“The North Korean born in a gulag and now ‘witness number one’ at a UN inquiry into his country’s human rights record” speaks to FT analyst David Pilling:
When he was 14, he was dragged to the front of a crowd to watch a very particular execution: that of his mother and elder brother, for trying to escape. Both were tied to a post. His mother was hanged and his brother shot. Shin says he had never bonded with his family in a normal way. He regarded his mother as competition for food and his principal emotion on seeing her dangling from a rope was to be grateful that it was not him.
The most remarkable part of Escape from Camp 14 is when Shin confesses that it was he who snitched on his mother and brother about their escape plan. It was a secret he had kept locked away for many years, even after his own escape, as he adjusted to the moral codes of the outside world. The first of 10 commandments at Camp 14 was that escapees would be shot and that any attempt at escape must be reported. Shin, brainwashed since birth, had dutifully informed the guards. He had hoped for a reward of extra food. Instead, he was taken to a dungeon – a prison within the camp, inside the prison that is North Korea – and tortured. Once, he was hung from the ceiling and lowered over a fire until he could smell his own burning flesh. His body is still covered with burn scars and pierced with a hole made by one of his tormentors with a hook. These and other injuries, plus satellite pictures that confirm the existence of Camp 14, are the only means he has of corroborating his story.
Information about developments within the Hermit state is also emerging from a new generation of defectors and publicized via such outlets as Daily NK, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea released a report this week detailing the harrowing reality of Camp 22. Satellite imagery suggests the camp recently closed. Good news? Not exactly. According to the report, after a food shortage in 2009-10, Camp 22’s population shrunk to somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000 people from around 30,000 in previous years. Thousands of prisoners seem to have evaporated into thin air — perhaps via Camp 22’s crematoria.
Last week also saw the conclusion of public hearings for a U.N. Commission of Inquiry investigation into North Korea’s human rights abuses. The hearings featured testimony from Shin Dong-hyuk, perhaps the best-known escapee of a camp and the subject of a 2012 book by Blaine Harden, The Post’s former East Asia correspondent. Recounting his punishment for dropping a sewing machine, Mr. Shin recalled: “I thought my whole hand was going to be cut off at the wrist, so I felt thankful and grateful that only my finger was cut off.”
Among the more chilling questions in the history of World War II is how the Allies could know about Auschwitz and other German death camps but take no definitive action, such as bombing the rail lines, to stop them. It is encouraging that the United Nations has stirred itself to pay attention to North Korea’s camps. Still, historians of the future may again wonder how the world could have known so much and done so little.
The reference to the Shoah appears singularly apt given the film that touches Shin Dong-hyuk most deeply.
“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,” he says.