Deep inside the darkness of North Korea—a totalitarian state from which little news escapes—as many as 200,000 citizens are suffering in the regime’s forced labor camps, living each day with no hope and no expectation of a better life ahead. One man, however, has escaped to tell his life story, helping to shed some light on this horrifying abyss of death.
His name is Shin Dong-hyuk. Born and raised in North Korea’s labor camps, he successfully fled the oppression after 23 years and lived to tell the world about it. In a compelling new book, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, journalist Blaine Harden helps Shin share his story and paint the disturbing picture of the breathtaking atrocities the North Korean government is perpetrating on its people.
Harden reports that according to the South Korean government, 154,000 prisoners reside in these camps, though the U.S. State Department pegs the number at closer to 200,000. The biggest of them is reportedly 31 miles long and 25 miles wide—bigger than Los Angeles—and electrified barbed-wire fences surround the perimeter. To date, the camps have lasted twice as long as the Soviet Gulag and 12 times longer than Nazi concentration camps. Yet little is known of them in the outside world.
Shin’s life began in a total vacuum of hope and humanity. All he had to look forward to was hard labor, a near-starvation diet, beatings, and an early death. For Shin, this was the only life he knew; he possessed little knowledge of his own country, let alone the wider world. Tragically, as Harden reveals, Shin didn’t even understand the concept of love—not even from his own mother, whom he viewed as competitor for food, whom he betrayed to the authorities when he learned of her plans to escape, and whose execution he witnessed firsthand. Harden writes of the stark existence:
Love and mercy and family were words without meaning. God did not disappear or die. Shin had never heard of him. . . In Camp 14, Shin did not know literature existed. He saw only one book in the camp, a Korean grammar, in the hands of a teacher who wore a guard’s uniform, carried a revolver on his hip, and beat one of his primary school classmates to death with a chalkboard pointer.
Unlike those who have survived a concentration camp, Shin had not been torn away from civilized existence and forced to descend into hell. He was born and raised there. He accepted its values. He called it home.
And for Shin, it was his home, and he gave no thought to a life different from his own. But that was until he encountered two other prisoners who were newcomers to the camp—outsiders who brought news of a better life. With one of those prisoners, Shin plotted an escape, leading to his nearly aimless flight into China, South Korea, and ultimately the United States.
Today, Shin has devoted his life to educating the world about the prison camps. In a recent interview, he described how he decided to risk his life for a chance at escape. “My feeling at that time, even if I were to get shot and die, was that I would want to experience even just for one day of that freedom.”
Read more about North Korea today in Uncertainties over North Korea’s Leadership Transition: Broader Contingency Planning Is Essential for Regional Stability, a paper by Heritage’s Bruce Klingner.