[imText1]When Shin Dong Hyuk was 14, he witnessed his mother be executed for attempting to escape from the political prison camp with his brother. His mother was sentenced to death by hanging and his brother by shooting. Shin was forced to sit in the front row to watch this ordeal.
Shin’s face darkened as we asked for a description of the events. It seemed he was having difficulty, trying to recall the situation at the time.
“I only knew she was my mother. I never had strong feelings for her as my mother. I didn’t really care, even when I had to live separated from my mother. When I witnessed my mother and brother being killed, I didn’t feel resentment or sadness. Even now, I don’t feel any emotions like that.”
At the political prison camp where Shin resided, public executions occurred 4 times a year. People who attempted escape or robbery were subject to executions. Shin was also tortured for his mother’s attempt at escape. National Security agents tied a 14 year olds hands and feet, letting him hang from the ceiling as they brazed him with charcoal from below. Even today, the scars from the torture are clearly visible on Shin’s back.
A 14 year old loses his mother but is hanged to be burned with charcoal.
“I saw my father who had also been dragged to the torture room as I was being hauled out. After that, I only saw my father occasionally. Even if we did meet up, there wasn’t anything particular to say except asking about one another’s well-being. My father is still at the political prison camp right now.” At political prison camps, it is difficult for families to exist as there are moral laws.
For 22 years, Shin lived at a political prison camp and did not know how to express his feelings. “I didn’t have anything such as emotions. Although I live freely now, there are many things that I still do not understand. I didn’t know words such as ‘sad’, ‘happy’, ‘I miss you’ and ‘pain.’”
To Shin, the only thing he was aware of was the existence of the prison camp. Men were forced to shave their hair extremely short while wearing uniforms like criminals and women also had to cut their hair into a bob-cut. In the morning, the inmates are made to wake up at 5.30 in the morning and work during the day until sleep at 12PM. The 1 hour break for lunch was at the least time for rest.
Each room confined a minimum of 5 people and even 30 at the most. In the evenings, security agents in charge conduct a series of life talks. Here, you could be punished for saying one wrong word. Relationships between men and women are completely prohibited and if caught, the couple would dissipate without even a rat or bird knowing.
There are many people who do not believe Shin’s story of escape from the totally controlled zone of No. 14 political prison camp. In response he said, “There are even defectors from political prison camps who say that I am lying. When I look back on my steps, even I think it’s a ‘miracle.’”
Having been imprisoned at the prison camp all his life, the first time Shin heard of the outside world was in June 2004.
“The first time I heard of the outside world was from a man I worked with in the same team at the factory. At first, I was going to inform my superior of the story that man said but as I heard his stories, I became curious and could not say anything. That man had experiences in defecting and it was at that time I heard about Pyongyang for the first time. After listening to this man’s story for 6 months, I began to despise the things I had experienced from when I was a child. I felt that this place was like hell.”
“Even in Korea, I sometimes forget I’m not in the prison camp.”
The following year, January 2nd 2005, Shin decided to escape. When questioned that there would be a lot of preparations needed to escape from the totally controlled zone, he said, “It’s only impossible, if you think something is impossible but there isn’t anything you can’t do, as long as you have the will.”
“I heard that we would go to the mountains on January 2nd to try and acquire firewood. That means we would be near the barbed wire fence. By that point, I only had a desire to get to the outside. The day before, I asked the man to escape with me. At first, even the man was reluctant about the escape.”
In the morning of 2nd, the two men went up the mountain with a tense state of mind. There are guards and security agents who monitor the fences, which would mean that there are also areas where there is less control.
“We saw opportunities throughout the morning, but whether it was due to an impetuous heart, my feet were stuck firm to the ground. However, I thought that I would never get the opportunity to defect again and so began to run for the wire fence. The man ran ahead and fell as he got caught onto the barbed wire. I jumped over the fence and was able to cross over. I knew the man had fallen over but I kept running as I did not have the liberty to look back. I don’t know what happened to the man after that.”
Shin was also deeply hurt while crossing the electric barbed wired fence. However, having no idea about what the North Korean society was like, his curiosity in finding a way to cross the border did not come easily.
“The information I had heard from the man about North Korean society was very beneficial. That’s when I found out that I needed to go north to China. For 25 days, I went around stealing from empty houses. I changed my clothes and stole food. In order to get to the north, I followed tradesmen. I hitchhiked and hung from trains, continuing my way towards the north.”
“I didn’t even know of the word resentment.”
The tradesmen who were suspicious of me would ask whether or not this was the place (I was headed), “I didn’t know anyone who took such an interest in me. I even avoided the security agents. Even I think it was a miracle. I crossed the border at Samjang-ri in Daeheungdan-gun. If there is a god, I think that is the time he protected me.”
My one and a half years in China was no different to other defectors. “I hid in the villages helping out with the cows. After getting used to things about a year later, I began to fear the things there. I began to learn about Korea as I listened to the radio. Then I made the decision to head south and came to the consulate in Shenyang and was able to come to Korea in August last year.”
However, I still cannot erase the nightmares of the prison camp even in Korea.
“I spent a month in Hanawon but couldn’t sleep as I was continuously tormented by nightmares. I began to be in a bad mood. I was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with depression. I was in hospital for two months and received medicine. Although I am in a much better state now, there are many times in the interview which I find difficult.”
We asked Shin how he felt now, living in a free world. “I am not particularly happy or anything. I cannot believe that I have escaped the kwanliso (political prison camps). Even in North Korea, I felt that my life continued living at the kwanliso. There are many times I mistake myself even in South Korea” Shin replied.
We asked Shin whether he resented the Kim Jong Il administration for possessing his whole life. He said, “I never thought badly of that person and I didn’t even know of the word resentment. Now, I think that society is bad.”
For Shin, the world is still hard and new as he had found freedom quickly. “At this current point in time, I don’t really know what I want to do. I haven’t tried anything as yet. I haven’t even decided on the purpose of my life.”
Having lost the purpose of his life, you can still see in Shin’s eyes, the many North Korean citizens imprisoned in the prison camps.