Shin Dong-hyuk

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For other people named Shin Dong-hyuk, see Shin Dong-hyuk (disambiguation).
This is a Korean name; the family name is Shin.
Shin Dong-hyuk
Shin Dong-Hyuk.jpg
Born Shin In Geun
(1982-11-19) 19 November 1982 (age 31)
Kwalliso No. 14, North Korea
Occupation Human rights campaigner
Interviewee about life in a North Korea labor camp
Shin Dong-hyuk
Chosŏn'gŭl 신동혁
Revised Romanization Sin Dong-hyeok
McCune–Reischauer Sin Tonghyŏk

Shin Dong-hyuk (born 19 November 1982 as Shin In Geun)[1] is a North Korean defector living in South Korea. He is currently the only known prisoner to have successfully escaped from a "total-control zone" grade internment camp in North Korea alive. He is believed to also be the only person to have been born in a North Korean prison camp to escape from North Korea.[1]

Shin came into the public eye after being the subject of a biography, Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West, by former Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden. Shin, sometimes accompanied by Harden, has given talks to audiences around the world about his life in Kaechon internment camp (Kwalliso No. 14) and about the totalitarian North Korean regime to raise awareness of the situation in North Korean internment and concentration camps and North Korea.[2][3] Shin has been described as the world's "single strongest voice" on the atrocities inside North Korean camps by a member of the United Nations' first commission of inquiry into human rights abuses of North Korea.[4]

North Korea life[edit]

Shin Dong-hyuk was born as Shin In Geun at Kaechon internment camp ("Camp #14"), a slave labor camp where prisoners usually stay for life without possibility of release. He was born to two prisoners who were allowed to sleep together for a few nights a year as a reward for good work.[1][5] Shin lived with his mother until he was 12. He rarely saw his father, Shin Gyung-sub, who lived elsewhere in the camp. According to Shin, he saw his mother, Jang Hye-gyung,[1]as a competitor for their insufficient food rations,[5] and consequently had no bonds of affection with his parents or his brother, Shin He Geun.[1][6] The North Korean government officials and camp guards told him he was imprisoned because his parents had committed crimes against the state, and that he had to work hard and always obey the guards; otherwise he would be punished or executed.[7]

Shin experienced considerable violence in the camp,[8] and witnessed dozens of executions every year.[7] Part of Shin's right middle finger was cut off by his supervisor as punishment for accidentally breaking a sewing machine.[9] He witnessed adult prisoners and children beaten every day,[10][11] and many prisoners dying of starvation, illness, torture and work accidents.[7] He learned to survive by any means, including eating rats, frogs, and insects, and reporting on fellow inmates for rewards. When Shin was 13 years old, he overheard his mother and brother planning an escape attempt. Shin told the custodian of his school, as informing was something he was taught to do from an early age, and he hoped to be rewarded.[1][5]

However, the school custodian took full credit for discovering the plan, and rather than being rewarded, Shin was arrested and guards tortured him for four days to extract more information, believing him to be part of the plan to escape.[1][5] According to Shin, the guards lit a charcoal fire under his back and forced a hook into his skin so that he could not struggle which caused many large scars still visible on his body.[12][13] On 29 November 1996, after approximately seven months spent in a tiny concrete prison cell, he was released and joined by his father, who had also been imprisoned. They were driven back to the main camp wearing blindfolds and their hands tied behind their backs. Camp officials then forced Shin and his father to watch the public executions of Shin's mother and brother; he then understood he had been responsible for the executions.[5][14][15] Shin stated that at the time of the executions of his brother and mother, in his teen-aged mind he felt they "deserved" their fates for both breaking prison rules and, conversely, not including him in the escape plan.[1][5] Shin has since expressed remorse over his actions, saying, in an interview with Anderson Cooper for the CBS television show 60 Minutes, "My mother and brother, if I could meet them through a time-machine, I would like to go back and apologize".[16]

While working at a textile factory, Shin became friends with a 40-year-old political prisoner from Pyongyang (surnamed Park), who was educated and had traveled outside North Korea. Park told him about the outside world, such as stories about food that Shin had not experienced before.[1] According to Shin, nearly every meal he had eaten up to that point had been a soupy gruel of cabbage, corn, and salt, with occasional wild-caught rats and insects. He was excited by the idea of being able to eat as much food as he wanted to, which Shin considered to be the essence of freedom, "I still think of freedom as roasted chicken", he later acknowledged.[4]

