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Shin Dong Hyuk (Narrative 2)

2011 (Narrative date)

The Global Slavery Index 2018 estimates that there are 2,640,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery in The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Men, women and children are subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking. Government oppression in the DPRK prompts many North Koreans to flee the country in ways that make them vulnerable to human trafficking in destination countries. Many of the estimated 10 000 North Korean women and girls who have migrated illegally to China to flee abuse and human rights violation are particularly vulnerable to trafficking. Some lure, drug, detain or kidnap North Korean women on their arrival, others offer jobs but subsequently force the women into prostitution, domestic service, or forced marriage. If found, Chinese authorities often repatriate victims back to the DPRK where they are subjected to harsh punishment including forced labour in labour camps or death.

Shin Dong Hyuk was born in a North Korean prison labour camp in 1982. He tells of his experience growing up in the camp and being forced to work from a very young age. In the camp, food was restricted and beatings were common, by both prison officers and Shin Dong’s own mother. When he was fourteen, Shin Dong’s mother and brother attempted to escape the camp. He was forced to watch their execution and tortured himself for presumped involvement in their escape. In late 2004 Shin Dong was partnered with a man who had seen the outside world and they began to plan their own escape. In January 2005, they escaped while collecting firewood, however Shin Dong was the only one to succeed.


Hello my name is Shin Dong Hyuk. I was born on November 19, 1982, at camp No.14 in Pyongannam-do. I escaped the camp on January 2and fled North Korea on February 2.

Since everybody inside the camp are prisoners, everyone is treated the same. How you are treated depends solely on the quality of your work. If your work is satisfactory, the officers recognize you. Some people are given the chance for a “reward marriage”. If you don’t or can’t work maybe because you’re hurt, you get criticized by others.

I’m not sure why [my family was sent to the camp]. From what I know, my parents were married inside the camp through a reward marriage. I have no idea why my mother was there. I heard my father and his siblings sided with South Korean soldiers during the Korean War and killed North Koreans. I think that’s what might’ve happened.

The most difficult part was eating properly. No matter how hard you work, how much you’re beaten, you need food to endure all that. If you’re hungry, it gets really hard. You are given the same kind of food every meal throughout the whole year. But the reason why I could survive on that is because that’s all I had since I was born. Your body gets used to it. But you’re still hungry because you only allowed a certain amount of food.

Inside the camp, I had never heard of the word “freedom”. Other words like “human rights” or “basic rights” were enver used inside the camp, so I had no knowledge of these concepts.

I heard about Juche ideology for the first time last year in South Korea.

I heard about Kim Jong-Il 3-4 times from a new work partner a few months before I escaped the camp. I wondered who he was but I wasn’t very interested. I had lived 24 years without knowing him and hearing about him a couple of times didn’t change that.

The only reason that North Koreans know about Kim Jong-Il so well is because they were educated on him for decades. Juche, Kim Il-Sung, King Jong-Il, these are words I never heard in the camp.

[Did you ever wonder why you were given the work assigned to you?]

No, I didn’t even have time to have such thoughts. Because we were criminals, and in my case, I was born from criminals, I always thought I was working to be absolved of my parent’s wrongdoings and I deserved that work.

I don’t know if I was cuddled and piggy-backed as a child. But from what I’ve seen, mothers only hold their kids to feed them. If children cry, mothers beat them. That’s how I grew up, being beaten by my mom. Mothers get beaten during their work so they come home and beat their kids to relieve stress. We only called our parents “mom” and “dad”. There is no caring relationship between the parents and their children like in South Korea. I had never felt it even one.

Have I been tortured? You speak of torture. It’s really difficult for me to elaborate on that part, to explain that situation with my own words. I have written about it in my book, but this is the one topic I have never spoken about because it’s too hard for me. I’ll show you my book and explain briefly.

I was on my way out to work when officers came in and blindfolded me and took me away. I was young, only fourteen. According to the officers, my mom and brother tried to escape. Until this day, what they told me is all I know. The situation in the prison is illustrated here. This is me being investigated as soon as I arrived at the prison. They asked me if I knew anything about my mom and brother’s escape, since I’m their family.

This is the part that I avoid talking about the most. You probably can’t even imagine what it’s like, being tortured. You’ve probably never seen it happen and only heard about it. And this is why it’s so hard for me to talk about it. I still have scars from the fire and cuffs, even after 10 years. This is a picture of what happened to me after the torture. You can’t see it very well here. 

Can you see it? (showing his back) There is more but this is as much as I can show you right now.

