Shin Dong-hyuk is a former prisoner of Camp 14, one of North Korea’s most notorious prison camps. Yes, his status is a ‘former’ prisoner — not because he’s dead, like thousands of others who didn’t survive the North’s prisons, but because he’s the only person ever known to escape. It’s from his memories as a boy who was born in Camp 14 that we’ve learned of the horrors of North Korean prisons: sewing machines valued over workers, entire families killed in chemical experiments, generations interred to “cleanse” a family’s bloodline of the propensity for wrong-doing, everything horrible you could imagine.
A new booked titled Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden, the man who first wrote about Shin’s story, promises to get more in-depth in the terrors of North Korean prisons than ever before. The Guardian has an excellent excerpt, and it’s as shocking as you’d expect. From a section outlining Shin’s discovery of his mother and brother planning escape:
Escape. Shin was astonished to hear his brother say the word. He did not hear his mother say that she intended to go along. But she was not trying to argue, even though she knew that if he escaped or died trying, she and others in her family would be tortured and probably killed. Every prisoner knew the first rule of Camp 14, subsection 2: “Any witness to an attempted escape who fails to report it will be shot immediately.”
His heart pounded. He was angry that she would put his life at risk for the sake of his brother. He was also jealous that his brother was getting rice. Shin’s camp-bred instincts took over: he had to tell a guard. Shin ran back to school. It was 1am. Who could he tell? In the crowded dormitory, Shin woke his friend Hong Sung Jo. Hong told him to tell the school’s night guard.
“I need to say something to you,” Shin told the guard, “but before I do, I want something in return.” Shin demanded more food and to be named grade leader at school, a position that would allow him to work less and not be beaten as often. The guard agreed, then told Shin and Hong to go back to get some sleep.
On the morning after he betrayed his mother and brother, uniformed men came to the schoolyard for Shin. He was handcuffed, blindfolded and driven in silence to an underground prison.
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