Life inside North Korea’s closed borders is hard to imagine. One of the only insights into how ordinary people live, beyond the official line of the regime, comes from those who have escaped. Two defectors, Chanyang Joo and Yu-sung Kim, who left North Korea in 2011, tell their story.
“I heard that people sold and ate human flesh,” says Chanyang Joo. “I heard they were killing other family’s babies and selling the flesh after burying the head and fingers.”
Ms Joo says she ignored the rumours until the parents-in-law of a man she knew were publicly executed. They were butchers and the crime, people said, was selling human meat.
Rumours like this have surfaced in the testimony of several defectors coming from North Korea. Whether they are true or not – and we may never know – the fact that they circulate and are believed illustrates the level of hunger, deprivation and fear in parts of the country that marked the Great Famine.
Fellow defector Yu-sung Kim heard these rumours too and believes there may be some truth in them. “When I was in university that had happened,” he says. “It’s due to hallucination caused by severe hunger, people don’t even realise the act as murder and eat the flesh. But that is very, very rare.”
The rumours started during the Great Famine, from 1994 to 1998, when grain shortages in China meant food aid was drastically reduced. Sober estimates say that 600,000 to one million people died during the famine – about three to five per cent of the population of the country.
“It was the most destructive famine of the 20th century,” says Marcus Nolan, author of Famine in North Korea. “The idea that people are sufficiently desperate and unhinged is not surprising.”
Chanyang Joo was just a toddler when her family moved from a city to the rural village where she grew up. It was during the famine, when markets closed and transportation failed. Many in the cities died of starvation, she says, but in the countryside her family survived on vegetables and shrubs.
After the famine they were still very deprived. “We couldn’t get any medicine,” she says. “Very rarely some medicine was brought from China. Doctors sometimes performed surgery without anaesthesia. I saw some emergency patients dying.”
But some North Koreans like Yu-sung Kim and his family were entirely unaffected by the famine. His parents earned money by trading illegally with China and South Korea and arranging for separated families to reunite across the Korean border. He grew up in a government-owned high rise apartment, watching movies and playing video games that were smuggled across the border from the South.
As children, both Kim and Joo learned to worship the regime and its founder Kim il Sung. “The first sentence we learn as a child is ‘Great father Kim Il Sung, thank you.’ and ‘Dear leader Kim Jong Il, thank you,'” says Joo.
“We have to thank the leaders for everything. Every school, every classroom, even the train cars have the pictures of leader Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on display.”
From preschool to university this is the most important subject for a young North Korean. “You can fail everything as long as you know about the history of the Kim family,” says Joo.
But she had happy memories too. “Until North Korea’s brainwashing education takes effect, children are children,” she says. “When I was little and unaffected by politics, I had the most fun playing with my friends.”
Though his childhood was privileged and the illegal trading of his parents was overlooked by the regime, Yu-sung Kim and his family knew they had to toe the line when it came to certain rules.
They couldn’t watch any news from outside Korea and any criticism of the regime was forbidden. He could discuss politics with his family but not with anyone else. “There is always a government spy in a group of people more than three,” he says. “You could end up in a political prison camp.”
Joo’s family had first-hand experience of these camps. Her grandfather spent nine years in one. He had criticised the regime while with a group of friends but there was a spy in the group and he was arrested. “It was a simple slip of the tongue,” she says.
He told his grand-daughter of horrifying conditions at the prison camp, of people eating rats and digging grain from animal faeces to survive. He said prisoners were attacked by dogs as punishment and dead bodies were left to rot where they fell.
Her grandfather’s experience had a profound effect on the entire family, though not in the way the regime intended. At the camp he interacted with prisoners from the elite classes and learnt of the inequality in North Korea and of life outside the country.
“My grandfather had always told us we had to leave for freedom,” says Joo. “He said ‘Dream big’ and that if we wanted to live in the real world, we had to leave.”
“Since I was little, I strongly felt the need to leave. I’ve never touched a computer but I was really curious about them. I loved studying and was good at it so I wanted to learn as much as I wanted in a free country.”
For seven years, her family plotted to leave North Korea. They listened to radio broadcasts from the South. When this came to the attention of the authorities in 2008 it was time to go. Her father left first through China and Laos to the South Korean embassy in Bangkok. He saved to pay brokers to help the rest of the family escape.
Ms Joo was the last to defect and when authorities found out that her father was missing, she was put under investigation. She told them he had died in a fishing accident. “That is common in North Korea,” she says.
She practised swimming and trained physically for her escape. Three years later she crossed the border to China where she was arrested. China doesn’t recognise North Korean refugees and its official policy is to send them back. But defecting is a very serious crime and repatriation means imprisonment, torture or even death. A religious group, which she cannot name, helped release her from jail.
For Yu-sung Kim and his family, the decision to leave North Korea came suddenly. His father’s business came to light in a South Korean newspaper in 2011, fearing the government reaction they fled. They left behind his younger sister who was ill. He later found out that she was told her family had been captured and killed while attempting to escape. She later died in North Korea.
North Korean defectors protest about China’s policy of repatriating defectors
Though he appreciates his freedom Mr Kim says life in Seoul is difficult. He faces prejudice from South Korean society which often considers North Koreans, with their archaic dialect and strange accent, as ignorant and backward.
“In my university when I tell people where I’m from they see me as strange, like an alien from the Moon,” he says.
There are more than 24,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. When they arrive many lack the basic skills to live and work in a modern society – operating a cash machine, driving a car, using a phone or a computer.
They find it hard to get work and some resort to petty crime which has given the community a bad name. “I sometimes think living in South Korea is fortune and misfortune at the same time,” Mr Kim says.
Chanyang Joo refuses to let prejudice bother her. But she says freedom has its own problems.
“There are too many things to do here and I have to plan my own life and it’s stressful,” she says.
“But when I think about the difficulty of living in a free society, I realise I’m working and getting tired for myself and for my future so I feel happy.”
Shin Dong-hyuk grew up in North Korea’s Camp 14, one of the monstrous slave-labor prison complexes in which the world’s most tyrannical regime has crushed hundreds of thousands of its citizens, working them to death in conditions of excruciating brutality and degradation. Though the North Korean concentration camps have lasted far longer than their Soviet or Nazi counterparts did, Shin is the first person born and raised in one of them to have successfully escaped abroad. His story is told in journalist Blaine Harden’s “Escape from Camp 14,” a heart-crushing reminder that man’s inhumanity to man has no limit.
It is a book filled with harrowing passages. At the age of six, Shin was forced to watch as one of his classmates — a short, slight, pretty girl — was beaten to death by their teacher when he discovered five kernels of corn in her pocket. When Shin accidentally dropped a sewing machine while working at the camp’s garment factory, half of his middle finger was chopped off as punishment. Time and again he sees other inmates maimed or killed when they are forced to work under appalling conditions. And time and again he joins in collective punishment, unhesitatingly obeying when ordered to slap and beat a classmate or some other prisoner singled out for abuse and discipline.
When Shin was 14, he witnessed the execution of his mother and brother for attempting to escape. His chief emotion as he watched them die was not sorrow, but anger: He was furious at what they had caused him to be put through. Because of their infraction, he had been savagely tortured, suspended in mid-air over a charcoal fire as interrogators demanded information about where his mother and brother were planning to flee after their escape.
