North Korean Born in a Prison Camp: ‘My Favorite Word is Freedom’

By Patrick Goodenough | March 18, 2014 | 7:28 PM EDT

Shin Dong-Hyuk, who was born in a camp for political prisoners and saw family members executed, addressed the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, March 19, 2014. (Screenshot: UN Webcast)

( – A North Korean who was born in a camp for political prisoners and saw family members executed appealed to the international community this week to “relieve my North Korean brothers and sisters,” saying hundreds of thousands of political prisoners in his country were waiting for their deaths.

Addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, 31 year-old Shin Dong-Hyuk said his parents were political prisoners and he became a political prisoner too from the moment of his birth.

Aged 14, he and his father were forced to watch his mother and brother’s public execution, he said.  “I couldn’t cry at that moment. I never learned how to cry …”

Shin was born in 1982 in Kwan-li-so (political penal labor camp) no. 14 in Kaechon, north of Pyongyang. His account of life in the camp, and his perilous escape in 2005 were told in a 2012 biography by journalist Blaine Harden, Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West.

In his statement to the Human Rights Council, he said, “I’d like to ask you to open your eyes and look around this room and look for anyone who looks evil. In my eyes, there is not a single person who seems to be evil in this room. But I’d like you to know that we can find evilness in the heart of man.

“In Nazi concentration camps, six million people were slaughtered by people whose faces seemed to reflect goodness of their heart. And 60 years later, at this moment in North Korea, hundred thousands of political prisoners are waiting for their death.”

“My favorite word is freedom,” Shin continued. “If [the] North Korean dictator has his freedom, then the North Korean people should also enjoy their freedom. No one has a right to deprive of anyone the DNA of mankind – freedom.

“I do not have any power in my hand, so I like to ask this from you: Please relieve my North Korean brothers and sisters from their predicaments.”

Shin’s appearance at the HRC came as the council considered a report by a commission of inquiry into the human rights situation in North Korea.

Among the many crimes described in the 400-page report are “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, forcible transfer of populations, enforced disappearance and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

The commission’s chairman, Michael Kirby, told the HRC atrocities committed in North Korea were “without parallel in the modern world,” and called for the regime to be held to account, including through referral to the International Criminal Court.

While the report and widespread media coverage were good, he said, “What is important now is how the international community will act on the report.”

According to a comprehensive study by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (PDF, 5.2 MB), as many as 200,000 North Koreans are incarcerated on political grounds. Former inmates have testified of routine beatings, systematic torture, forced abortions, infanticide and executions,

The report describes the Kwan-li-so as “political penal labor colonies, where North Koreans suspected of wrong-doing and wrong-thinking, along with up to three generations of family members are summarily deported without trial to disappear into fenced-in and heavily guarded mountainous areas where they are subjected to forced labor in mines, logging, state farming and factory work, for mostly lifetime duration.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

Sponsored Links