WASHINGTON – Dear Mr. Rodman:
I have never met you, and until you visited North Korea in February I had never heard of you. Now I know very well that you are a famous, retired American basketball player with many tattoos. I also understand that you are returning this week to North Korea to coach basketball and perhaps visit for the third time with the country’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, who has become your friend.
I want to tell you about myself. I was born in 1982 in Camp 14, a political prison in the mountains of North Korea. For more than 50 years, Kim Jong Un, his father and his grandfather have used prisons such as Camp 14 to punish, starve and work to death people who the regime decides are a threat. Prisoners are sent to places like Camp 14 without trial and in secret. A prisoner’s “crime” can be his relation by blood to someone the regime believes is a wrongdoer or wrong-thinker. My crime was to be born the son of a man whose brother fled to South Korea in the 1950s.
You can see satellite pictures of Camp 14 and four other labor camps on your smartphone. At this very moment, people are starving in these camps. Others are being beaten, and someone soon will be publicly executed as a lesson to other prisoners to work hard and obey the rules. I grew up watching these executions, including the hanging of my mother.
On orders of the guards in Camp 14, inmates are forced to marry and create children to be raised by guards to be disposable slaves. Until I escaped in 2005, I was one of those slaves. My body is covered with scars from torture endured in camp.
Mr. Rodman, if you want to know more about me, I will send you a book about my life, “Escape From Camp 14.” Along with the stories of many other camp survivors, my story helped persuade the United Nations to create a commission of inquiry that is now investigating human rights atrocities in my country. I was “witness number one.” In the coming year, the commission’s findings may force the U.N. Security Council to decide whether to approve a trial in the International Criminal Court of the Kim family and other North Korean officials for crimes against humanity.
I am about the same age as your friend Kim Jong Un. But if you ask him about me, he is likely to refer to me as “human scum.” That is how his state-controlled press refers to me and all other North Koreans who have risked death by fleeing the country. Your friend probably also will deny that Camp 14 exists, which is the official position of his government. If he does, you can show him pictures of it on your phone.
Mr. Rodman, I cannot presume to tell you to cancel your trip to North Korea. It is your right as an American to travel wherever you wish and to say whatever you want. It is your right to drink fancy wines and enjoy yourself in luxurious parties, as you reportedly did in your previous trips to Pyongyang. But as you have a fun time with the dictator, please try to think about what he and his family have done and continue to do. Earlier this month, Kim Jong Un ordered the execution of his uncle. Recent satellite pictures show that some of the North’s labor camps, including Camp 14, may be expanding. The U.N. World Food Program says four out of five North Koreans are hungry. Severe malnutrition has stunted and cognitively impaired hundreds of thousands of children. Young North Korean women fleeing the country in search of food are often sold into human-trafficking rings in China and beyond.
I am writing to you, Mr. Rodman, because, more than anything else, I want Kim Jong Un to hear the cries of his people. Maybe you could use your friendship and your time together to help him understand that he has the power to close the camps and rebuild the country’s economy so everyone can afford to eat.
No dictatorship lasts forever. Freedom will come to North Korea someday. When it does, my wish is that you will have, in some way, helped bring about change. I end this letter in the hope that you can use your friendship with the dictator to be a friend to the North Korean people.
Shin Dong-hyuk is a human rights activist and the only person born in a North Korean labor camp known to have escaped to the West.