“Shin, crazed with pain, smelling his burning flesh, twisted away from the heat,” Harden writes. “One of the guards grabbed a gaff hook from the wall and pierced the boy in the lower abdomen, holding him over the fire until he lost consciousness.”
North Korea’s slave-labor gulag would be horrific even if its inmates were guilty of actual crimes. But most prisoners are guilty of nothing except being related to the wrong family.
Under a demented doctrine laid down by Kim Il Sung, the communist tyrant who founded North Korea, “enemies of class … must be eliminated through three generations.” The regime therefore fills these unspeakable camps not only with “enemies” who dared to practice Christianity or failed to keep a picture of Kim dusted, but with their entire families, often including grandparents and grandchildren. Shin’s father ended up in Camp 14 because two of his brothers had fled south during the Korean War. He and Shin’s mother were assigned to each other by camp guards years later as prizes in a “reward” marriage. They were allowed to sleep together just five nights a year. Shin was thus conceived — and spent the first 23 years of his life — behind the electrified barbed wire of such a ghastly hellhole.
Harden’s book is gripping, and enlightening. Yet not even the most gifted writer can fully convey what it means to grow up in a Camp 14 — a realm in which “love and mercy and family were words without meaning,” in which betrayal was routine and compassion unknown. How does a human being overcome such damage? Grisly physical scars mark Shin’s body, Harden writes, but there are severe psychological scars too. He struggles to show affection and to trust other people; to be capable of sympathy and sadness.
How could it be otherwise? After a lifetime of dehumanization and institutionalized cruelty, Shin can hardly be blamed if he wrestles with emotional paralysis.
But what excuse do we have? We who know what freedom and civilization mean, who live with law and justice and decency, who intone “never again” to accounts of genocide and holocaust — how do we justify our emotional paralysis?
There is no cruelty so depraved that people cannot be induced to do it, or to look the other way while it is being done. “Escape from Camp 14” reconfirms what we have known for years: North Korea’s rulers brutalize their people with unparalleled and bloody barbarity. Why do we find it so easy to look the other way?
Heroic officers of the army, the navy, the air force and the strategic rocket unit of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), and officers of the Korean People’s Internal Security Forces; members of the Worker-Peasant Red Guards and the Young Red Guards; working people of the entire country and citizens of Pyongyang; the people in the South and overseas compatriots; comrades and friends,
Today, we proceed with a grand military parade to celebrate the 100th birth anniversary of great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung, while embracing the greatest national pride and self-esteem.
Today’s military parade, which is unprecedented in the history of the founding of the army, is a grand festival of the winner that has been prepared based on great Comrade Kim Jong Il’s noble intention and direct suggestion to forever glorify Comrade Kim Il Sung’s immortal achievement of building the military and let the whole world know about the splendor of the socialist powerful state.
On this meaningful occasion, I express the noblest respect and the greatest honor to great Comrade Kim Il Sung, who is the founder and the builder of the revolutionary armed forces and the banner of ever-victoriousness, and to Comrade Kim Jong Il, with the heart of endless admiration by all of the officers of the people’s army and the people.
And I express my respect to the anti-Japanese revolutionary patriotic martyrs and the people’s army patriotic martyrs, who sacrificed their invaluable lives for the fatherland’s independence and the people’s liberation.
I passionately congratulate the officers of our people’s army and the officers of the People’s Internal Security Forces, members of the Worker-Peasant Red Guards and the Young Red Guards, and all the people, who glorified this year’s meaningful holidays with strengthened fighting power and proud achievements of the revolutionary great upswing by displaying matchless heroism and dedication at every sentry post on the 1,000-ri defense line and every battle field of building a powerful state in the fatherland.
Moreover, I convey warm greetings to compatriots in the South and overseas compatriots, who are dedicating everything to the patriotic cause of the reunification, wealth, power, and prosperity of the fatherland. I express gratitude to foreign friends, who are extending their positive support to the just cause of our people.
Comrades, the great 100-year history of the Kim Il Sung nation is a history that proves the iron truth that dignity and great prosperity of a country and nation exist only when an excellent leader is served.
While prided itself on a 5,000-year-old long history and brilliant culture, because it was not under correct leadership and lacked the power to defend itself, the very appearance of our nation a century ago was a small and weak, pitiful colonial nation that had to endure flunkeyism and national ruin as its fate.
However, the 100-year history of the Kim Il Sung nation put a permanent end to the stormy history of suffering, and lifted the dignity of our country and people to the highest state in the history of the nation.
Then or now, there is no change in the geopolitical position of the nation, but the small and weak nation of yesterday – which had been mercilessly trampled upon at each festival scene of the powers – has today changed into a dignified political and military power and our people are displaying dignity as independent people who can never be toyed with by anybody.
This phenomenal event that has taken place in the destiny of our nation is no accident brought about by time, but an inevitable history brought about by great Comrade Kim Il Sung and Comrade Kim Jong Il, who are the pioneers and leaders of the military-first revolution.
It was for serving the extraordinary great men — w ho built the most elite revolutionary strong army while putting forward of attaching importance to the gun barrel as the basis of revolution — that a fundamental turnabout was brought about in the destiny of our fatherland and people, and that today’s grand festival site displaying the national power of military-first Korea have also been staged magnificently.
Great Comrade Kim Il Sung early on elucidated the philosophical principle that the gun barrel is the life of the nation and also victory of the revolution, and founded the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army — which is the first revolutionary armed forces of chuch’e-style — with brilliant sons and daughters of the people in the forest of Paektu, 80 years ago from now. With the founding of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army, our people came to have a true army of their own for the first time in history, and the honorable history of the Korean Revolution which advances through the might of the gun barrel started from this.
Comrade Kim Il Sung — who paid foremost attention to strengthening the revolutionary armed forces throughout the entire period of the long revolutionary activities — performed the military miracle of the 20th century of defeating the two most outrageous imperialisms in one generation, and prepared a powerful military guarantee for sovereignty of the country and prosperity of the nation for all ages by raising the people’s army into a revolutionary strong army of one-a-match-for-a hundred, and arming all the people and fortifying the whole land. Great Comrade Kim Jong Il — who put forward inheriting and completing the military-first revolutionary cause of chuch’e pioneered by Comrade Kim Il Sung as his lifelong mission — opened the highest stage of the development of our revolutionary armed forces with his extraordinary sagacity, outstanding art of command, and matchless pluck. During the period of the gravest ordeal for our revolution, Comrade Kim Jong Il strengthened! and developed the people’s army into the most elite combat ranks, led to constant victories, the unprecedented battles to protect socialism, and achieved the great historic feats of enhancing our country to the status of a world-class militarily powerful state through the ever-victorious military-first politics.
Under the care of great Comrade Kim Il Sung and Comrade Kim Jong Il, our revolutionary armed forces have displayed in full, the majestic appearance as the revolutionary strong army with clear revolutionary character and infinitely strong military temperament and might. On the path of proud struggles on which our revolutionary armed forces have walked were grand construction battles to consolidate an everlasting foundation for the prosperous and powerful fatherland as well as grave life-and-death decisive battles against powerful imperialists. In those days, our revolutionary armed forces were infinitely loyal to their foremost mission as the true army of the leader and true army of the party and brilliantly answered the expectations of the fatherland and the people. The noble spirit of death-defying defense of the leader — which was created by anti-Japanese guerrillas — has served as the absolute motto and fundamental source of spiritual strength and combat s! trength of our army, and has become a noble tradition that has been passed on from generation to generation. Holding aloft the banner of death-defying defense of the leader before everything else and resolutely defending the lifeline of the chuch’e revolution at the forefront in days of honor and in days of ordeal as well is the greatest exploit of all the exploits that our people’s army has made before the revolution.
