Born in a North Korean Prison Camp, Escapee Shares Story with ISIL

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This is a transcription of the live translations of Shin Dong-Hyuk’s talk.

Transcribed and edited by Kenli S.

I hope this little clip gave you a good background, with a little bit information about my story, so that’s why I showed his video clip this morning.

Starting from last year the United Nations and other members of the international community have taken a bigger interest and been involved with the political prison camp situation in North Korea. Most recently the United Nations established the COI, or the Commission of Inquiry, on the situation North Korea.

The COI was just in South Korea hearing testimonies and now they’re in Japan to do their investigation.

Regarding the North Korean Human Rights situation, we see in countries in the past such as Cambodia or what happened with Sudan or recently Egypt and what we see happening in Syria with these issues. In these instances we’ve had the ability to get eye-witnesses to see what is going on as it happens or to bring out the evidence of what happened. But regarding the North Korean human rights situation, we find it very difficult to get evidence from the country, and we must rely on defectors who have come out of North Korea and become eye-witnesses.

As you may all know, when it is dark in a room and you are surrounded by darkness you are afraid to take another step or to get out of the darkness. In much in the same way in North Korea, the human rights violations and atrocities are happening in the darkness, making it difficult to bring light upon the situation right now.

It is my firm belief that the political prison camp issue of North Korea and the human rights issue are issues that must receive attention and help from the international community. Though I may not know whether more interest or more help may solve the immediate issue at hand with prison camps, I believe that the more you show interest and the more you take action regarding this issue it will help the people that are dying and suffering.

So the reason why showed the short video clip is because in the short time frame it encapsulates very well the 24 years of my life that I spent in the prison camp and for me well hopefully you’ll understand, but it’s very difficult for me to continue to talk and share about the past time of my life. So I want to show this and give you a background about my situation.

If there is any one here that would like to ask me any questions I would be more than happy to as best as possible answer the questions you may have regarding the issue at hand.

[Question]

In my case I did not know why I was born in the prison camp or why I had to live there. No one told me, I did not expect anyone to tell me why. I just accepted it as the reality of the situation that I was in.
This is after I came out of North Korea and as I educated myself, I read and learned that the political prison camp system was started in North Korea around the late 1950s and this was done by Kim Il-Sung, the current ruler, to get rid of any of factions that might oppose him. So this is a system to hold and contain elements of society that might be a threat to Kim Il-Sung and his regime, and to purge these people. making an immediate the

What is horrifyingly unique about the North Korean political prison camp system is that it’s not just the person accused of a crime that is sent to the prison camp but its the person’s parents, children, relatives or anyone related to that a person who’s been accused by the regime. In the case of my family I understood that it was my mother and father and their relatives that were sent at an early age in the mid-sixties to the prison camp because they were all connected to the crime, as told by the regime to the accused.

Regarding the crime for being sent to prison camp, it could be anything from something as small as being accused of crumpling or hanging the portrait of Kim Il-Sung in a crooked way, or not showing enough respect to the portrait. For the smallest of reasons people could be sent to the political prison camps.

So, I have the microphone I have the power. Every human being who who deserves to be named human agrees that we have to change the situation in North Korea. Could you tell us how we can do this and how we can help? What are the movements now that are dealing with it?

I have visited many countries and met with many politicians and powerful people, and the question that the gentleman has just asked is perhaps the question that I am asked most.

However unfortunately for me, what the solution that needs to come up to deal with the human rights situation in North Korea is, I do not know the clear-cut answer for that. However I am still studying, researching and finding my own way in what to do about the situation.

However what I would like to say to all of you is that if you hear my talk, if you hear my story and if you agree that it is a horrible situation and that you would like to get involved, to show interest then I believe that is the beginning of all of us coming together to indeed find solution and to find ways to deal with this situation in North Korea.

The reason why I answer your question like this is because the people in the political prison camps in North Korea, the inmates, they do not know what freedom is. They do not know what the word means; however, all of you here today know what freedom is, you know how precious freedom is, and you know how sacred freedom is. So I believe that all of you knowing what freedom is, knowing about this issue and getting involved will be a tremendous help to the issue overall.
And if I want to be a little bit more specific, I would just conclude my answer by saying that right now we see many people from the United States, and in particular from Europe, who travel as tourists to North Korea to Pyongyang and I see this as action that ultimately only helps the regime. So if there is a clear cut answer to your question, sir, I would say: just don’t do anything that would end up helping or giving aid to the regime in North Korea.

