On Nov. 29, 1996, in a North Korean prison camp, Shin Dong Hyok (14) and his father were made to sit in the front row of a crowd assembled to watch executions. They had already spent seven months in a torture compound, and Shin assumed they were also going to be executed. Instead, the guards executed his mother and brother. Shin was born in a prison camp and escaped in 2005.
Shin is the first North Korean who is known to have escaped from a prison camp. He was confined to a “total-control zone.”
According to the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul: “Prisoners sent to a total-control zone can never come out. They are put to work in mines or logging camps until they die. Thus the authorities don’t even bother to give them ideological education. They only teach them skills necessary for mining and farming.”
There are at least four other prison camps in North Korea. These others are far less known because so few have emerged to describe them.
According to Shin, the prison authorities matched his father with his mother and made them spend five days together before separating them. This is known as “award marriage,” a privilege given only to outstanding inmates. An exemplary worker might be allowed to visit the woman chosen as his wife a few times a year.
Young children lived with their mothers, who worked from 5 a.m. to midnight. Once they turned 11, guards moved the children to communal barracks but were allowed to visit their mothers if they excelled at their work.
Inmates were fed the same meal three times a day: a bowl of steamed corn and a salty vegetable broth.
Shin’s life changed in 1996, when his mother and brother were accused of trying to escape. Guards interrogated him in an underground cell. They stripped and hung him by his arms and legs from the ceiling, and held him over hot charcoal.
During the interrogations he learned that his father’s family belonged to a “hostile class” because his uncles had collaborated with the South Korean Army during the Korean War.
On Jan. 2, 2005, when Shin and his co-worker were collecting firewood near the camp’s electrified fence and could not see any guards, they ran.
In July 2005, Shin reached China. In February 2006, a South Korean helped him seek asylum at the South Korean Consulate in Shanghai. He arrived in Seoul last August.
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