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Human rights groups believe North Korea holds as many as 200,000 political prisoners in a half-dozen labor camps across the nation. Some serve four or five years and are released. Many spend their lives there, often dying from malnutrition and mistreatment. Only one man born in one of the brutal camps has managed to escape. In a new book, an American journalist tells the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk – how he was starved, tortured and forced to witness the execution of his mother and brother, and how he ultimately found his way to freedom. Guest host Tom Gjelten of NPR speaks with the journalist, Blaine Harden, about Shin’s remarkable story and life in a labor camp under North Korea’s dictatorship.
- Blaine Harden Reporter for PBS Frontline and contributor to The Economist; former Washington Post bureau chief in East Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa.
Shin Dong-Hyuk grew up with no concept of freedom and no idea of love. Born in a North Korean prison camp, he knew almost nothing about the outside world until, at the age of
23, he managed to escape from the camp. When journalist Blaine Harden first heard about Shin, he was intrigued. When he learned what Shin had endured, he was horrified. In his new book titled “Escape From Camp 14,” Blaine Harden tells Shin’s story.
The Nature Of The Camps
The U.S. estimates that there are about 200,000 people living in North Korean prison camps today. The camps seem to be a pervasive part of life in that country, Harden said. “They are sort of a part of a totalitarian state’s tool kit to terrorize the population,” he said. “It’s not so much because everybody in North Korea goes to them, but everybody in North Korea knows they exist,” he said.
Harden thinks one of the most tragic elements of Shin’s story is that because he was born inside a camp, he had no notion of any other life. He compares Shin to somesurvivors of Nazi concentration camps, like Ellie Wiesel. Before being rounded up and forced in to the camps, people like Wiesel knew about love, God, and normal life. But Shin was born inside a camp, and “didn’t know it was hell,” Harden said. “He accepted it as his home,” he said.
A Life Of Near-Starvation
Shin’s mother beat him and he viewed her as a competitor for food. He received a very minimal education, but he didn’t learn about the existence of any kind of life outside the camp until he was about 23 years old and he met a new prisoner named Park. Park told him that China, the U.S., and South Korea existed, and told him about telephones, television, and other things he had never experienced. “But what motivated Shin to want to get out of the camp is that Park also talked about food, particularly grilled meat that one could eat if one went to a restaurant in China. And it was the idea of having your stomach filled full of grilled meat that any person could enjoy that sparked dreams and aspirations and the willingness to try to get out of there,” Harden said.
After Shin met Park, when he was about 23 years old, he was able to make a miraculous escape from the camp. Park and Shin planned to escape together, but Park got to the fence first and was electrocuted. Shin had to crawl over Park’s body to get out, which Harden said acted as a kind of insulation. But Park was supposed to have been Shin’s guide on his escape to China, and now Shin was on his own. He found out there were traders in a town he made it to who were moving towards China, and he joined them. Harden said it’s a testimony to Shin’s luck and remarkable intelligence that he was able to escape and survive.
You can read the full transcript here.
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us, I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR, filling in for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a voice treatment. Shin Dong-Hyuk grew up with no concept of freedom, no idea of love. Born in a North Korean prison camp, he knew almost nothing about the outside world until, at the age of 23, he managed to escape from the camp. When journalist, Blaine Harden, first heard about Shin, he was intrigued when he learned what Shin had endured, he was horrified. In his new book titled "Escape From Camp 14" Blaine Harden tells Shin's story.
MR. TOM GJELTENAnd this morning he joins me here in the studio. The story Blaine Harden tells in this book is certain to grab you and I'm sure many of you will want to join our conversation. Call us 1-800-433-8850, send us an email at email@example.com or relay your comments or questions via us Facebook or Twitter. Blaine Harden, thanks for being here.
MR. BLAINE HARDENThanks, it's a great pleasure to be here.
GJELTENGood. You know, we've heard about many places of brutality and suffering and oppression. The Soviet Gulag's, Nazi concentration camps, yet in a sense, it's hard to imagine any more genuinely hellish place than a North Korean labor camp as you describe it via the experience of Shin.
HARDENWell, it's true. And what's even more hellish to consider is that these camps have existed for more than half a century.
GJELTENAnd the concentration camps, the Gulag's, only for a few years, but these camps -- and you can see them in satellite photos, for example.
