With the guard momentarily turned the other way, Shin Dong-hyuk glances around in terror. As he begins to flee, perhaps a lifetime of brutal memories flashes before his eyes, giving him all the impetus he needs to make his escape from the now-infamous Camp 14. His harrowing story will move, shock and even anger you.
Dong-hyuk’s story cannot be fully told, however, without first examining the internment camp he called home for more than 20 years. Customarily known as Kwan-li-so No. 14, the labor camp is usually referred to as Camp 14.
First set up in the late 1950s, Camp 14 is situated in the centre of North Korea, in close proximity to the South Pyongan Province city of Kaech’ŏn. As of 2012 approximately 15,000 people were estimated to live in the labor camp, which runs along the Taedong River.
Covering approximately 60 square miles, Camp 14 is predominantly composed of mines, factories and farms. Meanwhile, men, women and children are all housed separately within congested quarters, and the camp is mostly hidden from view by precipitous mountains on either side.
The prisoners in the camp are generally political ones – from government workers who fail to meet standards to anyone who so much as speaks out against the ruling administration. While interned at Camp 14, they’re forced to work in coal mines, factories or on farms.
Moreover, this work is often highly dangerous, with little regard for safety or even the most basic human rights. The prisoners are treated like slaves and forced to work more than 18 hours a day.
Children as young as 11 are also put to work after school, as part of North Korea’s “three generations of punishment” rule. As a result of this harsh legislation, many prisoners sent to the camp are joined by their entire family, with their children and grandchildren also forced to live there until they die.
Despite the mountains obscuring the camps at ground level, they have been seen in satellite images taken by South Korea’s Unification Ministry. And, yet, the regime in North Korea still refutes that they are there at all.
In keeping with the “three generations” tradition, Dong-hyuk was born in Camp 14. Previously, his mother had been “gifted” to his father as a reward for his good work in one of the camp’s factories.
Surprisingly, Dong-hyuk’s parents were allowed to keep the baby. Usually, pregnant women “disappear” from the camp – that is, they are executed – as pregnancy is generally forbidden there.
Born into camp life, Dong-hyuk was raised to spy on everyone – even his own family, to whom he forged no emotional attachment. With rations scarce, all prisoners are viewed as competitors for food, and snitching is usually met with rewards such as fewer beatings and improved working conditions.
In fact, food and rations are so hard to come by in the camp that prisoners are known to perish from malnutrition, or are otherwise forced to eat animals such as frogs, rats and snakes just to survive. Because of the harsh conditions, the average life expectancy is just 45.
However, despite this grueling ordeal, Dong-hyuk and his family were actually transferred to the less austere Camp 18 when he was young. Nevertheless, it was still another internment camp, where escaping seemed out of the question. So when Dong-hyuk overheard his mother and brother plotting an escape plan, he confessed all to a guard, expecting to be rewarded for his efforts.
Instead, however, the night guard to whom Dong-hyuk had reported his relatives’ plan took the credit for uncovering the plot. Meanwhile, the other guards presumed that Dong-hyuk was in on the idea and locked him up for seven long months, with him therefore having no clue of what had happened to his family. Finally, however, he was released – only to be forced to watch his mother and brother be publicly executed.
In the following years, Dong-hyuk actually made a couple of unsuccessful attempts to escape Camp 18 – first in 1999, and again in 2001. As punishment for the second of these attempts, he was taken back to Camp 14, where guards then spent four days torturing Dong-hyuk. They hoisted him over a charcoal fire using a hook that pierced his skin, with the flames consequently leaving massive, permanent scars all over his back.
Eventually, Dong-hyuk made friends with another prisoner, a 40-year-old man named Park, who told him stories of the world outside the camp – like the endless options of food available, not just cabbage, corn, frogs and rats. Subsequently, he decided that there was nothing else for it: he would have to try to escape.
On that fateful January day in 2005, however, all did not go to plan. While the patrolling guard was out of sight, Dong-hyuk and his counterpart fled towards the camp’s border, where the latter was instantly killed by the electric fence.
In fact, Dong-hyuk only managed to make it past the fence by climbing over the corpse of his accomplice, sustaining his own injuries along the way. Finally clear, he ran for around a mile and a half before realizing the extent of his wounds. Wandering the area, he then managed to find a discarded military uniform in a barn he had broken into – and, disguised as an official, made his way out of the country.
A matter of weeks later, a journalist discovered Dong-hyuk working in a restaurant in Shanghai. He was subsequently taken to the South Korean embassy to seek asylum, and he now resides in South Korea working as a human-rights activist.
Dong-hyuk and his colleagues have pledged that they won’t give up their crusade until every single person in the North Korean internment camps is released. His memoirs have been published in Korean, while author Blaine Harden has written an English biography of Dong-hyuk’s story, titled Escape from Camp 14. His plight has truly been a remarkable and moving one – and one, indeed, that sheds a little light on the dark horrors and human rights violations that still occur today in North Korea.