Shin decided to attempt to escape with Park.[1] They formed a plan in which Shin would provide local information about the camp, while Park would use his knowledge once outside the camp to escape the country. On 2 January 2005, the pair was assigned to a work detail near the camp's electric fence on the top of a 1,200-foot (370 m) mountain ridge to collect firewood. Noting the long interval between the guards' patrols, the two waited until the guards were out of sight, then made their attempt to escape.[7][17] Park attempted to go through first, but was electrocuted climbing the high voltage fence. Shin managed to pass over the wire using Park's body as a shield to ground the current, but still suffered severe burns and permanent scars when his legs slipped onto the lowermost wire as he crawled over Park's body.[1][5]

After escaping, Shin broke into a nearby farmer's barn and found an old military uniform.[1] Wearing the uniform, he masqueraded as a North Korean soldier and worked his way northward, surviving by scrounging and stealing food.[7] Shin was unfamiliar with money, but within two days of his escape, he had sold a 10 lb (4.5 kg) bag of rice stolen from a house and used the money to buy cookies and cigarettes. Eventually, he reached the northern border with China along the Tumen River and bribed destitute North Korean border guards with food and cigarettes.[1] After spending some time working as a laborer in different parts of China, Shin was accidentally discovered by a journalist in a restaurant in Shanghai, and the reporter recognized the importance of his story. The journalist brought Shin to the South Korean embassy for asylum,[1] and from there he traveled to South Korea, where he underwent extensive questioning from authorities to determine if he was a North Korean assassin or spy. Afterwards, his story was broadcast by the press and he published a Korean language memoir.[18]

Post-North Korea life[edit]

Shin later moved to southern California, changing his name from Shin In Geun to Shin Dong-hyuk, and worked for Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a non-profit organization that raises awareness of human rights issues in North Korea and provides aid to North Korean refugees.[7] Shin moved back to South Korea to campaign for the eradication of the North Korean prison camps.[19]

In August 2013, Shin gave several hours of testimony to the United Nations' first commission of inquiry into human rights abuses of North Korea.[4][20] A member of the UN commission described Shin as the world's "single strongest voice" on the atrocities inside North Korean camps.[4]

Shin described some aspects of his personal life in South Korea in a Financial Times interview, on popular culture saying that "I don't really know anything about music. I can't sing and I don't feel any emotion from it. But I do watch lots of films and the one that moves me the most is Schindler's List".[4] On food he says "I know everything is delicious. I look at the colours and the way the food is presented on the plate but it's very difficult to choose. When I first came to South Korea, I was so greedy that I used to order too much food. Nowadays I try to order only as much as I can handle." Although Shin lives in South Korea, he was adopted by an American couple in Ohio during his time there.[4] He says he maintains the relationship, "I have a good relationship with my US foster parents. I contact them often. Whenever I have a holiday, I visit them. I think of them as good parents and I try to be a good son."[4]

In December 2013, Shin wrote an open-letter in the Washington Post to American basketball star Dennis Rodman who visited North Korea a number of times as a self-avowed "friend for life"[21] of Kim Jong-un.[22]

Books and film[edit]

In 2012, journalist Blaine Harden published Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West, based on his interviews with Shin. The book reveals, among other things, that Shin was the one who had reported his mother and brother, a fact he had not included in earlier accounts.[23] Harden gave a one-hour interview about the book on the C-SPAN television program Q&A.[5] Executive Director of the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, Greg Scarlatoiu, said the book played "an important role" in raising wider public awareness of the North Korean camps.[24] Dalhousie University issued a statement averring that Shin's story, as told through the book, "has shifted the global discourse about North Korea, shining a light on the human rights abuses so prevalent within the regime."[25]

A German documentary, Camp 14: Total Control Zone, directed by Marc Wiese, was released in 2012.[26][27] It includes interviews with Shin Dong-hyuk and two former North Korean officers: the first, Kwon Hyuk, was a guard in Camp 22 and brought out amateur film footage (the only known footage of Camp 22), and the second, Oh Yang-nam, was a secret policeman who arrested people who were sent to camps. Supplementing the film are animated sequences of the camp created by Ali Soozandeh.[27]

On 2 December 2012, Shin was featured on 60 Minutes during which he recounted to Anderson Cooper the story of his life in Camp 14 and escape. Shin said "when I see videos of the Holocaust it moves me to tears. I think I am still evolving—from an animal to a human."[16]

Awards and honours[edit]

In June 2013, Shin received the Moral Courage Award given by UN Watch, a Geneva-based NGO (non-governmental organization).[28][29]

In May 2014, Shin was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Dalhousie University (Nova Scotia, Canada).[25] Students at the university "held a peace march and launched a social media campaign to raise awareness of human rights violations in North Korea. They then fundraised to bring Mr. Shin to Halifax, where his speech to an over-capacity crowd drew international attention."[25]