HARDENThere are six of them. And five of them can be easily seen on Google Earth. You can go to the internet and see them on Google Earth. The United States government estimates there are about 200,000 people in the camps right now. Amnesty International said, last year, that there seems to be construction in some of the camps. The population could be increasing and they guess that's because there's a greater need to round up people because of the change in government there, the change in leadership, no change in government.1
GJELTENNo change in government.
HARDENBut the change in leadership, maybe, some people didn't like it and so that's a possibility. But the camps seem to be a pervasive part of life in North Korea. There are sort of a part of a totalitarian state's tool kit to terrorize the population. It's not so much because everybody in North Korea goes to them, but everybody in North Korea knows they exist.
GJELTENNow, how do they know they exist when the North Korean government refuses to acknowledge their existence and, as you have written, it's virtually impossible for anyone from the outside world to see those camps?
HARDENInterviews with defectors who've gone to China and they have been surveyed pretty well by social scientists in recent years. Most of them are aware of the camps, even though they haven't been there. They know about the camps through word of mouth and they know that if they step out of line while they're in the country, they could go to the camps and there is a policy of sending the relatives as well. Kim Il-sung, the great leader -- the founder of North Korea said that we'll punish these people until the third generation. So if I were to run afoul of the government, if I was living in North Korea, they would send my kids and my parents.
GJELTENAnd in the case of Shin, he is born and raised there. And for me, what makes these camps even more hellish than even in a concentration camp is that, at least in those camps, there was some sense of solidarity, some sense of friendship was preserved among some of the prisoners. And the way that you describe the situation at Camp 14, solidarity genuine friendship, compassion were almost unheard of.
HARDENWell, Shin's trajectory -- his concentration camp story is so much different than other camp stories we've heard. Elie Wiesel and other famous survivors of the Nazi camps, they came to the camps from relatively affluent families. They knew about love and they did love their parents and they knew about God and they were religious people. So they had an ark, they sort of descended into hell. And then when they were released, they could describe what it's like. Shin was born there and didn't know it was hell. He accepted it as his home.
HARDENSo his perspective, his understanding of what it means to be a human being is something that he has acquired since he got out in 2005. He's struggling with concepts like love with the idea -- the concept of God, although he has become a Christian. Some of the things that we take for granted in understanding what it means to be a human being, are to him a foreign language.
GJELTENLet me read something that you wrote about Shin. This young man who was born in the North Korean labor camp lived there until he was 23, right, and then managed to escape. You write, "He had to learn that a civilized child should love his mother. In the years after he escaped the camp, Shin learned that many people associate warmth, security and affection with the words mother, father and brother. That was not his experience."
GJELTENYou also write, "his mother beat him and he viewed her as a competitor for food. His father, who was allowed by guards to sleep with his mother just five nights a year, ignored him. His brother was a stranger." You say that, for Shin, "God did not disappear or die, Shin had never heard of him." It's really a different universe. Not of this world.
HARDENIt's not of this world and since he was born in the camp, he was sort of bred to accept that world. His parents were chosen as part of a reward marriage and he was bred kind of like a farm animal to be labor in the camp.
GJELTENAnd you don't mean that as an overstatement by any means, do you?
HARDENNo. He received a very minimal education, enough to read and write at a minimal level to help him do some of the jobs in the camp. But he did not learn about life outside the camp in North Korea or in the outside world. He was 23 when he met a new prisoner named Park who came to the camp. And this guy basically gave Shin, in the course of two months, a primer on what it means to be a citizen of the world. He told him that the world was round, he told him that China and South Korea existed, about the United States, about telephones and television and things like that.
HARDENBut what motivated Shin to want to get out of the camp is that Park also talked about food, particularly grilled meat that one could eat if one went to a restaurant in China. And it was the idea of having your stomach filled full of grilled meat that any person could enjoy that sparked dreams and aspirations and the willingness to try to get out of there.
GJELTENAnd it was the fact that that was the vision that inspired him, that really indicates what life was like for him in the camp.
GJELTENHis daily life.
HARDENRight. Concepts of freedom, democracy, however the outside world would view this guy, his desire to get out. It was much more primal then that.
GJELTENAnd what was his experience with eating, in those first 20 years?
HARDENHe ate, basically, the same meal every day. And it was a skimpy meal, basically, corn meal and cabbage soup.
GJELTENAnd it wasn't enough, was it?
HARDENIt was not enough. He tried to supplement the food, as everyone did in the camp, by catching rats and other small animals, eating berries and other things that were available in the camp. The camp is a big place. It's 21 miles long, more than 10 miles wide. And it's along the big river so there is stuff to eat if you can catch it and he did. And that's one of the reasons he survived.
