”During his years in the camp he said he had never once heard the word ‘love,’ certainly not from his mother, a woman he continued to despise, even in death. He had heard about the concept of forgiveness in a South Korean church. But it confused him. To ask for forgiveness in Camp 14, he said, was ‘to beg not to be punished.’”
- Blaine Harden, Escape from Camp 14
In 2005, I was wrestling with some serious questions, questioning everything I believed in and the way I lived, while dealing with a nagging loneliness. I wondered about the idea of Love and what it meant to be human… to phrase it in more cliché terms, about the meaning of life. This was a hard time for me, and I may not have realized it at the time, but during this stretch my life was extremely delicate.
In 2005, Shin Dong-Hyuk overcame all odds and snuck out of North Korea’s Camp 14, a labour camp where he was born and lived all his life, witnessing and experiencing torture, abuse, and malnourishment. He escaped the camp and made his way into China, on a long, dangerous journey to freedom, where his life was on the line every step of the way.
Today, I’ve come to understand that God is Love, and that people were made for relationships- relationships that existed in complete Love. There’s something burning about the human desire to connect, and I think it’s a need that goes beyond physical needs.
Today, I’m reading Escape From Camp 14, the story of Shin’s escape and his stories from within the camp. It’s quite the read. Shin is the only person born in one of these concentration camps to have escaped, and so his story is extremely crucial. It must be known what’s going on inside these camps.
It reminds me of a time in El Salvador where one woman escaped telling whoever would listen that she was the lone survivor of an attack by military forces that wiped out her entire village- children, women, the elderly, a true genocide. Nobody really listened to her, however. It wasn’t until years later that the issue was investigated and we came to accept the massacre of El Mozote as a dark moment in our recent history, a moment we look back on with regret.
The situation in North Korea right now is a horror in so many ways. What I refer to as the “human rights crisis” is an umbrella term, because in fact, the crisis has so many facets.
The country is led by a dictator. That much is readily known. He and his administration keeps most of the world in the dark about what goes on inside his nation’s borders, and he keeps his citizens in the dark about what goes on outside. That’s a red flag if any.
The country has faced severe food shortages that took off as a result of famines in the 1990s. It hasn’t really recovered. The average North Korean is three inches shorter than a South Korean. The two nations have been split for only about sixty years. That difference in size comes from stunted growth due to malnutrition. The government distributes the food aid, and it is well known that the money goes towards party loyalists.
Under the grip of a totalitarian government, North Koreans do not have the opportunity to seek a better life elsewhere.
When refugees are caught, they are usually killed or sentenced to a labour camp, like Camp 14. Not only that, but their families are as well. Shin wound up born in the camp due to two uncles he had never met siding with South Korea during the war. North Korea practices punishing up to three generations of a family for the offenses of an individual.
Many of the refugees who make it out end up in China. If they are discovered by the Chinese officials, they are repatriated, and sent to these camps, or are killed. If they are discovered by other groups in China, they are often turned into forced laborers or sex slaves- more victims of human trafficking.
These are horrors. All of them, yet I find one deep underlying horror in all of this.
I’ve come to understand that humans are made to connect to each other, and are made for the purpose of relationship and Love. Just as the oppressors cut North Koreans off from their physical needs of food and health, they are also cut off from purpose.
Shin describes his experience in the camp as relationally deficient. While most of us take for granted the fact that we associate words like “mother,” “father,” or “brother” with warmth, comfort, and security, he grew up seeing his mother as a competition for food. He readily snitched out his mother and brother when they planned an escape and later witnessed their executions. He spent a long time coming to accept this fact for himself after his release.
People have varying concepts of heaven and hell, and some are more sophisticated than others. Rather than overspeculate, I’ve come to simply understand heaven as the presence of God and Love, and hell as the absence of God and Love. By this rubric, these camps come dangerously close to really being a hell on earth. Listening to descriptions such as the brutal massacres of the Rwandan genocides furthers this idea- everything falls apart once people lose sight of each other as human beings.
The people bound in North Korean camps are stuck with this reality. Government propaganda and indoctrination makes it even more confusing about who believes what and which confessions are accurate.
Shin’s account is horrifying, though. When he reported the escape plans of his mother and brother, the guard he told claimed full credit for the information. Shin- thinking he would be rewarded by the guards, was instead treated as an accomplice. Beaten and interrogated over the course of five days. At one point his feet were bound by iron shackles, wearing off the skin of his ankles. He was hung upside down, endangering his circulation. Guards continued to bind his hands, and hung him from the ceiling so that the middle of his body formed a U. They hung him shortly above a bed of lit coals and stabbed at him with sharpened rods. He awoke in a cell, wearing burlap prison outfits filled with excrement, his back covered with blisters.
This isn’t meant to be a vain shock story, but to inspire action and awareness. I don’t want to exploit his experiences, but as a lone story to make it out of the horrors of North Korean prison camps, it must be heralded. People need to know what happens inside North Korea.
There are no simple solutions, but there are no solutions in the dark. That’s why I’m trying to intern with LiNK. LiNK is a great group that fights for liberty on multiple fronts- relocating refugees, providing shelter, planning rescue operations, and raising awareness.
“No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people.
-Isaiah 58:6, NLT
I’m nobody’s saviour. But I can be their storyteller.
I write for free because it gives me a lot of joy to do so! If, however, you’ve been enjoying for a little while, I am currently raising funds for an internship with LiNK. If you would like to help me raise awareness about the North Korean Human Rights crisis around our country, I would greatly appreciate any donation. Thanks!