GENEVA – North Korea’s prison camps are a closed-off world of death, torture and forced labor where babies are born slaves, according to two survivors who liken the horrors of the gulags to a Holocaust in progress.
“People think the Holocaust is in the past, but it is still very much a reality. It is still going on in North Korea,” Shin Dong Hyuk said on the sidelines of a human rights summit in Geneva.
Shin himself spent his first 23 years in a prison camp in the secretive North, where he says he was tortured and subjected to forced labor before making a spectacular escape seven years ago — and giving the outside world a rare firsthand account of life inside the camps.
The 30-year-old is the only person known to have been born in such a camp to flee and live to tell the tale. He was portrayed in a book published by journalist Blaine Harden last year called “Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West.”
Camp 14 — a massive slave labor camp comprising a number of “villages,” factories, farms and mines — is one of five known prison camps in North Korea believed to house as many as 200,000 people.
While Shin’s comparison with Nazi concentration camps, where the majority of the 6 million Jews who perished during the Holocaust were murdered, may seem extreme, another camp survivor, Chol Hwan Kang, agreed with the analogy.
“Fundamentally, it is the same as Hitler’s Auschwitz,” Chol said, referring to one of the Nazi era’s most notorious death camps.
With whole families in North Korea thrown into camps together and starving to death, he said that the “methods may be different, but the effect is the same.”
Chol, now 43, was sent to Camp 15 with his whole family when he was 9 years old to repent for the suspected disloyalties of his grandfather. He spent 10 years there before his family was released and later managed to flee to China and later to South Korea — the same route taken by Shin.
Both men say the international community must do more to help North Koreans, with Chol insisting the world should take advantage of growing feelings of opposition within the communist state.
He suggested that Pyongyang’s recent nuclear test, its third underground detonation of an atomic device, was meant not only as a message of strength to the outside world but also to potential opponents to the regime within North Korea.
“It is the international community’s duty to help them light the fire of resistance,” Chol said.
Shin, who says that at the age of 13 he was forced to watch the executions of his mother and brother by guards, also emphasized that “I want to push the United Nations and the international community to take action.”
After meeting Shin and hearing his harrowing account in December, U.N. human rights commissioner Navi Pillay called for an in-depth international inquiry into “one of the worst, but least understood and reported, human rights situations in the world.”
The United Nations, Amnesty International, the Red Cross and other global organizations have all pressed North Korea for information and access to the prisons, without success.
Shin, who says his father and grandfather were sent to the camp because two of his uncles apparently defected to South Korea, said he was expected to spend his entire life in them under a system that calls for up to three generations of family members of an accused to also be punished.
“The birth of a baby is a blessed thing in the outside world, but inside the camp, babies are born to be slaves like their parents. It’s an absolute scandal,” Shin said.
Both Shin and Chol described life in the camp as defined by hunger and violence.
“Daily I saw torture, and every day in the camp I saw people dying of malnutrition and starvation. I saw lots of friends die and I almost died myself of malnutrition,” Chol recalled.
Shin still carries the scars of his experience on his body. Resting his right hand on the table in front of him, he revealed the missing tip of his middle finger, which he says was chopped off by a prison guard as punishment after he dropped a piece of machinery in a factory.
Overstepping prison rules, including not informing the guards of other prisoners’ misdeeds, was enough to get you killed, he said.
In Harden’s book, Shin admits he didn’t hesitate to inform a guard of his mother and brother’s escape plan, and that he felt no remorse when he was forced to watch their executions.
He had never felt close to them or anyone else in the camp, seeing others as competitors for the tiny rations of mainly cabbage-based gruel he survived on. That has changed since he got out, he said: “Now I feel they were dear to me, but I’m still learning to feel.”
Behind barbed wire, Shin had no notion of life on the outside until he met fellow prisoner Park Yong Chul, who had lived abroad and vividly described the food he had tasted. “I really didn’t have the understanding of freedom and liberty. I only escaped because I imagined the food,” Shin said.
One day, Shin and Park were working in a remote area on the outskirts of the camp where the guards were spaced far apart and they decided to make a run for it through the high-voltage fence.
Park was electrocuted and Shin got out by climbing over his body. Today, he lives in South Korea and works to spread awareness about the conditions in the camps.
“I don’t know what impact I’m having,” said Shin, who hosts a television show on which he interviews North Korean defectors.
“I’m here outside the camp, but what I’m doing daily is talk about the situation in the camp,” he said. “I’m still in the camp in my head.”