Amidst the slow progress of the United States’ diplomatic efforts to bring North Korea into the community of the world’s civilized nations (previous posts on North Korea are here), this recent W$J op-ed by Shin Dong-Hyok — who lived the first 23 years of his life in a North Korean gulag — reminds us of the stakes to humanity involved in finding a way to release the North Korean government’s death grip on North Koreans:
I was born a prisoner on Nov. 19, 1982, and until two years ago, North Korea’s Political Prison Camp No. 14 was the only place I had ever called home. [. . .]
I was a slave under club and fist. It was a world where love, happiness, joy or resistance found no meaning. This was the situation I found myself in until I escaped to China, and then South Korea. There, I was told why I was imprisoned by my distant relatives, who had escaped to the South during the Korean War.
In the midst of that conflict, two of my father’s brothers fled to freedom. Because of this “traitorous” crime, my grandparents, father and uncle back in the North were found guilty of treason and crimes against the state, and were arrested. My father and uncle were separated from each other and my grandparents, and were stripped of all identification and property.
I am still not sure why my mother was incarcerated. While serving their sentences in Kaechon, my parents were allowed to marry. (Sometimes, inmates are given permission to marry if they work very hard and find favor in the eyes of the State Security agents). This was how both my brother and I were born as political prisoners.
Although we were a family by fiat, there was nothing familial about us. We showed no affection for one another, nor was that even possible.
When I was 14 years old, my mother and brother were arrested while trying to escape. Although I had no idea they were planning to run away, I was detained in another part of prison. The State Security agents there demanded that I reveal what my family was conspiring to do. I was tortured severely for seven months. To this day, I still carry the scars on my back and shudder at the memory of that time.
On Nov. 29, 1996, my mother and brother were found guilty of treason and sentenced to public execution. I was taken outside and forced to witness their deaths. [. . .]
As I sit here writing this op-ed comfortably in Seoul, I can’t help but wonder at the vastly different lives South Koreans and inmates of Political Prison Camp No. 14 live. In South Korea, although there is disappointment and sadness, there is also so much joy, happiness and comfort. In Kaechon, I did not even know such emotions existed. The only emotion I ever knew was fear: fear of beatings, fear of starvation, fear of torture and fear of death. [. . .]
These political prisoners live with no dignity as human beings. They are treated, and taught, that they are merely beasts without intelligence, emotions or dreams. If a prisoner attempts to escape, he is severely punished and will most likely be publicly executed.
Humans should never be treated this way. It is time for us to stand up for those being persecuted in North Korean gulags. They do not deserve to die in silence. We must protest these violent acts against humanity. We must become their voice.