North Korean camp survivor Dong-Hyuk Shin tells true feelings about his book and campaign

North Korea prison camp escapee and human right activist, Dong-Hyuk Shin
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Dong-Hyuk Shin, the only North Korean prison camp escapee, revealed that the inaccurate details in his autobiography “Escape from Camp 14” were neither lies nor confusion about his memories following his traumatic experiences. He just wanted to keep some painful experiences to himself.

“First of all, let me tell about the controversial issues surrounding my book, as some people are still regarding me as a liar. For what and how would I make up those horrible memories? I just wanted to hide a part of my life in the book. Isn’t that a choice I am free to make?” Shin said.

Escape from Camp14
Escape From Camp 14

According to the book, Shin underwent torture in North Korea’s most notorious political prison camp, No.14, at the age of 13. He later corrected this claim, however, to say that it was actually in Camp 18, known to be less controlled, when he was 20 years old, after moving out of Camp 14 at age six. Shin was transferred back to Camp 14, again, so he escaped from No. 14 in the end.

He said that he also had to correct the inaccurate report about his confession from United States media. The author of his book, Blaine Harden added in a new forward of the e-book that, “Trauma experts see nothing unusual in this.”

Shin, however, strongly denied the loss of memories, as Harden explained. “I didn’t forget any of the memories of my life. In reality, I couldn’t forget them even if I tried.  Every time I tried to erase those terrifying moments, they remained in my head more clearly,” he said.

The prison camp survivor has undergone a tough time since the end of last year, when he arrived in South Korea. Last October, North Korean authorities produced a video called “Lie and Truth” to attack Shin, who had given evidence of North Korea’s human rights violations in front of the UN Commission of Inquiry. In the video, Shin’s father — whom he believed to be dead — contradicted his story.

“I found out that my father was still alive when I watched the video. I believed that he died in the prison camp where he was transferred. When I saw him in such a ridiculous video for the first time, I wasn’t happy at all, but I felt despair. I thought that he would’ve rather died than lived, because I can imagine how much he suffered and is still suffering tortures in the country because of me.”

“If I knew that my story would have gained this much fame at that time, I would’ve disclosed every single detail to the writer.”

The video and the presence of his father ultimately made him reveal what he did not explain in the book. Amid condemnation from many people, he could not stand the criticism of other North Korean defectors.

“I didn’t care about the South Korean media that only focused on the numbers, such as Camp 14 and 18 and my age, while ignoring the scars of prison camp torture on my body. But I was very sad and even enraged because of other defectors who had suffered in North Korea like me,” he continued.

“Some of them denounced me by showing the video produced by North Korean government. I felt miserable, as they didn’t know my true intention, which was to save the dying. I think that they might be jealous of my fame and money. But to be honest, I didn’t earn any money while working for human rights. And the fame had nothing to do with my life, since many North Koreans are still being killed. If I knew that my story would have gained this much fame at that time, I would’ve disclosed every single detail to the writer.”

He alluded to discontinuity in the campaign on his Facebook page this January, but a month later he restarted it.

The prison camp survivor has been involved in North Korean human right activity since 2007. But recently he has felt that everything that he has done was in vain, as nothing has changed yet compared to eight years ago.

“I started this campaign desperately to save tens of thousands of maltreated North Korean residents, because I was also one of them. I didn’t have time, as people were dying every second.”

He was particularly skeptical about the UN’s inquiry into the human rights situation in North Korea, launched in 2013.

“For what did the United Nations establish the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea? What did they do for North Korean residents? It took more than one year for the UN General Assembly’s Human Rights Committee to adopt the resolution. What is next, then?

“I gave all evidence to them in order to save my family and friends — not to lay flowers on their graves. I don’t think that the officials of the UN would understand how serious the real situation in North Korea is, because most of them have not lived that kind of a desperate life.”

The 33-year-old activist begged people to see the invisible reality: “When I told my story to the UN, at first they asked me whether I could prove it,” he said.

“Six million Jews died in the Holocaust over the course of about three years. Who imagined that many people were killed in that short a time? It is exactly same as 70 years ago. We can’t see what is happening in North Korea, but the fact is that people are being publicly executed at this very moment.”

“I felt miserable, as they didn’t know my true intention, which was to save the dying.”

Despite of his sense of futility over his human rights campaign, he said that he will never give it up.

Currently, Shin is planning two projects for the near future. “I’m thinking to publish a magazine about ordinary South Koreans’ lives and to send them into North Korea through the Chinese border with North Korea,” he said.

Similarly, South Korea’s activist groups, led by North Korean defectors, have sent anti-North propaganda leaflets, attached to large balloons, from near the border for several years. This activity, however, escalated tensions between the two Koreas, and North Korean authorities even threatened South Korea with military action.

