Finishing My Coffee
11Dec/080

North Korea's Gulags

North Koreans are born into slavery, under the merciless boot of a tyrant.

An article in today's Washington Post tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, a man who was born in a North Korean prison camp but escaped at age 26 and now lives in South Korea.

Of all the places to be born in this world, North Korea is one of the worst.

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

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 photographs of his scars, as well as drawings and a satellite photo of Camp No. 14. It is located in Kaechon, about 55 miles north of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

The book grew out of a diary he kept in the 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 prison guards. As a reward for excellent work as a mechanic, his father was given the woman who became Shin's mother. Shin lived with her until he was 12, when he was taken away 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 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. 

Reports by American news suggest that the DMZ is a key fascet of daily S. Korean life, much as The Bomb was part of American awareness in the sixties. Not so.

Shin also struggles to understand why prosperous Koreans in the South seem so uninterested in and unmoved by the suffering of tens of thousands of fellow Koreans living in torment in the North's prisons.

"I don't want to be critical of this country, but I would say that out of the total population of South Korea, only .001 percent has any real understanding of or interest in North Korea," Shin said. "Only a few decades ago, the South Koreans had their own human rights issues. But rapid growth and prosperity has made them forget."

Shin may overstate the South's lack of concern about human rights in the North, but he has a point.

When South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was elected last year, only 3 percent of voters named North Korea as a primary concern. They were overwhelmingly interested in economic growth and higher salaries.

South Koreans want reunification with the North, but not right away, polls show. They have seen the cost and messiness of German unification. They worry about political collapse in the impoverished North and are afraid that dealing with it would lower their living standards, according to government officials and independent analysts.

The reasoning for such lack of concern by the South makes sense, but that is little consolation for Shin.

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."

Unfortunately, the book has not been a success and no English translation is planned. To learn more about North Korea and its prison camps, I highly recommend reading Aquariums of Pyongyang and Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. The former is the memoir of a man who lived for ten years in a gulag before escaping. The latter is a detailed, readable history of North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.

Hopefully the atrocities being committed in North Korea will begin to enter the awareness of the rest of the world. Until that happens, those of us unlucky enough to be born in North Korea will be born into slavery. Without outside aid, those people will never have a chance.

[Image by Shepard Fairey]