by Hyun Song, a Washington D.C., area based North Korean human rights activist, who translated Mr. Shin’s incredible story.
Mr. Shin proposed a question to the crowd: “I want to ask you a question. Since most of you know about North Korea, when you think of North Korea, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?” Answers ranged from starvation to control, but that is not the answer he was looking for. “It seems like most of you know about North Korea but none of the answers so far given are anything positive. All the answers or all the comments made are negative or something that most people find very difficult to go through or deal with.” Other than the nuclear issue there is one other issue the UN is keeping an eye on and that is the political prison camps of North Korea. He even stated the Jewish community was keeping a keen eye on this issue and is worried about this. The reason why particularly the Jewish people are concerned about the political prison camps of North Korea is because the suffering they went through 70 years ago they thought was over. Unfortunately it’s not, which is why they are keeping close watch on what is occurring.
“The 24 years I was in the prison camp I thought that life was normal, and I accepted it as my destiny, and I could have lived there, just accepted this as something that was normal.” Throughout the time he was there, he witnessed prisoners being beaten to death and publicly executed, making him desensitized and accepting this as a normal lifestyle. He stated the reason he could live like this was because that was all that he knew, even his first memory were guards carrying around rifles and the prisoners wearing the prison uniforms. “If I were to come up with a word to describe my opinion of what would best fit the prison camp in North Korea it would be ‘Hell.’”
In 2006 after his escape, while residing in South Korea, he said he hadn’t given his life much thought. “I just thought, well, I was born and raised in a prison camp, escaped, and that was about it. I didn’t really think about my life or the situation I was in.” In 2008 Mr. Shin was given the opportunity to come to the United States. He was brought to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and after seeing the two exhibits that’s where he said he felt like something had hit him with great awareness in his head. “The reason that I say this to you is that today, or tomorrow, or one year, or two years from now, the inmates in the North Korean political camps, 200,000 of them, will come to the same demise as the Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust.”
Mr. Shin describes that even the dogs, the rats and other animals ate better than the inmates and how the birds had more freedom by just flapping their wings and flying away. It would seem to Mr. Shin that it would take more than just a civil discussion to end what is going on. “Perhaps I might even describe it as foolish if we were to try to solve this situation where by the prison camp inmates are living like animals by trying to engage in normal conversation or in a very normal type of atmosphere.” About ninety percent of the inmates have no idea as to why they were sentenced there and what laws that they broke.
“What I fear the most is having a repeat of what happened in the Nazi concentration camps happening again in North Korea.” Unfortunately history has a weird way of repeating some of the mistakes that have already happened. Prisoners don’t know life outside of the camps. Not only are the camps heavily guarded under maximum security, they also are also located in the middle of nowhere, isolated from the world. “Right now in camp 14, where I was born and raised and escaped from, my father is still alive, and my relatives are still alive, and my fellow inmates are still alive in the prison camp. Even though I see there destiny right before my eyes, unfortunately there is nothing that I can do.”
About ninety percent of those who are imprisoned will die; about five to 10 percent have the ability to have a chance to survive. Mr. Shin stated the percent that will survive depended on the audience by showing their support and spreading the message. “The only story I can tell, the only thing I can share before all of you is how I was born, how I lived and how I escaped from camp 14. That’s the only thing I can share with all of you.”