GJELTENAnd you say that the child, in particular, used to look around on the ground for individual pieces of corn.
HARDENYeah. And he describes plucking individual kernels of corn out of cow dung...
HARDEN...and eating it.
GJELTENAnd what was the rest of his life like? Where did he sleep? Was he in a -- did he see -- how often did he see his mother? What was his relationship with his mother? You say that he saw his mother as a competitor for food, how did that happen?
HARDENWell, after he was born he lived with his mother until he went to school at the age of 12. So he went to a primary school, starting at six, but he spent most of his early life with his mother. His mother worked all day and then she would bring home the ration for them to eat. Shin, before he went to school, would eat the lunch that she had made him because she would leave him at home during her work day. And then he would eat her lunch and she would come home for lunch and beat him for having eaten her lunch.
HARDENBut he just felt that if he didn't get food in his stomach he wouldn't survive and that's how he managed to do it. So his relationship with her was always fraught and he said that she beat him as hard as the guards did. After he got to boarding school, which is only a couple blocks, actually, from the place where he lived with his mother, he would see her very, very seldom and he didn't particularly want to go home.
GJELTENAnd in his relationship with his brother and his father and for that matter his mates, his school mates?
HARDENHe was loyal to the rules of the camp and to the guards. That's what he was taught to do from the early age. And the reason he did that is because he could get more food with good behavior. He was taught to snitch on his parents. In "Escape From Camp 14," the most important part of the book, sort of revolves around the escape plan of his mother and brother. And he snitched on them.
GJELTENTell that story, Blaine.
HARDENWell, the story is interesting because Shin did not tell the complete story for many years until actually a year into our interviews. He said when he arrived in South Korea that his mother and brother had been executed for an attempted escape and he said that he'd been forced to watch. What he did not say was that he had snitched on his mother and brother when he heard that they were planning to escape. The reason he didn't tell that story in South Korea was because he felt that he would not be treated well by the South Koreans, that he would be seen as something other than a human being for having done this.
HARDENAnd when he told me this story, this is a story that does not make him look good. But he told it because he felt that, now that he's been out, he's been surrounded by people who love him and who are honest with him. And he feels like he should be honest. And he tells the story because he wants people to understand what growing up in those camps does to the children. It turns them into snitches and betrayers and they have no identity other than following the camp rules to get more food.
GJELTENWell, that story and as a result of him having snitched on his mother -- as a result of him having been his mother's son, he was then subsequently forced to watch as she was executed. Blaine Harden is the author of "Escape From Camp 14: One Mans Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West." Blaine is a reporter for PBS Frontline and a contributor to the Economist. He's also a former Washington Post Bureau Chief in East Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. And after this break, I'm going to ask Blaine how he found out about Shin, how he met him and came to tell his story. Stay tuned, we'll be right back.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And my guest is Blaine Harden, who has a remarkable new book out called "Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West," as it is a story of Shin who was born in a North Korean labor camp, lived there until he was 23 and then miraculously managed to escape.
GJELTENAnd I think, Blaine, one of the reasons -- of course there have been other people who have been in labor camps and come out to tell about them, but they had some idea of what life on the outside was like. And as you write clearly Shin didn't have any idea of what life on the outside world was like, which must've made it all the harder for him to sort of visualize himself leaving this camp.
HARDENWell, when he got through the electric fence that surrounds the camp he tried to escape...
GJELTENAnd this is not an electric fence like we have that keep pigs and cattle in in this country.
HARDENThis is a fence that if you touch it, it'll kill you.
HARDENHe tried to escape with his friend Mr. Park. Mr. Park got to the fence first and was electrocuted and Shin crawled over his body to get out. His body was kind of an insulator so he could get through. He got through the fence and it was late in the evening in early January, 2005. And Park was to have been his guide to find China.
GJELTENSo he's outside the only place he has ever known in his entire life.
HARDENAnd he didn't know which way was north or where China might be. But he's a very intelligent guy and very cunning, resourceful and tough. And what he did is he went to a nearby town, he found a military uniform. He slept in a pigsty one night. He went bumming around for food. He broke into a house, stole some rice, sold it in a market. All these things were new experiences for him, but he kept his mouth shut mostly and his ears open and he found out that there were traders in the town who were moving towards China.