The reason I escaped from the camp was rather simple – because I hated being hungry and beaten. That was the basic reason. But you can’t think about escaping just being you’re hungry and being hit. Around June 2004, I was paired up with a man from Pyongyang at work. We are never supposed to talk about the world outside the camp. Talking about your life before coming to the camp is strictly prohibited – if you’re caught, you are shot on the spot. But this man cared for me a lot. He would give me half of his rations to me sometimes. This made me warm up to him.

After about a month, he began telling me stories about his life. He said he used to live comfortably in Pyongyang. I was most interested in stories about food- about how he ate meat in Pyongyang, and went to the beach, etc. So I always asked him for stories about what he used to eat outside the camp. After hearing those stories for about 6 months, the life inside the camp became difficult to bear. Nothing had changed, but thinking about those stories made the camp life very hard. So I suggested escaping. I asked him to come with me.

About a month later, on January 2 2005, we went into the mountains to get wood and we escaped from there. We planned to escape together and we actually did, but only I succeeded. As you can see from the illustration, the person on the bottom is the man from Pyongyang. The one that’s on top of him is me. This man was the first to go through the barbed wire fence and made space for me. At the time, I just though he was climbing through the fence, so I quickly climbed over him. But when I looked back after I climbed through, he was stuck there and wasn’t moving. He might be alive if other people saw him and pulled him off the fence soon enough, but I don’t know what happened to him. But even if he survived…

The question I’m asked often in South Korea is “weren’t you shocked when you came to South Korea?” But I always tell them, nothing in South Korea has shocked me. The most shocking experience for me was the day after I escaped the prison camp. Even within the prison camp boundaries, you’re only allowed to go to certain places. If you work at a factory, you can’t go anywhere else without permission. I escaped the camp during the night, so the day after I escaped. When it was bright, I saw North Koreans and they seemed so free to me.

We all wore uniforms in the camp, but people outside were wearing red, black and white clothes. Same with the headscarves. Women in the camp wore the same headscarves. People outside moved around and ate so freely. That was so shocking to me. I couldn’t believe a world like this existed.

When I was in the camp, I thought it would be the same outside – that is, before I heard otherwise (from the guy from Pyongyang) months before the escape. Even when I heard those stories, I didn’t believe him. I remember thinking those stories weren’t true. I wasn’t interested at all in his descriptions of interactions with other people. But when I came out and saw for myself, everything was shocking. People bought food with a piece of paper. Nobody was regulating them. It was like I was struck by lightning.

During the 2,3 days after the escape, I even thought, I even thought I was still in the camp and imagining things. The people didn’t look real. That’s how shocked I was…

But I wasn’t able to think that that was freedom. I was too shocked at the sight of these people freely walking about. I wasn’t able to understand freedom in China, either. Even today, I’m still unsure of the concept of freedom, what it really means. Because, to me, I felt free in North Korea just outside the camp.

[A month after escaping the camp, Mr Shin crossed the border and his in northern China for about 9 months when he decided to go further south to make a living. The day he arrived in Shanghai, he met a later-revealed South Korean journalist who safely took him to the Korean Consulate where he was investigated for 6 months before finally landing on South Korea].

[Du to pol tension at the time between China, North and South Korea, the journalist who helped Mr Shin later received a dismissal from his company. When Mr Shin became a South Korean citizen, he changed his first name to Donghyuk after the journalist’s name in appreciation of his assistance]

I still can’t really believe it. The only thing I noticed was that there were a lot of cars. But when I was able to communicate with South Koreans, I did feel that we are one people.

No, I’m not happy. Honestly speaking, I’m not happy. I first thought about escaping because I was hungry and tired, but I am not anymore. Now I can eat a lot and I can have meat. Physically, I’m so comfortable because I don’t have to work anymore. But mentally, I’m still in a lot of pain.

Because of what I’ve been through in the prison camp for 23 years, as long as that experience follows me around throughout my life, I don’t think I can ever be happy. Even if I get married and have a child, those memories will continue to haunt me, I don’t think I can be happy.

[What is your happiest memory?]

When I was a child in the prison camp. I still had to work but they gave us 30 minute, 1-hour break. When I played, I forgot about everything – from the beating in the morning, to not receiving rations because I didn’t finish my work. I forgot about all these things when I played. Until today, that is still my best memory.

Looking back, when I lived in the camp I never realized how important my father was to me. I talked back and had a lot of fights with him – whenever we met because we weren’t living together. If I could say something to him, now that I live comfortably, I want to tell him sorry and that I miss him. I miss my father the most. If I could, I want to walk around Myungdong holding his hand like other people do. Also, I am greatly indebted to the people that helped me on the way, when I was in prison or getting out. The only thing I can do for them now is to spread awareness about these situations in North Korea and prison camps.


Narrative provided by Gugguro Media