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Living in the shadow of his shackles

South Korea's only known prison escapee from the North struggles to adjust to his life of freedom.

December 28, 2008|Blaine Harden | Harden writes for the Washington Post.

SEOUL — In Camp No. 14, the North Korean political prison where Shin Dong-hyuk was born and where he says he saw his mother hanged, inmates never saw a picture of Kim Jong Il.

"I had no idea who he is," Shin said, referring to the leader whose photograph is displayed nearly everywhere else in North Korea.

Inmates did not need to know the face of their "Dear Leader," as Kim is called. Behind electrified fences, they tended pigs, tanned leather, collected firewood and labored in mines until they died or were executed.

The exception is Shin, who is 26 and lives in a small rented room here in Seoul. He is a thin, short, shy man with quick, wary eyes, a baby face and sinewy arms bowed from childhood labor. There are burn scars on his back and left arm from where he was tortured by fire at age 14, when he was unable to explain why his soon-to-be-hanged mother had tried to escape. The middle finger of his right hand is cut off at the first knuckle, punishment for accidentally dropping a sewing machine in the garment factory at his camp.

There are 14,431 North Korean defectors living in South Korea, according to the latest government count. Shin is the only one known to have escaped to the South from a prison camp in the North.

Shin's story could not be independently verified, but it has been vetted and vouched for by leading human rights activists and members of defector organizations in Seoul. They came to know Shin when he arrived in South Korea in 2005 and was hospitalized with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"At first I could not believe him because no one ever succeeded in the escape," said Kim Tae-jin, president of the Democracy Network Against North Korean Gulag and a defector from North Korea who spent a decade in another concentration camp there. The No. 15 camp where Kim was held -- unlike Shin's No. 14 -- sometimes released political prisoners, as it did Kim, if they were "fully revolutionized."

"I saw too many prisoners executed before my eyes for attempting to escape," Kim said. "No one made it out, except for Shin."

The U.S. government and human rights groups estimate that 150,000 to 200,000 people are in the North's prison camps. Though many of the camps can be seen in satellite images, North Korea denies their existence.

In recent weeks, Shin has been watching old films of the Allied liberation of Nazi concentration camps, which include scenes of bulldozers unearthing corpses that Adolf Hitler's collapsing Third Reich had tried to hide.

"It is just a matter of time before Kim Jong Il thinks of this," Shin said in an interview. "I hope that the United States, through pressure and persuasion, can convince Kim not to murder all those people in the camps."

Shin is the author of a grimly extraordinary book, "Escape to the Outside World."

It is illustrated with simple line drawings of his mother's hanging, the amputation of his finger, his torture by fire. There are black-and-white photos of his scars, as well as drawings and a satellite photo of Camp No. 14, which is in Kaechon, about 55 miles north of Pyongyang, the capital.

The book grew out of a diary Shin kept in a Seoul hospital while he was recovering from the nightmares and screaming bouts that were part of his adjustment.

It begins with the story of his birth in Camp No. 14 to parents whose union was arranged by guards. As a reward for excellent work as a mechanic, his father was given the woman who would become Shin's mother. Shin lived with her until he was 12, when he sent to work with other children.

In the book, Shin describes the "common and almost routine" savagery of the camp: the rape of his cousin by prison guards and the beating to death of a young girl who was found with five grains of unauthorized wheat in her pocket. He once found three kernels of corn in a pile of cow dung, he writes. He picked them out, cleaned them off on his sleeve and ate them. "As miserable as it may seem, that was my lucky day," he writes.

Living in capitalist South Korea not made Shin a celebrity or afforded him much of a living. "Escape to the Outside World" has sold about 500 copies from its single Korean-language printing of 3,000. No edition in English is being undertaken, he said.

He is unemployed and worries about how to pay his $300-a-month rent. His defector stipend of $800 a month, which he had received from the South Korean government since arriving in Seoul 2 1/2 years ago, ended in August.

Making money. Saving money. Dating. Loving another human being. These are all strange concepts that Shin has struggled -- and largely failed -- to understand.

"I never heard the word 'love' in the camp," he said. "I want to have a girlfriend, but I don't know how to get one. Two months ago, I found myself without any money. It suddenly occurred to me that I had to go out and support myself."

Shin also struggles to grasp how prosperous Koreans in the South can be so unmoved by the suffering of tens of thousands of fellow Koreans living in torment in prison.

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