According to Felix Abt, a businessman who has lived in North Korea, the circumstances regarding the death of Shin's mother, as initially reported by Blaine Harden in the Washington Post, changed when Harden published the book version. Abt believes this is indicative of the difficulties in verifying the stories of North Korean defectors in general.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Harden, Blaine (29 March 2012). Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. p. 224. ISBN 9781101561263. 
  2. ^ "Korean gulag escapee speaks out". UNHCR Refworld. 
  3. ^ "I was a Political Prisoner at Birth in North Korea". Life Funds for North Korean Refugees (NGO). 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g David Pilling (30 August 2013). "Lunch with the FT: Shin Dong-hyuk". Financial Times. Retrieved 2 September 2013. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Blaine Harden discusses his historical narrative, Escape From Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, Q&A with Blaine Harden, C-SPAN video library, 11 April 2012.
  6. ^ "The Hidden Gulag – Exposing Crimes against Humanity in North Korea's Vast Prison System". The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. pp. 48–51. Retrieved 20 September 2012. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f Harden, Blaine (16 March 2012). "How one man escaped from a North Korean prison camp". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 18 March 2012. Retrieved 19 May 2014. 
  8. ^ "3.3.3 Penalty System for Prisoners". Political Prison Camps in North Korea Today. Database Center for North Korean Human Rights. 15 July 2011. p. 261. Retrieved 30 May 2012. 
  9. ^ "3.3.3 Penalty System for Prisoners". Political Prison Camps in North Korea Today. Database Center for North Korean Human Rights. 15 July 2011. p. 289. Retrieved 30 May 2012. 
  10. ^ "4.4.4 Minimum Age for Labor and Labor for the Old and the Weak". Political Prison Camps in North Korea Today. Database Center for North Korean Human Rights. 15 July 2011. p. 422. Retrieved 30 May 2012. 
  11. ^ "4.4.5 Supervision of Labor". Political Prison Camps in North Korea Today. Database Center for North Korean Human Rights. 15 July 2011. p. 425. Retrieved 30 May 2012. 
  12. ^ Joohee Cho (30 October 2007). "Born and Raised in a North Korean Prison Camps". ABC News. Retrieved 26 March 2012. 
  13. ^ "Medical Report and History of Shin Dong-hyuk". Life Funds for North Korean Refugees. 9 July 2007. Retrieved 26 March 2012. 
  14. ^ Choe Sang-Hun (9 July 2007). "Born and raised in a North Korean gulag". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 March 2012. 
  15. ^ Blaine Harden (11 December 2008). "Escapee Tells of Horrors in North Korean Prison Camp". Washington Post. Retrieved 19 May 2014. 
  16. ^ a b Staff (2 December 2012). "Becoming human: Shin's new life". CBS News. Retrieved 2 December 2012. 
  17. ^ Yang Jung A (11 May 2007). "Escape from 'Total Control Zone' - North Korea's Papillon". The Daily NK. Retrieved 19 May 2014. 
  18. ^ "Don't Insult the Victims of North Korea". The Chosun Ilbo. 25 October 2007. Retrieved 4 November 2013. 
  19. ^ Hinson, Tamara (30 April 2012). "I thought the outside world was paradise, says the only North Korean to escape from prison camp". (London, UK). Retrieved 19 May 2014. 
  20. ^ Park Ju-min (20 August 2013). "Horror of North Korean prison camps exposed at UN panel hearing". Reuters. Retrieved 2 September 2013. 
  21. ^ Eric Talmadge (7 January 2014). "Ex-NBA player says NKorea game dwarfed by politics". Associated Press. Retrieved 18 May 2014. 
  22. ^ Shin Dong-hyuk (17 December 2013). "How Dennis Rodman can help the North Korean people". Washington Post. Retrieved 4 January 2014. 
  23. ^ Janet Maslin (12 April 2012). "Review of Escape from Camp 14". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 May 2014. 
  24. ^ Esther Felden (18 June 2013). "Tortured, beaten, starved: life in a North Korean gulag". Retrieved 21 June 2013. 
  25. ^ a b c "Shin Dong-hyuk". Dalhousie University. Retrieved 15 April 2014. 
  26. ^ "Camp 14-Total Control Zone". Retrieved 18 October 2012. 
  27. ^ a b Jay Weissberg (14 August 2012). "Camp 14-Total Control Zone". Variety. Retrieved 18 October 2012. 
  28. ^ "Top Russian & North Korean Dissidents to Appear at UN Rights Council, Win Awards". UN Watch. 4 June 2013. Retrieved 21 June 2013. 
  29. ^ Stephanie Nebehay (5 June 2013). "North Korean defector's "impossible" dream of closing prison camps". Reuters. Retrieved 21 June 2013. 
  30. ^ Abt, Felix (2014). A Capitalist in North Korea: My Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom. Tuttle Publishing. p. 118. ISBN 9780804844390. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Harden, Blaine (29 March 2012). Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. p. 224. ISBN 9781101561263. 

External links[edit]