Despite official denials of their existence, North Korea’s political prison camps have been in operation for six decades, long enough for generations to have been born and raised within their electrified fences. In all that time, no one born inside the camps had ever escaped — until Shin Dong-hyuk crawled over the body of a dead companion and though a hole in the fence in 2005.
Veteran foreign correspondent Blaine Harden told Shin’s story on the front page of the Washington Post in 2008, hoping his harrowing tale would alert American readers largely ignorant of the camps’ existence. “Shin’s story is so powerful and has so many cinematic elements to it that it’s very effective in catching people’s interest,” Harden says. “It became clear that his story was a way of reaching people who don’t normally pay attention to foreign affairs or to North Korea.”
That initial article grew into the bestselling book “Escape From Camp 14,” which recounts Shin’s life of forced labor and abuse at the hands of camp guards and his own family. It wasn’t until they’d met more than a dozen times that Shin was able to reveal his deepest secret, however: his complicity in the execution of his mother and brother.
Following that confession, Harden was forced to examine Shin’s story in a new light. “As I thought it through,” he says, “it increased his credibility from my point of view. There was no reason for him to tell this story that made him look so bad. And there’s the evidence of the scars on his body, which are not faint etchings that you need a microscope to see; they’re overwhelming, ghastly disfigurements of his body.”
Ideally, Harden says, accounts like those in his book will increase international pressure on North Korea to close the camps, which recent satellite imagery suggests are expanding. “I’m not optimistic that the camps are going to disappear anytime soon,” he admits. “But knowledge is better than ignorance, and Shin feels like all the misery that he went through and all the guilt that he carried has not been for nothing.”
If you go:
Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.
Philadelphia Central Library
1901 Vine St.
Wednesday, 6 p.m.
United Nations Association of New York
Institute of International Education
809 United Nations Plaza, Kaufman Center