HARDENIn North Korea, the economy now has been reduced to a kind of a street market system where 80 percent of the food that people eat comes from street markets, some of which is grown in North Korea, some of which is brought in from China. There are lots of these people moving around in the country, kind of a slipstream that exists below the official economy. And Shin joined it and moved north with it.
GJELTENAnd what's ironic is that even though North Korea is the epitome of state control of totalitarian control, yet it seems that the control in the countryside was not all that tight.
HARDENThe rules have been sort of abandoned for movement among cities by traders. And they do it by bribing security people. There's still a huge security force in the country but the security force is not paid well. And at low levels, they make their living by extracting rents from traders moving around with goods from China.
GJELTENAnd when Shin talked to people and found out what they were doing, how did he answer their questions about who he was, where he had come from and what he was doing?
HARDENWell, he was very clever in that. He said that he grew up around Buck Chang (sp?) , which is a town near the camp. And...
GJELTENSo that was true.
HARDEN...things weren't good and so he was moving on, all of which was true. But he didn't want people to ask him about the camps. His intelligence in the sense of what to do and what to say, what not to say, where to move, how to take -- how to preserve himself and keep alive is remarkable and it's the reason he got out. These camps have been there for more than half a century. Only three people have escaped. Only one person has escaped who was born there. So it's a testimony to his luck and to his remarkable intelligence.
GJELTENDo you think his very strong survival instincts were honed, in a sense, growing up in the camp where only the strongest and the most ingenious probably are able to survive?
HARDENI think that's true and I think it's somewhat similar to the people who survived Nazi death camps. I've talked to some of those people over the years and I've read a lot of what they've written. And they are not proud of what they did to survive, but they survived because they were just tougher than the rest and they were shrewder about finding food and finding a way to keep alive. And Shin did that as well.
GJELTENYou know, speaking of other examples we have a email here from Wes who asks you to comment on the novel "The Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson and whether its description and story is based on realities like that recounted in your book "Escape from Prison 14." Are you familiar with that book?
HARDENI'm familiar with Adam Johnson. We talked after he came to Seattle recently. I live in Seattle. He told me that Shin's story, which he described as the most awful stories ever heard in his life, was really a primary influence in how he wrote that story, how he imagined North Korea. And the novel is remarkable in that it's a novel, it's fiction but he imagines very much the kind of world that Shin talks about.
GJELTENSo let's pick up the story of Shin again. So he gets out of the camp. He plots his escape with this older prisoner named Park who had been living on the outside, so he was able to tell Shin about what life on the outside was like. He was able to motivate him with visions of grilled meat, etc. They plan an escape together. Park is electrocuted when they try to crawl through the fence together. Shin does make it out. He hooks up with these traders. What happens next?
HARDENWell, he walks for a while and then he gets in a truck. And the truck is very interesting. Since the famine in the late 1990s in North Korea there's been sort of a general layer of low level chaos in North Korea. And various people who have access to trucks -- trucks are owned by the state, but they rent them out to traders to move among cities. And Shin got in one of these trucks and started his journey north.
HARDENHe traveled to a big town and then got on a train and rode the train north constantly listening...
GJELTENJust kind of hitched a ride on the train.
HARDENYeah, yeah, listening to other traders giving -- he had a little bit of money in his pocket 'cause he'd stole some food and sold it at a street market. He listened to other people and he was invited, in fact, to spend the night with one of his friends that he met on the train in a small town along the way. When he got to the town the friend said, can I borrow your coat? And Shin had stoled (sic) a really warm coat, the warmest coat he'd ever owned and...
GJELTENHe'd stolen it.
HARDENHe'd stolen it from a house, but the person he was traveling with said, can I borrow your coat? 'Cause I want to go home, say that I have a friend coming, but I would be treated more warmly and have more face if I showed up with a warm coat. And Shin really didn't know the ways of the world outside the camp. It made sense to him. He gave his coat to the guy and the guy never came back. And so Shin spent a shivering couple of weeks...
GJELTENHow cold was it at night in the…
HARDENReally cold. It was below zero.
HARDENBut he found places to sleep, wrapped himself in a sheet of plastic the first night. And there are people sort of hanging around train stations in big towns in North Korea. And in that particular town he found sort of a group of children who were living off their wits. And they taught him how to steal stuff.
GJELTENHow miraculous was it -- and then he ultimately does make it to China. How miraculous is it that he wasn't caught? How long a period was it before he made it to China after he got out?