The history of our army — which started from two pistols and has grown into the matchless powerful army that makes the imperialist aggressors shiver — is unprecedented in the world’s history of military development. During the long period from its founding until today, ou r people’s army has come to have the almighty chuch’e-based art of war and the experience of winning constant victories in the process of waging guerilla warfare and regular warfare and confrontational wars without the sounds of gunshots and the roars of cannons, and grown into an infinitely powerful strong army fully equipped with means of attack and means of defense of our style with which it is fully capable of responding to any modern warfare. Military technological supremacy is not a monopoly of imperialists any more, and the time has gone forever when the enemies threatened and intimidated us with atomic bombs. Today’s solemn military demonstration will clearly confirm this.
Our people’s army has left clear traces also in the construction of a prosperous and powerful fatherland, not only as a defender of the fatherland, but also as a creator of the people’s happiness since it engraved the word people in its name. The invaluable blood and sweat of our people’s army officers and men have penetrated into the monumental creations that have risen up at every nook and corner of the fatherland and the numerous socialist assets that contribute to the people’s living standards. The revolutionary strong army of Mt Paektu — which has high pride and displays the majestic invincible, ever-victorious appearance as the army of the leader, the party, and the people — is truly the greatest patriotic legacy left by the great generalissimos, and it is the great luck and pride of our party and people to have inherited such a noble legacy.
Because the history of hundred victories that the heroic KPA has been engraving exists, the glorious 100-year history of chuch’e Korea exists and the ten million year-history of the Kim Il Sung nation and Kim Jong Il Korea is firmly guaranteed.
The sacred revolutionary chronicles and immortal achievements of great Comrade Kim Il Sung and Comrade Kim Jong Il — who, while making their way through the thorny new road of the military-first revolution, opened up a new era of national independence and prepared a strong foundation that guarantees the great prosperity of the country and the happiness of all the generations to come — will shine forever in the history of the fatherland.
Comrades, today we are standing at the watershed of history, when a new chuch’e century begins. More than any other time, this is precisely a responsible and important period when we who have learned the revolution under the care of Comrade Kim Jong Il must set out resolutely to make strenuous efforts.
At the historic fourth Party Representatives Conference and the fifth session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly that took place a few days ago, great Comrade Kim Jong Il was held in high esteem as the eternal leader of our revolution, as the eternal general secretary of the Workers Party of Korea, and as the eternal chairman of the National Defense Commission of our Republic.
This is an indication of the steadfast will of our party, army, and people to inherit and complete to the end the chuch’e revolutionary cause, which was pioneered at Paektu, without an inch of deflection or a step of concession, only in the style of our leader and general, under the uplifted banner of the great Kimilsungism and Kimjongilism.
The farsighted strategy of our revolution and ultimate victory lie here in directly proceeding along the path of independence, the path of military-first, and the path of socialism unfolded by the great Comrade Kim Il Sung and Comrade Kim Jong Il.
In order for us to eternally glorify the dignity of military-first Korea and successfully accomplish the cause of building a powerful socialist state, first, second, and third, we must strengthen the people’s army in every way. The people’s army must in the future as well, become a reliable reconnaissance party of the military-first revolution, an unyielding point of support that steadfastly guarantees the cause of the party with the gun barrel, while plowing through snowy paths at the forefront, following the guidance of the party.
Things that cannot change even with the passing of time and the overturning of tens of hundreds of generations are the revolutionary characteristics of our people’s army, who took after our leader and general, and the struggle method of the Mt Paektu revolutionary strong army, which is advancing forward holding high the red flag of the WPK as the first battle flag.
In line with the demands of the development of reality, should further intensify the movement to win the title of the O Chung-hu’p Seventh Regiment, and turn the entire army into today’s version of the seventh Regiment, that is completely filled with the anti-Japanese guns-and-bombs spirit.
The people’s army should become an ideological purity and organizational integral whole, which join its ideas, breaths, and footsteps with the party, by thoroughly embodying the chuch’e-oriented military idea and line of our party in the military’s political work and by more firmly establishing the revolutionary leadership system.
By more fiercely raising the hot wind of Paektu training in the entire army, we should strongly prepare all people’s army officers and men as full-blooded fighters who have mastered the ever-victorious strategies and tactics of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, transformative attack methods, and thorough practical capabilities, and we should further equip ourselves with regularized aspects of the most elite revolutionary strong army, who are gallant within and without, with strong discipline.
The invincible unity of the entire army strongly united around the party as one comrade-in-arms and the millions of soldiers and people forming a harmonious whole is the true might of our people’s army, and here lies the basic key to the reinforcement of military power.
Holding high the slogan Let the entire army become true comrades-in-arms, the people’s army should make the traditional virtue of the unity between officers and men flower more brilliantly, and the entire army should become a comrades-in-arms unit which shares blood and life on the single path of the military-first revolution.
Commanders and soldiers are all equally valuable comrades-in-arms of the supreme commander. What we trust is not rockets or any other modern arms and equipment, but our loving soldiers. Commanders exist for the soldiers, and the supreme commander also exists for the soldiers.
All commanders should adopt as their inveterate traits, heartily taking care of the soldiers with the feelings of an elder brother, elder sister, or true comrade-in-arms, and running again and again for the soldiers until their shoes wear out.
Army-people unity is the root of our society and the greatest foundation of the military-first revolution. The people’s army must take the lead and be a forerunner all the time also in consolidating great unity between the army and the people as firm as a rock, succeeding to the tradition of the anti-Japanese partisans.
Our people’s army must continue to advance, upholding the slogan, let us help the people, presented by the great general. The officers and men of the people’s army must fulfill their duty as the army of the people by doing more good deeds for the people, as if they were caring for their own parents and brothers and as if managing their own home gardens.
It is our party’s resolute determination to let our people who are the best in the world — our people who have overcome all obstacles and ordeals to uphold the party faithfully — not tighten their belts again and enjoy the wealth and prosperity of socialism as much as they like.
We must well grow the valuable seeds, which the great Comrade Kim Jong Il sowed to build an economically powerful state and improve the people’s liveli hood, and lead them to bloom as a glorious reality.
The addition of the industrial revolution of the new century to single-hearted unity and invincible military power makes none other than a powerful socialist state. We will have to embark on the comprehensive construction of an economically powerful state by kindling more fiercely, the flames of the industrial revolution of the new century and the flames of South Hamgyong Province.
The officers and men of the people’s army must make a breakthrough in the march of great upswing, continuously demonstrating the might of the revolutionary strong army, which knows no impossibility, at every major battle area for the construction of an economically powerful state and the improvement of the people’s livelihood.
All the functionaries, party members, and working people must follow the struggle trait and creative characteristics of the people’s army, which finishes at a breath what it decides to undertake, and fiercely stir up the hot wind of great innovations and great leap that survive the ages at all the fronts of socialist construction.
For our party and the Republic’s government that consider powerful state construction and people’s livelihood improvement to be their general goal, peace cannot be more valuable. However, for us, the nation’s dignity and the country’s sovereignty are more valuable.
