Camp 14: An Other-Than-Human Existence

[Update:   I almost forgot this UPI link, and thanks to the friend who forwarded the link.  Sometimes, I think it’s your blog, and I just assemble it.  It’s certainly easier for me that way, and much more interesting.]

shin-dong-hyuk.jpgIf you have a subscription to the Wall Street Journal, Camp  14 survivor  Shin Dong-Hyuk  has an opinion piece published describing life inside a place that no other  prisoner has ever escaped to describe.  If you don’t,  a number of other pieces  have  described Shin’s story  recently.  Thanks to a reader for providing these links.  Shin describes a hideous, other-than-human existence at the camp, an existence that often ended horribly, and which is hardly deserving of the term “life:”

Shin spent his first 12 years with his mother but she worked from 5am to 9.30pm before attending a daily “struggle session,” at which prisoners were forced to accuse and beat other inmates who failed to achieve work quotas.  [Mail and Guardian, S. Africa]

Children were beaten to death in front of others for stealing five grains of wheat out of hunger. Girls were raped and protesting mothers disappeared. He witnessed his own mother offering sex to guards. Teenagers were buried under cement while being forced to build power plants. Shin’s middle-finger knuckle was cut off as punishment for dropping a sewing machine.  [ABC News]

The isolation of the Camp was so severe that Shin had never heard of Kim Jong Il (really?), the worship of whom was considered a privilege that inmates of the camp were denied.  ABC News also  reports  Shin’s description of  what happened after his mother attempted to escape, a plot that Shin insists he knew nothing about.

On the fourth day Shin was dragged into cell No.7, the secret underground torture chamber. Completely stripped, legs cuffed, hands tied with rope, his legs and hands were hung from the ceiling. The torturers lit up a charcoal fire under his back. He struggled. But they pierced a steel hook near Shin’s groin to keep him from writhing. Amid the sounds and smells of flesh burning, Shin then blacked out.  [ABC News]

His mother and brother were executed for the attempt, while Shin and his father watched:

At the age of 12 Mr Shin was summoned to watch the hanging of his mother and the shooting of his older brother. Beside him, his father wept.  Mr Shin, whose life was moulded by the regime’s guilt-by-association policy towards the relatives of political prisoners, had only one emotion. “I was furious with them,” Mr Shin, now 22 and living in South Korea, recalled. “As a result of their crimes I was subject to torture. Since we were born, we were taught that our parents committed crimes and we were to work hard to wash off their sins as children of criminals.   [Sunday Times]

In the Christian Science Monitor, Don Kirk interviews Shin and those at  the North Korean Human Rights Database Center  who published his book, “Escape to the Outside World: From Total Control Prison Camp No. 14 in North Korea.”  (Don’t miss the link to the audio of Kirk describing that interview, by the way.)  Says publisher Kim Sang Hun:  “The indifference of South Korean society to the issue of North Korean rights is so awful.”   

Well, yes.  Kirk even  managed to extract an admission from the Roh Administration that when it met with Kim Jong Il last month, it never even brought up human rights.  It briefly raised the issue of hundreds of South Korean abductees in the North, but Kim Jong Il insisted that all were staying in the North voluntarily, and that it was “premature” to raise the issue in any event.   That was enough to shut Roh up.  Clearly, the activists’  hope is that under the next presidential  administration, their government and society will begin to pay attention to the atrocities in the North.  But while I  believe that  Lee Myung Bak  is  practical enough not to put Kim Jong Il’s interests above those of South Korean voters,  activists may invest too much faith in Lee’s dedication to principle, which I guage to be prosciutto-thin. 

This Don Kirk background piece in the New York Sun describes efforts by South Korean and American activists to raise the profile of these issues.  In four years of regular blogging about this, I’ve seldom seen more press coverage of  a NK/HR  story, but I’ve come to accept that TV media, celebrities, the Human Rights Industry, the U.N., and other attention-getters are too ambivalent about anti-American tyrants like Kim Jong Il to criticize them forthrightly. 

As welcome as the amount of coverage of Shin’s story may be, contrast the severity of  Shin’s treatment and the credulity of the Human Rights Industry toward him to the gullible echo chamber that the media became when four  former British Gitmo detainees made the patently false allegation that Army guards flushed Korans down toilets.  That story  was picked up by media worldwide and triggered  deadly riots despite the obvious fact that a Koran doesn’t even fit down a toilet.  Now you see what we’re up against. 

On the other hand,  Shin’s story is so horrible, and  the details so extreme, that it’s tempting to say that it simply couldn’t happen.  Aspects of it (such as Shin’s ignorance of Kim Jong Il, and the very fact of his birth) certainly do raise legitimate questions.  History tells us that it could happen, of course, but given the opacity of North Korea and the “international community’s” overall disinterest in pressing the issue, it’s impossible to verify whether it really did.

More at the Chosun Ilbo, the Washington Times (via Front Page Magazine), CBS News (picking up  Kirk’s story), and Reuters.  I’ve posted about Shin once previously, here.

Since his escape, Shin has testified at Britain’s House of Lords and would like to do the same at the U.S. Congress.  I’m trying to arrange my own interview with Shin, to see if he can identify and describe some of the places inside Camp  14 that are visible on Google Earth, and perhaps to dispel some of my own questions about how a child could be born in, survive in, and escape from such a place. 