“North Korea’s sensitive reaction indicates that these flyers are quite influential in society. I chose to produce a magazine to describe South Korea more specifically. I would like to feature photos of couples holding hands, drinking coffee in the cafe, and walking freely in central Seoul. And I wish North Koreans could realize that they also have a right to live like that.”

“I found out that my father was still alive when I watched the video. I believed that he died in the prison camp where he was transferred.”

He said that the second project is a bit more personal. “I’m aiming to make a video that rebuts every part of the video ‘Lie and Truth,’ before a conference at the United Nations in Geneva this September,” he said.

Through the video, he is hoping to send two messages to the North Korean government. “My ultimate goal is to enter North Korea with a delegation to the UN, and I want to visit Camp 14 where I was born and lived. If I can do that, no one will dispute my life, and finally I can prove the human rights violations,” he said.

The other message seems to be more important for In-Gun Shin — that was the original name of human rights activist Dong-Hyuk Shin.

“I’ll request the authorities let me meet my father either in North Korea or in a third country before he dies. And firstly, I’ll ask him why I was born in the prison camp. I then will say ‘I love you’ to my father for the first and last time.”

Photo and article by EJ Monica Kim

N. Korean defector reveals scars of prison camp torture

Escape from Camp14
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SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean defector Dong-Hyuk Shin has revealed photos of scars on his body, which he says were suffered in a prison camp in the hermit kingdom. Shin published the photos to his Facebook page last week after admitting to several inaccurate accounts in his autobiography in January.

Shin is famous for being the only survivor to have escaped from a North Korean political prison camp.

Between Feb.27 and Mar. 3, he posted photos to his Facebook page of scars and other marks on his ankles, back, left hand and fingers, which he says he received during his time in the camp.

Scars in the ankles
Ankle scars


He wrote in the first post that he showed these wounds because he decided not to be afraid of fighting against North Korea any longer. He wrote that the scars on his ankles were received due to being handcuffed and hung upside down.

Shin's burned back
Shin’s burned back

The following day, he continued to post photos, displaying his back, also burned from during torture. He added that, “I feel embarrassed to show such a photo and it’s shameful. But I must reveal the evil of the dictator and his regime.” Shin’s reference to North Korea’s leader as “the evil of the dictator” was notable, as such an utterance is an unthinkable remark for ordinary citizens of the secretive state.

In the last post, he concluded that, “If I don’t share these photographs, I have no other way to explain how horrible and vicious the N. Korean regime is!” This message was accompanied by photos of his left hand and little finger, still bearing the aftereffects of mistreatment by prison guards.

The photos could support Shin’s testimony about the violation of human rights in North Korea, regardless of the accuracy about “which prison camp” he was tortured in.

Shin acknowledged his inaccurate details in his autobiography, “Escape from Camp 14,” in January. According to the book, he underwent torture in the most notorious political prison camp, no. 14, at the age of 13. He however later corrected this to say that it was in Camp 18, known to be less controlled, when he was 20 years old, after moving out of Camp 14 at age six.

The writer of the book and former Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden told the Washington Post that “he is still saying that all of this [torture] happened at different times and places.” He added that Shin’s confusion about experiences is totally understandable, as he has suffered from trauma for a long time.

Despite the controversy, Harden will not fix the story, because, he said, “Even the new disclosures in the revised forward may not reveal the whole truth.”

Escape from Camp14
Escape from Camp14

Shin made a public apology about the errors in his accounts on his Facebook page on Jan. 18. He also alluded to discontinuity in North Korea’s human right campaign, writing that, “These will be my final words and this will likely be my first post.”

He restarted activity on his social media page last February, and indicated his will was to keep it up until the day when the regime would be overthrown, amid continuous refutation of him from North Korean authorities.

North Korea has been strongly denying Shin’s story and the existence of Camp 14. Its propaganda television channel Urimizokkiri produced a video, “Lie and Truth,” at the end of October 2014, and showed interviews of his father and relatives who still remain in the country, in order to contradict Shin.

“We never lived in a so-called ‘political prison camp’,” his father said in the video. “You [Dong-Hyuk Shin] will regret forever if you don’t come back to your country.”

The video described Shin as a criminal who fled to South Korea to avoid punishment for his crime. Moreover it strongly blamed him for taking the initiative in fabricating the human rights situation in North Korea.

Who is Dong-Hyuk Shin?

His real name was In Gun Shin. He was born inside Camp 14. He made his escape from the prison camp in 2005. He arrived South Korea via China in August 2006 with the aid of a South Korean journalist. Later, he changed his first name to Dong-Hyuk, named after the journalist.

In 2013, he gave evidence of North Korea’s human rights violations, based on his memoir in the prison camp, in front of the UN Commission of Inquiry.  He became a key witness who fostered calls for the North Korean government to be charged with crimes against humanity.

By EJ Monica Kim


Washington Post

Washington Post

Huffington Post Korea

JoongAng Ilbo


Facebook page of Dong-Hyuck Shin