To safeguard the dignity and sovereignty of our Republic like an iron wall and defend true peace and the country’s security, all the officers and men of the people’s army must firmly guarantee with the gun barrel, our party’s cause of building a powerful state at a full combat mobilization posture without losing their revolutionary true character any time.
It is truly heartbreaking that our brethren are suffering the agony of division for nearly 70 years after living for a long time as a single nation in the same land. Our party and the Republic’s government will go hand in hand with anyone who truly desires the country’s reunification and the nation’s peaceful prosperity and will make responsible and patient efforts to accomplish the historic cause of the fatherland’s reunification.
Comrades. Our cause is just and the might of Korea that is united with truth is infinite. We will surely win as the great Comrade Kim Il Sung and Comrade Kim Jong Il, who are eternally living in the hearts of all the officers and men of the people’s army and all the people of the country, are blessing our bright future; as we have the matchless Mt Paektu revolutionary strong army and the invincible great unity between the army and the people; and as long as there are the faithful people who uphold the cause of the party with conscience and loyalty .
I will be a comrade-in-arms who always shares life and death and destiny with comrades on the road of the sacred military-first revolution and will fulfill my responsibility for the fatherland and revolution by upholding Comrade Kim Jong Il’s behest.
Let us all unite firmly and fight powerfully with one mind and with one accord, as befitting the descendent’s of the great leader and as befitting the warriors and disciples of the great general.
The sun flag of the great Comrade Kim Il Sung and Comrade Kim Jong Il will forever flutter in the van of our revolutionary ranks that display only victory and honor and will always encourage and drive us toward a new victory.
U.S.–North Korea relations recently enjoyed 16 optimistic days: between February 29, when Pyongyang signed the “Leap Day” arms control agreement with the United States, and March 16, when it announced plans to conduct the very kind of rocket launch that it had just forsworn. Reacting to the announcement of the satellite launch, which is intended to commemorate the centenary of founding father Kim Il Sung’s birth, U.S. President Barack Obama warned North Korea about the consequences of provocation and called on China to stop “turning a blind eye” to the North Korean nuclear program. The denunciations Obama and others have been making sound like a familiar refrain. “Rules must be binding, violations must be punished, words must mean something,” Obama said in his now-famous Prague speech, in which he condemned North Korea’s April 2009 rocket launch. But the rules aren’t binding, North Korea’s violations aren’t meaningfully punished, words are mostly just words, and China does little.
North Korea’s saber rattling today represents only the most recent episode in a long history of unpunished provocation. In 1968, North Korean forces seized a U.S. Navy ship and its crew, and in 1976, they killed with an axe two U.S. servicemen who were trying to trim an overhanging tree in the demilitarized zone. (The Americans responded to the latter incident by dispatching the most heavily armed landscaping operation in world history, with tree-trimmers in the DMZ accompanied by jets flying overhead.) Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the regime repeatedly attempted to assassinate the South Korean president; in 1974, South Korea’s first lady was killed when a suspected agent from the North tried to shoot President Park Chung Hee. In another presidential assassination attempt, in 1983, North Korean operatives planted a bomb in Rangoon that killed several South Korean cabinet members and other government officials. Four years later, agents bombed a civilian airplane, killing all 115 aboard. More recently, the North Korean military torpedoed the South Korean frigate Cheonan and shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. In every instance, the joint U.S.-South Korean command, Combined Forces Command (CFC), has let North Korea get away with its misbehavior. One sanctions regime after another has not deterred aggression.
Restraint in the face of such provocation is unusual, in particular for the United States, which has not been shy about using military force when it or its allies are attacked. For example, Manuel Noriega’s military forces harassed Americans in Panama and killed a U.S. marine; the United States invaded and deposed Noriega. In 1986, Libya bombed a West Berlin disco frequented by U.S. servicemen; the U.S. military launched air strikes in Libya, killing Muammar al-Qaddafi’s daughter.
North Korea escapes such punishment thanks to a powerful deterrent. The first leg of Pyongyang’s strategic triad is its “madman” image: the idea that the country might react to retaliation by plunging the peninsula into general war. North Korean officials are not irrational, as so often depicted in the media. Rather, they are following in the tradition of U.S. President Richard Nixon, who spoke of feigning irrationality in order to intimidate his adversaries. Through its wild rhetoric and behavior at home and abroad, Pyongyang has told the world that in the international game of chicken, it will not swerve — that it is so ready to fight that it will starve its people and devote a quarter of its economy to defense, hack up enemy soldiers with an axe, and even try to assassinate presidents. This reputation has helped convince CFC’s leaders that they cannot rely upon the normal rules of deterrence, that with such an opponent, tit-for-tat retaliation is too risky and too likely to lead to all-out war.
Make no mistake: no one thinks that North Korea would actually win that war. The country is dwarfed economically by South Korea, and the military balance long ago shifted against the North. In the late 1990s, military analystsconcluded that CFC would prevail should a war ever be fought, and the ensuing two decades of famine and energy shortages have only weakened North Korea’s position. But even though Pyongyang would lose this war, no one wants to fight it, either. North Korea can still inflict terrible pain on South Korea (and possibly, with its ballistic missiles, on nearby Japan). The city of Seoul, home to more than ten million people, lies well within range of North Korean artillery. North Korea’s leaders know that a second Korean war would be an existential war — that neither the regime nor they themselves would survive a defeat — and so they would have an incentive to use every weapon in their arsenal, including weapons of mass destruction. Is North Korea so crazy that if CFC carried out an act of limited retaliation, the country would start a war that would end in its own certain destruction? No one wants to find out.
The second leg of the North Korean triad is the specter of its own collapse. Because of its economic weakness and uncertainty about its political leadership since the recent power transition, the country looks like a house of cards that a nudge will send crashing down. Neighbors fear that the regime’s collapse would upend the country’s food distribution network, ushering in a humanitarian crisis and sending refugees (and perhaps some loose nukes) streaming across borders. CFC and China may each intervene to find the missing nuclear weapons or to stabilize a chaotic North Korea, which could escalate the crisis.
Thus Seoul hesitates to hit North Korea hard: not only because it worries about this kind of instability in the short term but also because it dreads the longer-term problem of having to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. North Korea’s infrastructure is crumbling, and its unhealthy population is ill equipped to function in a modern state. Cleaning up North Korea’s mess would consume the time and treasure of a generation of South Koreans. From China’s perspective, the potential nightmares of collapse playing out on its border (and in the longer term, the thought of a unified Korea aligned with the United States) explain why Beijing has been unwilling to discipline Pyongyang.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons constitute the third leg of its deterrence strategy. For many years, CFC refrained from retaliating because it feared another costly conventional war. Pyongyang’s acquisition of nuclear weapons has made the thought of a second Korean war even more horrific. But Washington can’t acknowledge that North Korea’s nuclear deterrent is working: after all, the Obama administration’s campaign for a world free of nuclear weapons is founded on the assertion that they are useless. Still, even though the United States will never admit that it is being deterred by a weak adversary with a handful of malfunctioning nuclear devices, North Korea knows it — and so do Iran and other nuclear aspirants that fear regime change.