  1. Monday Greetings Joshua Stanton. Appreciate your tendency to use contrasts in making your point, as you bang the pot for basic freedoms for people in northern Korea by way of contrasting establishment attitudes toward the Kim family regime with their fixation on the jihadist detention facility in Guantanamo. Similarly one could contrast establishment solicitude for Kim family regime “security concerns” with the back of the hand accorded to the Chinese democracy on Taiwan. Establishment noise to the contrary, obviously it helps to have, or to be perceived to have, nuclear weapons in one’s arsenal when seeking a place in the nation-state system. (One can imagine that the Indonesian military must since have drawn some conclusions of how the East Timor crisis might have panned out in the 1990s had Indonesia then had some semblance of a nuclear arsenal.)

    Appreciate also your attention to ascertaining the exact locality and other details of Camp 14, and related facilities of the Kim family regime “hostile elements” archipelago. Someday, perhaps well into the future or perhaps more suddenly than we can imagine, much heavy-duty relief work will need to be undertaken with no prior notice. Having the best possible detailed estimate of the physical parameters concerned will be essential if the missions of mercy are to be done well.

    Noting indications offered by recent Rodong Shinmun vitriol, it may be that the Kim family regime believe they might possibly make an arrangement with Lee Myung-bak by playing on his apparently unprincipled sense of megalomania, though this be much less attractive than having a compliant lackey as Chung Dong-young in the Cheong Wa Dae. But as yet they have no handle on Lee Hoi-chang, which must be very worrisome for a regime that necessarily lives very much on the edge.


  2. this is the article at wsj:

    Life in North Korea’s Gulag
    November 30, 2007; Page A16

    Seoul, Korea

    I was born a prisoner on Nov. 19, 1982, and until two years ago, North Korea’s Political Prison Camp No. 14 was the only place I had ever called home.

    The camp, established in 1965, is located in Kaechon, about 50 miles north of Pyongyang. When it first opened, the government rushed to fill it with prisoners. Many were charged and detained regardless of when or what kind of “crime” was committed.

    Countless others were imprisoned simply because they were relatives of those charged. Under North Korea’s “Three Generation Rule,” up to three generations of the criminal’s family must be imprisoned as traitors.

    I was a slave under club and fist. It was a world where love, happiness, joy or resistance found no meaning. This was the situation I found myself in until I escaped to China, and then South Korea. There, I was told why I was imprisoned by my distant relatives, who had escaped to the South during the Korean War.

    In the midst of that conflict, two of my father’s brothers fled to freedom. Because of this “traitorous” crime, my grandparents, father and uncle back in the North were found guilty of treason and crimes against the state, and were arrested. My father and uncle were separated from each other and my grandparents, and were stripped of all identification and property.

    I am still not sure why my mother was incarcerated. While serving their sentences in Kaechon, my parents were allowed to marry. (Sometimes, inmates are given permission to marry if they work very hard and find favor in the eyes of the State Security agents). This was how both my brother and I were born as political prisoners.

    Although we were a family by fiat, there was nothing familial about us. We showed no affection for one another, nor was that even possible.

    When I was 14 years old, my mother and brother were arrested while trying to escape. Although I had no idea they were planning to run away, I was detained in another part of prison. The State Security agents there demanded that I reveal what my family was conspiring to do. I was tortured severely for seven months. To this day, I still carry the scars on my back and shudder at the memory of that time.

    On Nov. 29, 1996, my mother and brother were found guilty of treason and sentenced to public execution. I was taken outside and forced to witness their deaths.

    Upon returning back to Kaechon, I finished what passes for a middle school in the prison and began working in one of many factories on the prison grounds making garments. It was here that I met another inmate who had once lived outside of the prison camp. He told me stories of the outside world, and I increasingly longed to become part of it. We plotted our escape and on Jan. 2, 2005, we attempted to run away. I was successful, but he fell on the prison’s barbed wire. I glanced back once; he appeared to be dead.

    As I sit here writing this op-ed comfortably in Seoul, I can’t help but wonder at the vastly different lives South Koreans and inmates of Political Prison Camp No. 14 live. In South Korea, although there is disappointment and sadness, there is also so much joy, happiness and comfort. In Kaechon, I did not even know such emotions existed. The only emotion I ever knew was fear: fear of beatings, fear of starvation, fear of torture and fear of death.

    Even though I did not escape Kaechon expressly to inform the world about such conditions, I feel that I cannot keep silent. Today, tens of thousands are suffering silently in government-sponsored political prison camps in North Korea. Inmates are given only enough food to be kept on the verge of starvation, and they often fight with one another in hopes of getting one more meal. Many people have resorted to eating grass, tree bark, clay, rodents and insects. Torture is open and rampant, and beatings occur every hour of every day. Women often undergo forced abortions and children have no childhood.

    These political prisoners live with no dignity as human beings. They are treated, and taught, that they are merely beasts without intelligence, emotions or dreams. If a prisoner attempts to escape, he is severely punished and will most likely be publicly executed.

    Humans should never be treated this way. It is time for us to stand up for those being persecuted in North Korean gulags. They do not deserve to die in silence. We must protest these violent acts against humanity. We must become their voice.

    Mr. Shin was born and lived in a North Korean gulag until 2005. He is the author of the Korean language book “I Was a Political Prisoner at Birth in North Korea” (DataBase Center for North Korean Human Rights, 2007).