With the experience from the Soviet system in the thirties. It was very wasteful with people’s lives, and they had to change this system when the Second World War broke out in order to get more labor power out of people. From the little that is leaked, we know that the economic circumstances in North Korea are very bad. So increased pressure might force the government to improved the circumstance in the camp in order to get more labor productivity out of people

But in the end, the only way to stop this is to get rid of the regime. So learning from experience of the Soviet Union, all kinds of appeasement is unproductive, all kinds of appeasement is useless.

In response to your statement, after I escaped from North Korea and after I resettled in South Korea, I had some opportunity to do my own research on my own. Research and study time into history, about what happened in Germany, the former Soviet Union, Cambodia, and other instances of genocide and atrocities. I do agree that in order to do away with the evil, the root cause must be pulled out. Even though it’s easy for us to say the route must be pulled out, that obviously is a very difficult situation that we must deal with.

Hi, first of all thank you for sharing your story and for enduring such an extreme condition as a concentration camp, where we see that they are forcing people to do something which is highly unnatural and destroying what’s human in people. What I was wondering, from what you know about the rest of society in North Korea—for instance, when you were trying to escape were the rest of the people aware of what’s happening? Are they very scared? Or were they trying to help you hide while you were on the run? So what are the rest of the people like, within this system? Did this kind of inhumanity also spread outside the concentration camps?

So the people of North Korea, the average citizens, they do know about the prison camp situation and the existence of it. They know that if they were to do anything that would go against the regime or angered the regime that they would be prime targets to be sent to the prison camp.

During my attempt to escape from North Korea, I obviously couldn’t tell people that I met along the way that I was an escapee from the prison camp, because you have to understand that the environment in North Korea was such that if I were to tell that to the people that I met—these are North Koreans living in the outside world near the camps—they would surely would have reported me or reported my meeting to the authorities to the national security agency and to the police.

At that time, during my escape, since I couldn’t receive such help from other people that I met in North Korea I had to—as is revealed in the book—go into empty houses and take things from these houses. The situation North Korea was not one where people would freely give help to a stranger that was in need of help.

I have a question about your escape from North Korea and I was wondering how you managed to cross the border, how you were received by the Chinese authorities, having crossed the border illegally, and how the Chinese communist authorities treated you—what the attitude is to escapees in general from North Korea and what they do with them.

Now when I was growing up and living in the prison camp in North Korea I did not know about the outside world. I just assumed that people outside the walls or outside the fence of the prison camp were people just like me who were inmates and were living in the same or similar environment as I was living in.

Once I escaped it took me a very short time about a week or so for me to see the surrounding situation even though I did not understand it at first, but I’d realized right away that there was even in “free” North Korean society outside prison camp that there was a power structure and there was a system to the way society was organized. This was very noticeable to me once I escaped from the prison camp.

So in 2005, after my escape from the prison camp, I made my way towards the China-North Korea border and I actually crossed the river between North Korea with China in front of the border guard. This particular border guard that saw me cross the river was a very young 17-year-old military a soldier, a border guard, and the situation for him was very difficult. He was hungry himself, he was living in a very deplorable situation. So with him and other border guards it was very easy at that time to just give a little stuff, little bit of food or anything to basically bribe or basically allow other citizens to cross the river and they would just turn the other way.

Once I crossed the river into China I lived in hiding for about a year in the mountains in China, and because I felt a sense of danger to my wellbeing and my security being so close to the border with North Korea I moved further south in China to Shanghai and I was able to escape and resettle in South Korea from there.

Of course there are many North Koreans that cross the river to escape and defect to China. However, almost 75-80% of the North Koreans the cross the river are women. I do not know the exact reason why most of the people that cross the river to China are women, but I think one of the reasons has to be with the fact that North Korean males, when they turn 17 have to go into ten years of compulsory military service. Perhaps that’s why it’s only the women who are left to be able to escape across the river into China.

About 70-80% percent of the women who cross the river into China are sold into human trafficking rings. They are either tricked or sold into these trafficking rings by brokers, and sold to poor Chinese farmers in the countryside, who for whatever reason cannot get married, so the only way to get a wife is through these illegal human trafficking rings with these North Korean refugee women. So it’s a very serious situation for the North Korean women who have crossed the river from North Korea to China.

What was most shocking for me was when I found out later that that these Chinese brokers, human traffickers, they set a price structure that is different according to the age group, so for a North Korean defector that is a young girl in her teens, she would command the highest price. For women in their twenties, thirties, and forties according to their age level the price would be different.

And it’s almost a situation where the Chinese government knows what is going on, but they’re basically doing nothing about the human trafficking situation of these North Korean refugee women, so it’s a very serious and sad situation.