Thanks to North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the United States, South Korea, Japan, and other countries deplore North Korean belligerence but confine their retaliation to a barrage of rhetoric. Countries tend to be extraordinarily cautious when dealing with nuclear-armed adversaries. India, for example, has been forced to tolerate Pakistani terrorism, most prominently after the Mumbai attacks of 2008. In the wake of an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 (reportedly carried out by groups harbored in Pakistan), the Indian cabinet resolved, “We will liquidate the terrorists and their sponsors wherever they are, whoever they are.” But it never did so, because that would have involved military actions that could have led to nuclear war. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, like North Korea’s, give it a get-out-of-jail-free card.
It is tempting to presume that there is some limit to the world’s tolerance of North Korean aggression — some point at which South Korea and the United States, despite fears of a war and collapse, would conclude that North Korea is too dangerous a country to live with and that regime change is the less terrible option. But that presumption could be wrong. As intolerable as it is to absorb North Korea’s assassination attempts and other provocations, it is also hard to imagine what could possibly prompt Seoul and Washington to gamble on regime change in a wrecked, nuclear-armed disaster of a country.
North Korean space officials have moved all three stages of a long-range rocket into position for a controversial launch, vowing today to push ahead with their plan in defiance of international warnings against violating a ban on missile activity.
Foreign news agencies were allowed a first-hand look at preparations under way at the coastal Sohae Satellite Station in north-western North Korea.
North Korea announced plans last month to launch a communications satellite using a three-stage rocket during mid-April celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
Engineers said today that the satellite will orbit the earth and send back data for weather forecasts and crop surveys.
The US, Japan, Britain and other nations have urged North Korea to cancel the launch, warning that firing the long-range rocket would violate UN resolutions and North Korea’s promise to refrain from engaging in nuclear and missile activity.
North Korea maintains that the launch is meant to showcase its scientific achievement.
Experts say the Unha-3 rocket slated for lift-off between April 12 and 16 could also test long-range missile technology that might be used to strike the US and other targets.
North Korea has tested two atomic devices, but is not believed to have mastered the technology needed to mount a warhead on a long-range missile.
Today, reporters were taken by train to North Korea’s new launch pad in the hamlet of Tongchang-ri in North Phyongan province, about 35 miles south of the border town of Sinuiju along North Korea’s west coast.
All three stages of the rocket were visibly in position at the launch pad, and fuelling will begin soon, Jang Myong Jin, general manager of the satellite station, told reporters during a tour of the Tongchang-ri facilities.
He said preparations were well on track for lift-off and that international space, aviation and maritime authorities had been advised of the plan, but did not provide exact details on the timing of the fuelling or the mounting of the satellite.
About two weeks before North Korea unveiled its rocket plan, Washington announced an agreement with the North to provide it with much-needed food aid in exchange for a freeze on nuclear activity, including a moratorium on long-range missile tests.
Plans to send food aid, as well as a recently revived project to conduct joint searches for the remains of US military personnel killed during the Korean War, have now been suspended.
Japan and South Korea, meanwhile, said they are prepared to shoot down any parts of the rocket that threaten to fall in their territory – a move North Korea’s foreign ministry warned would be considered a declaration of war.
The launch is scheduled to take place three years after North Korea’s last announced attempt to send a satellite into space, a lift-off condemned by the UN Security Council.
North Korea walked away from nuclear disarmament negotiations in protest, and conducted an atomic test weeks later that drew tightened UN sanctions.
Kim Jong Un took power following the December death of his father, long-time leader Kim Jong Il, and is expected to assume more top posts during high-profile political and parliamentary meetings later this week – a step analysts say will formally complete the country’s second hereditary power transfer.
The 220lb satellite is designed to send back images and information that will be used for weather forecasts as well as surveys of North Korea’s natural resources, Mr Jang said. He said a western launch was chosen to avoid showering neighbouring nations with debris.
Two previous satellites, also named Kwangmyongsong, or Bright Shining Star, were experimental, but the third will be operational, he said.
China’s foreign minister said today that Beijing is troubled by North Korea’s launch plan and has urged more diplomacy.
Yang Jiechi said he discussed the launch plan during trilateral talks with his counterparts from Seoul and Tokyo in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo.
North Korea is believed to be gearing up for a nuclear test, an intelligence official said Sunday, a move certain to fuel the already high tensions over its planned long-range rocket launch.
Satellite images show the communist nation digging a new tunnel underground in the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in the country’s northeast, where it conducted two previous nuclear tests, first in 2006 and then in 2009.
The construction is believed to be in its final stage, the official said.
“North Korea is making clandestine preparations for a third nuclear test at Punggye-ri in North Hamkyong Province, where it conducted two nuclear tests in the past,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Commercial satellite imagery showed piles of earth and sand at the entrance of a tunnel in the Punggye-ri site. The soil is believed to have been brought to the site to plug the tunnel, one of final steps before carrying out a nuclear test blast.
A nuclear test following a long-range missile test fits the pattern of North Korean behavior.
In 2006, the provocative regime carried out its first-ever nuclear test, three months after the test-firing of its long-range
Taepodong-2 rocket. The second nuclear test in 2009 came just one month after a long-range rocket launch.
The North says it will fire off its Unha-3 long-range rocket between April 12-16 to put what it claims is a satellite into orbit. But regional powers believe the launch is a pretext to disguise a ballistic missile test banned under a U.N. Security Council resolution.
Sources said the North is believed to have put the rocket on a launch pad in the country’s northwest on Friday.
The North’s nuclear and missile programs have long been a regional security concern. The country is believed to have advanced ballistic missile technology, though it is still not clear whether it has mastered the technology to put a nuclear warhead on a missile. (Yonhap News)
His first memory is an execution. He walked with his mother to a wheat field, where guards had rounded up several thousand prisoners. The boy crawled between legs to the front row, where he saw guards tying a man to a wooden pole.
Shin In Geun was four years old, too young to understand the speech that came before that killing. At dozens of executions in years to come, he would listen to a guard telling the crowd that the prisoner about to die had been offered “redemption” through hard labour, but had rejected the generosity of the North Korean government.
Guards stuffed pebbles into the prisoner’s mouth, covered his head with a hood and shot him.
In Camp 14, a prison for the political enemies of North Korea, assemblies of more than two inmates were forbidden, except for executions. Everyone had to attend them.
The South Korean government estimates there are about 154,000 prisoners in North Korea’s labour camps, while the US state department puts the number as high as 200,000. The biggest is 31 miles long and 25 miles wide, an area larger than the city of Los Angeles. Numbers 15 and 18 have re-education zones where detainees receive remedial instruction in the teachings of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, and are sometimes released. The remaining camps are “complete control districts” where “irredeemables” are worked to death.
Shin’s camp, number 14, is a complete control district. Established around 1959 near Kaechon County in South Pyongan Province, it holds an estimated 15,000 prisoners. About 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, it has farms, mines and factories threaded through steep mountain valleys.
Shin and his mother lived in the best prisoner accommodation the camp had to offer. They had their own room, where they slept on a concrete floor, and they shared a kitchen with four other families. Electricity ran for two hours a day. There were no beds, chairs or tables. No running water.
If Shin’s mother met her daily work quota, she could bring home food. At 4am, she would prepare breakfast and lunch for her son and for herself. Every meal was the same: corn porridge, pickled cabbage and cabbage soup. Shin was always hungry and he would eat his lunch as soon as his mother left for work. He also ate her lunch. When she came back from the fields at midday and found nothing to eat, she would beat him with a shovel.
Her name was Jang Hye Gyung. She never talked to him about her past, her family, or why she was in the camp, and he never asked. His existence as her son had been arranged by the guards. They chose her and the man who became Shin’s father as prizes for each other in a “reward” marriage.
Single men and women slept in dormitories segregated by sex. The eighth rule of Camp 14 said, “Should sexual physical contact occur without prior approval, the perpetrators will be shot immediately.” A reward marriage was the only safe way around the no-sex rule. Guards announced marriages four times a year. If one partner found his or her chosen mate to be unacceptably old, cruel or ugly, guards would sometimes cancel a marriage. If they did, neither the man nor the woman would be allowed to marry again. Shin’s father, Shin Gyung Sub, told Shin that the guards gave him Jang as payment for his skill in operating a metal lathe.
After their marriage, the couple were allowed to sleep together for five consecutive nights. From then on, Shin’s father was permitted to visit Jang a few times a year. Their eldest son, Shin He Geun, was born in 1974. Shin was born eight years later. The brothers barely knew each other. By the time Shin was four, his brother had moved into a dormitory.
The guards taught the children they were prisoners because of the “sins” of their parents but that they could “wash away” their inherent sinfulness by working hard, obeying the guards and informing on their parents.
One day, Shin joined his mother at work, planting rice. When she fell behind, a guard made her kneel in the hot sun with her arms in the air until she passed out. Shin did not know what to say to her, so he said nothing.
On summer nights, boys would sneak into a nearby orchard to eat unripe pears. When they were caught, the guards would beat them. The guards, though, did not care if Shin and his friends ate rats, frogs, snakes and insects. Eating rats was essential to survival. Their flesh could help prevent pellagra, which was rampant, the result of a lack of protein and niacin in their diet. Prisoners with the disease suffered skin lesions, diarrhoea and dementia. It was a frequent cause of death. Catching rats became a passion for Shin. He would meet his friends in the evening at his primary school, where there was a coal grill to roast them.
One day in June 1989, Shin’s teacher, a guard who wore a uniform and a pistol on his hip, sprang a surprise search of the six-year-olds. When it was over, he held five kernels of corn. They all belonged to a slight girl Shin remembers as exceptionally pretty. The teacher ordered the girl to the front of the class and told her to kneel. Swinging his wooden pointer, he struck her on the head again and again. As Shin and his classmates watched in silence, lumps puffed up on her skull, blood leaked from her nose and she toppled over on to the concrete floor. Shin and his classmates carried her home. Later that night, she died.
On a hillside near Shin’s school, a slogan was posted: “All according to the rules and regulations.” The boy memorised the camp’s 10 rules, and can still recite them by heart. Subsection three of Camp 14’s third rule said, “Anyone who steals or conceals any foodstuffs will be shot immediately.” Shin thought the girl’s punishment was just. The same man continued to teach Shin. In breaks, he allowed students to play rock, paper, scissors. On Saturdays, he would sometimes grant children an hour to pick lice out of each other’s hair. Shin never learned his name.
A satellite image of Camp 14. Photograph: /EPA
Primary school students attended class six days a week. Secondary students attended seven days, with one day off a month. In the winter, the student body (about 1,000 students) was mobilised to clean privies in the village where the guards lived. Shin and his classmates chipped out frozen faeces, dumped the waste on racks with their bare hands, then dragged it outside to be used as fertiliser. In summer, students worked in the fields from 4am until dusk, pulling weeds.
Soap was a luxury. Shin’s trousers were stiff from dirt and sweat. When it was too cold to bathe in the river or stand in the rain, Shin, his mother and classmates smelled like farm animals.
Shin went through school with a boy called Hong Sung Jo and a girl called Moon Sung Sim. Shin viewed Hong Sung Jo as his closest companion. They played jacks and their mothers worked at the same farm. Neither boy, though, ever invited the other to his house to play. Trust among friends was poisoned by constant competition. Trying to win extra food rations, children told guards what their neighbours were eating, wearing and saying.
Shin was nine years old, and he and his classmates were walking towards the train station, where their teacher had sent them to pick up coal. To get there they had to pass below the guards’ compound. From above, the guards’ children shouted: “Reactionary sons of bitches are coming.” Rocks rained down on the prison children. Shin and his classmates shrieked and cowered. A rock struck Shin on the head, knocking him to the ground. When his head cleared, many of his classmates were moaning and bleeding. Moon Sung Sim had been knocked out.
When their teacher discovered his bloodied students sprawled in the road, he became angry. “What are you doing not getting yourselves to work?” he shouted. The students timidly asked what they should do with their classmates who were unconscious. “Put them on your backs and carry them,” the teacher instructed.
When Shin and his classmates entered secondary school, they were barely literate. But by then classroom instruction had come to an end. Teachers became foremen. Secondary school was a staging ground for work in mines, fields and forests. At the end of the day, it was a gathering place for long sessions of self-criticism. At night, 25 boys slept on the dormitory floor.
On Friday 5 April 1996, Shin’s teacher told him he could go home and eat supper with his mother as a reward for good behaviour. There was a surprise when he got there. His brother, who worked at the camp’s cement factory, had come home, too. Shin’s mother was not delighted when her youngest son showed up. She did not say welcome or that she had missed him. She cooked, using her daily ration of 700 grams of cornmeal to make porridge in the one pot she owned. Shin ate, then went to sleep.
Some time later, voices from the kitchen woke him. He peeked through the bedroom door. His mother was cooking rice. For Shin, this was a slap in the face. He had been served the same tasteless gruel he had eaten every day of his life. Now his brother was getting rice. Shin guessed she must have stolen it, a few grains at a time. Shin fumed. He also listened. Shin heard that Shin He Geun had not been given the day off. He had walked out without permission. His mother and brother were discussing what they should do.
Escape. Shin was astonished to hear his brother say the word. He did not hear his mother say that she intended to go along. But she was not trying to argue, even though she knew that if he escaped or died trying, she and others in her family would be tortured and probably killed. Every prisoner knew the first rule of Camp 14, subsection 2: “Any witness to an attempted escape who fails to report it will be shot immediately.”
His heart pounded. He was angry that she would put his life at risk for the sake of his brother. He was also jealous that his brother was getting rice. Shin’s camp-bred instincts took over: he had to tell a guard. Shin ran back to school. It was 1am. Who could he tell? In the crowded dormitory, Shin woke his friend Hong Sung Jo. Hong told him to tell the school’s night guard.
“I need to say something to you,” Shin told the guard, “but before I do, I want something in return.” Shin demanded more food and to be named grade leader at school, a position that would allow him to work less and not be beaten as often. The guard agreed, then told Shin and Hong to go back to get some sleep.
On the morning after he betrayed his mother and brother, uniformed men came to the schoolyard for Shin. He was handcuffed, blindfolded and driven in silence to an underground prison.
“Do you know why you are here?” The officer did not know, or did not care, that Shin had been a dutiful informer. “At dawn today, your mother and your brother were caught trying to escape. Were you aware of this fact or not? If you want to live, you should spit out the truth.”
Shin would eventually figure out that the night guard had claimed the credit for discovering the escape plan. But on that morning Shin understood nothing. He was a bewildered 13-year-old. Finally, the officer pushed some papers across his desk. “In that case, bastard, your thumbprint.”