Last year in Seoul, a female North Korean defector in China got in touch with me, my network of friends, and the people that are involved with this issue, and she pleaded for help for us to rescue her. So we set in motion a plan and action to try to rescue her from China.

So I set in motion a plan to rescue her, and I made contact with all my friends and network in South Korea and China to try to rescue at this women, but we found out later that the Chinese “husband” found out about this rescue and he stood by the door with an axe journey to kill the woman if people came to rescue her, so unfortunately we weren’t able to do so.

This issue of North Korean refugee women being trafficked in China, it’s an issue that the UN has taken considerable interest in and action on. Its an unfortunate situation because many of these refugee woman end up in prostitution or they work in seedy karaoke bars and they’re just in a very unfortunate situation so it’s sad overall.

Your book is the very next thing which I will read, and I’m sorry if the answer to the question which I’m now going to ask is in the book, but you were in this is camp for 24 years and there were many other people in the camp as well, did you at anytime know what the purpose of the camp was? If you didn’t know that it was a political prison camp, what did you think it was for?

As I mentioned before my mother and father were sent to the prison camp at an earlier age, and they never told me or talked to me about why they were sent. For me the first thing I remember seeing in my life in the prison camp was of prison guards carrying rifles and of inmates wearing prison garb. So for me this was just a natural environment that I accepted. This was the norm for me.

Starting from an early age I remember the prison guards telling us, telling me, other young inmates, and other children at the camp—and this was told many times over that your family deserved to die, your parents deserved to die, but because we were kind enough to let them live and allow you to live, you must repay this kindness by working hard for the rest of your life in this place. That was told to us over and over again.

If there was one word to describe the life of the existence of the inmates in the prison camp, the best one would be “animals”, as we were living life like animals. However, let me further say that even though they were living like animals, the animals that were grown and kept in the prison camp lived better than the inmates themselves. I say this because the animals—the cows, the dogs, the chickens—they could eat whenever they wanted, they could pluck stuff from the ground to eat, they could wander anywhere they wanted.

The birds could fly anywhere they wanted, so they had freedom, whereas the inmates did not have any freedom at all. They could only eat, move, or do things with permission from the prison guard. So in a sense we were like animals, but worse than animals.

While the prison inmates live like animals or worse, the prison camp system itself needed the inmates as a source of labor for the mines, the factories, or the farmland within the prison camp. The inmates were used as a very inexpensive, or almost free source of labor to cultivate and to bring up the coal, or to manufacture goods in the factory for use for the prison guards themselves, or to be sent out for the regime’s use.

Of course in the prison camp system, many of these inmates, as they’re working could die from accidents, from things that happened while they’re working, or even die of old age, but no one cared about these inmates dying, these silent nameless stats. Of course from the perspective of the regime, this is an excellent and economical source of labor, which they could use to enrich themselves.

How much focus was there on reeducation? Did you receive any formal training in Juche ideology? Did you ever see anyone being released because he was no longer considered a threat to the regime? Or was it really just extermination by working people to death?

As I briefly mentioned before, I was never talk about Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il or about the Juche ideology or anything else. Looking back now I feel that the prison guards deemed us as worse than animals, or just like animals, thus we were not worthy of being told about being told about Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il, or even about the North Korean ideologies. That’s the way they treated us, in that we were not even worthy of being told about what was going on the outside world with the leaders of North Korea.

The portraits and statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il that are prevalent throughout North Korean society and in North Korean homes…we did not see anything like that, at least in the part of the camp where I’d lived and where I grew up. The prison guards probably do not even want to teach anything about those people or the ideology, because again, they viewed us as subhuman and as animals. as a checker

In closing I just want to say that the situation in North Korea, the overall deplorable human rights situation North Korea and in particular the political prison camp situation is one that we do not see anywhere else in the world currently. It is a very sad, deplorable, and unbelievable situation that is going on in North Korea right now. I want to say that the inmates that are still in the camps throughout North Korea, they would want your help. They would want your interest and your solidarity. So I feel that if they were to know that you show concern and care, that if and when they do die and pass away from this life, that they would have some sort of peace knowing that people outside the camps cared about them and got involved in this issue.

I’m sorry I didn’t answer your question, but simply put, I never saw anyone released from the prison camp while I was there; however, I saw quite a few inmates being executed publicly within the prison camp. So it is a situation where one would not easily be released from the system. I just want to thank all of you for staying so late—I apologize for going over the time limit—and for hearing my story. Thank you very much.

This is a transcription of the live translations of Shin Dong-Hyuk’s talk.

Transcribed and edited by Kenli S.

Kenli Schoolland

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