The document was a family rap sheet. The papers explained why his father’s family had been locked up in Camp 14. The unforgivable crime Shin’s father had committed was being the brother of two young men who had fled south during the Korean war. Shin’s crime was being his father’s son.
Shin’s cell was barely large enough for him to lie down. Without windows, he could not distinguish night from day. He was given nothing to eat and could not sleep.
On what seemed to be the morning of the third day, guards wordlessly entered Shin’s cell, shackled his ankles, tied a rope to a hook in the ceiling and hung him upside down. They did not return until evening. On the fourth day, the interrogators wore civilian clothes. Marched from his cell, Shin met them in a dimly lit room. A chain dangled from a winch on the ceiling. Hooks on the walls held a hammer, axe, pliers and clubs. On a table, Shin saw the kind of pincers used for carrying hot metal.
“If you tell the truth right now, I’ll save you,” the chief interrogator said. “If not, I’ll kill you. Understand?”
The chief’s lieutenants pulled off Shin’s clothes and trussed him up. When they were finished, his body formed a U, his face and feet toward the ceiling, his bare back toward the floor. The chief interrogator shouted more questions. A tub of burning charcoal was dragged beneath Shin, then the winch lowered towards the flames. Crazed with pain and smelling his burning flesh, Shin twisted away. One of the guards grabbed a hook and pierced the boy in the abdomen, holding him over the fire until he lost consciousness.
Shin awoke in his cell, soiled with excrement and urine. His back was blistered and sticky. The flesh around his ankles had been scraped away. As his burns became infected, he grew feverish and lost his appetite.
Shin guesses it was 10 days before his final interrogation. It took place in his cell because he was too weak to get up. For the first time, he found the words to defend himself. “I was the one who reported this,” he said. “I did a good job.” His interrogators didn’t believe him. He begged them to talk to Hong Sung Jo.
Shin’s fever grew worse and the blisters on his back swelled with pus. His cell smelled so bad, the guards refused to step inside. After several days Shin was carried to another cell. He’d been granted a reprieve. Hong had confirmed his story. Shin would never see the school’s night guard again.
By the standards of Camp 14, Shin’s new cellmate was notably old, somewhere around 50. He refused to explain why he was locked up but he did say he had been there for many years and that he sorely missed the sun. Pallid, leathery skin sagged over his fleshless bones. His name was Kim Jin Myung. He asked to be called “Uncle”. For about two months, Uncle nursed Shin, rubbing salty cabbage soup into his wounds as a disinfectant and massaging Shin’s arms and legs so his muscles would not atrophy. “Kid, you have a lot of days to live,” Uncle said. “They say the sun shines even on mouse holes.”
The old man’s medical skills and caring words kept the boy alive. His fever waned, his mind cleared and his burns congealed into scars. Shin was grateful but he also found it puzzling. He had not trusted his mother to keep him from starving. At school, he had trusted no one and informed on everyone. In return, he expected abuse and betrayal. In the cell, Uncle slowly reconfigured those expectations.
“Uncle, tell me a story,” Shin would say. The old man described what food outside the fence looked, smelled and tasted like. Thanks to his loving descriptions of roasting pork, boiling chicken and eating clams at the seashore, Shin’s appetite came back with a vengeance. Shin guessed he had once been an important and well-educated man.
One day a guard unlocked the door of Shin’s cell and handed him his school uniform.
“Let me hold you once,” Uncle said, grasping both of Shin’s hands tightly. Shin did not want to leave. He had never trusted – never loved – anyone before. In the years ahead, he would think of the old man far more often than he thought of his parents. But he never saw Uncle again.
Instead, Shin was led to the room where, in April, he had first been interrogated. Now, it was November. Shin had just turned 14. He had not seen the sun for more than half a year. What he saw startled him: his father knelt in front of two interrogators who sat at their desks. Kneeling beside him, Shin saw his father’s right leg canted outwards in an unnatural way. Shin Gyung Sub had also been tortured.
After signing a secrecy form, father and son were handcuffed, blindfolded and driven away. Shin guessed they would be released but when the car stopped after about 30 minutes and his blindfold was removed, he panicked. A crowd had gathered. Shin was now certain he and his father were to be executed. He became acutely aware of the air passing into and out of his lungs. He told himself these were the last breaths of his life.
“Execute Jang Hye Gyung and Shin He Geun, traitors of the people,” the senior officer said. Shin looked at his father. He was weeping silently. When guards dragged her to the gallows, Shin saw that his mother looked bloated. They forced her to stand on a wooden box, gagged her, tied her arms behind her back and a noose around her neck. She scanned the crowd and found Shin. He refused to hold her gaze. When guards pulled away the box, she jerked about desperately. As he watched his mother struggle, Shin thought she deserved to die.
Shin’s brother looked gaunt as guards tied him to the wooden post. Three guards fired their rifles three times. He thought his brother, too, deserved it.
Back at school, Shin’s teacher was furious he had not received any credit for uncovering the escape plot. Shin was made to kneel for hours and denied permission to use the toilet. Classmates snatched his food, punched him and called him names. Shin had lost much of his strength and his return to hard labour made him almost insanely hungry. In the cafeteria, he dipped his hand in soup that had spilled on the floor and licked his fingers clean. He searched for grains of rice, beans or cow dung that contained undigested kernels of corn.
Since prison, Shin was conscious of what he could never eat or see. The filth, stink and bleakness of the camp crushed his spirit. He discovered loneliness, regret and longing. Most of all, he was angry with his parents. He blamed his mother for his torture and the abuse at school. He despised both his mother and father for selfishly breeding in a labour camp, for producing offspring doomed to die behind barbed wire.
In the moments after Shin’s mother and brother were killed, Shin’s father had tried to comfort the boy. “You OK? Are you hurt anywhere?” his father asked repeatedly. Shin was too angry to reply.
On his rare days off from school, Shin was expected to see his father. During the visits, Shin would often refuse to speak. His father tried to apologise. “I know you’re suffering because you have the wrong parents,” he told Shin. “You were unlucky to be born to us. What can you do? Things just turned out this way.”
By March 1997, about four months after his release, starvation had become a real possibility. Harassed by his teacher and fellow students, Shin could not find enough nourishment. His scars still bled. He grew weaker and often failed to complete his work assignments, which led to more beatings, less food, more bleeding.
But then Shin had a break. One morning, the teacher who tormented him was gone. The new teacher sometimes sneaked food to Shin. He also assigned him less arduous work and stopped the bullying. Shin put on some weight. The burns healed. Why the new teacher made the effort, Shin never knew. But Shin is certain that without his help he would have died.
In 1998 Shin was working alongside thousands of prisoners building a hydroelectric dam on the Taedong river. Labour continued round the clock, with most of the digging and construction done by workers using shovels, buckets and bare hands. Shin had seen prisoners die in the camp before – of hunger, illness, beatings and at executions – but not as a routine part of work. The greatest loss of life occurred when a flash flood rolled down the Taedong in July 1998, sweeping away hundreds of dam workers and students. Shin was quickly put to work burying their bodies.
The following year, secondary school came to an end. At 16, it was time for a permanent job. Shin’s teacher handed down assignments without explanation, curtly telling students where they would spend the rest of their lives. More than half of Shin’s class were sent to the coalmines, where accidental death from cave-ins, explosions and gas poisonings was common. Most miners developed black lung disease and died in their 40s, if not before. Moon Sung Sim was assigned to the textile factory. Hong Sung Jo was sent to the mines. Shin never saw him again.
Shin was assigned the pig farm where he snacked on corn, cabbage and other vegetables, and sometimes even sneaked an afternoon nap. Turning 20 on the farm, Shin believed he had found the place where he would grow old and die. But in March 2003 he was transferred to the camp’s garment factory where 1,000 women stitched military uniforms during 12-hour shifts. When their foot-powered sewing machines broke down, Shin fixed them.
In the summer of 2004, while he was carrying one of these cast-iron machines, it slipped and broke beyond repair. Sewing machines were considered more valuable than prisoners: the chief foreman grabbed Shin’s right hand and hacked off his middle finger just above the first knuckle.
Nevertheless, in October the factory superintendent ordered Shin to mentor an important new prisoner. Shin was to teach Park Yong Chul how to fix sewing machines and to become his friend. Shin was to report back on everything Park said about his past, his politics and his family. “Park needs to confess,” the superintendent said. “He’s holding out on us.”
Park paid polite attention to Shin’s instructions and just as politely avoided questions about his past. After four weeks of near silence, Park surprised Shin with a personal question: “Sir, where is your home?”
“My home?” Shin said. “My home is here.”
“I am from Pyongyang, sir,” Park said.
Park was a dignified man in his mid-40s, but this linguistic fussiness annoyed and embarrassed Shin.
“I’m younger than you,” Shin said. “Please drop the honorific with me.”
“I will,” Park said.
“By the way,” Shin asked, “where is Pyongyang?”
Shin’s question stunned Park. He explained that Pyongyang, located about 50 miles south of Camp 14, was the capital of North Korea, the city where the country’s powerful people lived. Park said he had grown up there, studying in East Germany and the Soviet Union. After returning home, he had become chief of a taekwondo training centre. Park explained what life was like outside Camp 14. He told Shin about money, television, computers and mobile phones. He explained that the world was round.
Much of what Park talked about was difficult for Shin to understand, believe or care about. What delighted him – what he kept begging for – were stories about eating. Park described chicken, pork and beef in China, Hong Kong, Germany, England and the former Soviet Union. Intoxicated, Shin made perhaps the first free decision of his life. He chose not to snitch.
Park’s stories became an addiction but when he burst into song one night, Shin was alarmed, afraid a foreman might hear.
“Stop at once,” Shin told him.
Shin had never sung a song. His only exposure to music had been on the farm, when trucks with loudspeakers played military marching music. To Shin, singing seemed unnatural and insanely risky.
Park asked why he was so afraid of a little song when he was willing to hear seditious stories about how Kim Jong-il was a thief and North Korea was a hellhole.
In December 2004, Shin began thinking about escape. Park’s spirit, his dignity and his incendiary information gave Shin a way to dream about the future. He suddenly understood where he was and what he was missing. Camp 14 was no longer home; it was a cage. And Shin now had a well-travelled friend to help him get out.
Their plan was simple – and insanely optimistic. Shin would get them over the fence. Park would lead them to China, where his uncle would help them travel on to South Korea. Before he suggested they escape together, Shin had fretted for days that Park might be an informer and that he would be executed like his mother and brother. Even after Park embraced the idea, Shin was paranoid: he had sold out his own mother; why shouldn’t Park sell him out?
But Shin’s excitement overcame his fear. For the first time, he had something to look forward to. Every working day became a marathon of whispered motivational stories about the fine dining awaiting them in China. They decided that if guards discovered them at the fence, Park would take them out using taekwondo.
Shin stole warm clothes from a fellow prisoner and waited. Their chance came at New Year, a rare holiday when machines in the factory went silent for two days. Shin learned in late December that on 2 January his crew of repairmen would spend the day trimming trees and stacking wood on a mountain ridge near the fence.
Shin paid a final visit to his father. Their relationship, always distant, had grown colder still. They shared a sullen New Year’s supper. Shin made no reference to his escape plan, there was no special goodbye. Shin expected that when the guards learned of his escape, they would come for his father and take him back to the underground prison.
Early the next morning, Shin, Park and about 25 other prisoners set to work near the top of a 1,200ft slope. The sun shone brightly on a heavy snow pack. A guard tower rose from the fence line about a quarter of a mile to the north. Guards patrolled the inside perimeter with automatic weapons. Shin noticed lengthy intervals between patrols.
Shin and Park had decided they would wait until dusk, when it would be more difficult for guards to track their footsteps in the snow. At four o’clock, they sidled towards the fence, trimming trees as they moved. Shin found himself facing 10ft of high-voltage barbed wire.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” Park whispered. “Can’t we try it some other time?”
Shin feared it would be months, even years, before they would have another chance. “Let’s run!” he yelled and grabbed Park’s hand. He slipped and Park was first to the fence. Falling to his knees, he shoved his arms, head and shoulders between the two lowest strands of wire. Shin saw sparks and smelled burning flesh. Before he could get to his feet, Park had stopped moving. The weight of his body pulled down the bottom wire, creating a small gap. Without hesitation, Shin crawled over his friend’s body. He was nearly through when his legs slipped off Park’s torso and came into contact with the wire.
When he cleared the fence, Shin ran downhill for about two hours. He heard no alarms, no gunfire, no shouting. As the adrenaline began to ebb, he noticed that his trouser legs were sticky. He rolled them up, saw blood and began to comprehend the severity of his burns. It was very cold, well below 10F, and he had no coat.
Park, dead on the fence, had not told him where he might find China.
Shin broke into a farmer’s shed. Inside, he discovered a military uniform. No longer a runaway prisoner, he had become just another ill-clothed, ill-nourished North Korean.
Before Shin crawled through that electric fence and ran off into the snow, no one born in a North Korean political prison camp had ever escaped. As far as can be determined, Shin is still the only one to do so.
He was 23 years old and knew no one. He slept in pig pens, haystacks and freight trains. He ate whatever he could find. He stole and traded on the black market. He was helped, exploited and betrayed. His legs hurt and he was hungry and cold, yet he was exhilarated. He felt like an alien fallen to earth.
In late January 2005, he walked all day – about 18 miles – looking for a stretch of the Tumen river to cross into China. Pretending to be a soldier, he bribed his way through border checkpoints with crackers and cigarettes. “I’m dying of hunger here,” the last soldier said. He looked to be about 16. “Don’t you have anything to eat?” Shin gave him bean-curd sausage, cigarettes and a bag of sweets.
Shallow and frozen, the river here was about a hundred yards wide. He began to walk. Halfway across, he broke through and icy water soaked his shoes. He crawled the rest of the way to China.
Within two years, he was in South Korea. Within four, he was living in southern California, an ambassador for Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), an American human rights group.
His name is now Shin Dong-hyuk. His overall physical health is excellent. His body, though, is a roadmap of the hardships of growing up in a labour camp that the North Korean government insists does not exist. Stunted by malnutrition, he is short and slight – 5ft 6in and about 120lb (8.5 stone). His arms are bowed from childhood labour. His lower back and buttocks are covered with scars. His ankles are disfigured by shackles. His right middle finger is missing. His shins are mutilated by burns from the fence that failed to keep him inside Camp 14.
• This is an edited extract from Escape From Camp 14, by Blaine Harden.