HARDENIt was about a month traveling. It's pretty miraculous, pretty miraculous. However, he did look like a lot of people looked in North Korea. He was thin, he was dirty. He was ill clothed in an old military uniform. It's the most militarized society in the world. And he looked like a lot of people sort of bumming around. And there are a lot of traders. And he just was lucky that they didn't find him.
HARDENCrossing the border into China was another piece of luck but it's not completely beyond imagination to think that he could've done it because the border with China has become sort of this semi-permeable membrane. And it's more permeable when North Korea needs food from China. So there are really hundreds of traders who cross that border informally every day. He bribed some border guards with cigarettes and cookies and walked across.
GJELTENWell, and, you know, you're leaving out a little bit because he actually -- he was able to bribe guards even though he had escaped from a prison camp where he had never had any money for the first 23 years of his life. He apparently was able to steal and collect some money along the way, huh?
HARDENHe did. And he was lucky not to get caught for breaking into people's houses.
HARDENThe fact that only one person has managed to do it in 50 years, which suggests that it's really, really hard to do, so he was very lucky.
GJELTENYeah, and then he makes it to China. How many North Koreans who do manage to escape to China get sent back?
HARDENA lot, there are no numbers. The number of people who've crossed into China is estimated, and this is an incredible vague estimate, as between like 60,000 and 400,000 and that was as of a couple years ago. People cross -- some slip into society along the border. There's an ethnic Korean population that lives along the Chinese border. So it's not exactly a foreign country when you cross. The language is the same, the culture's the same, the food's the same and you can find employment. And Shin, in fact, found employment with a couple of farmers and he stayed in the border area for about a year.
GJELTENAnd actually was able to accumulate some savings during that time.
HARDENA bit of savings and what was particularly important is he managed to eat. He finally got that grilled meat that he wanted and he could sleep as well. One of the problems about life in the camps is there's so little sleep. You go to sleep late and you get up really early and work all day on little food. So there's this problem of chronic exhaustion.
HARDENHe also, in his first few weeks and months outside of North Korea, managed to get rid of the body lice that he'd had since he was a little kid. And he got some treatment for the burns that he suffered when he crawled through that electric fence.
GJELTENSo he spends quite a bit of time in China, ultimately makes it to the -- a journalist friend -- not yourself, but another journalist gets him to the South Korean Consulate, correct, and then ultimately he makes it to South Korea.
GJELTENSo at what point -- was his arrival -- when he came to South Korea as the first person ever to have been born in a North Korean camp and escape, was his arrival in South Korea a huge story and is that when you found out about him?
HARDENWell, his arrival was not a huge story 'cause he...
HARDEN...he just sort of came in. The intelligence people with the government in South Korea were very interested in him and they spent a lot of weeks talking to him, debriefing him. And he told them his story, leaving out the part about betraying his mother and brother. And then he went -- as everyone who comes to South Korea does, he went to a place called Haniwan, which is a reception center, sort of a reorientation. It looks like a big fancy mental hospital and it's well funded and well run.
HARDENAnd there are a lot of psychiatrists there, a lot of dentists there, a lot of people who teach driver's education. They take people to banks. They show them what modern society's about. And Shin actually did pretty well there for about a month. And then he started having nightmares and he couldn't sleep. He was beginning to have just this terrible psychological reaction to being safe. And he went into a psychiatric hospital for a period of months and then he began keeping a diary of his escape and of his life.
HARDENI met him about a year-and-a-half after that. He had published a short book about his life, which had bombed in South Korea. People were not interested in it. One of the things that's interesting about South Korea is that the North Korean human rights situation is not a constant story there.
GJELTENBlaine Harden is the author of "Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West." This book has just come out and it's being published in ten languages. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And please call us if you have some questions or comments about this remarkable story. Our number's 1-800-433-8850.
GJELTENNow one of the things that really struck me, Blaine, is that you're very honest in writing this book about your own relationship with Shin. And it took you -- what year was that when you first met him?
HARDENI met him in December, 2008.
GJELTEN2008, so we're talking here now almost three-and-a-half years later and your book finally comes out. What was it like to work with him over this time, to establish some trust with him, to get his story out of him? You're very honest about this experience in your book.
HARDENWell, it was difficult and it was the most difficult thing I've ever done as a journalist. And part of it is that Shin does not like talking about his past. It's painful for him and I wanted to talk about the most painful part of it in detail at great length. I compared it in the book to being a dentist and drilling without anesthetics.
HARDENAnd he hated it, but he put up with it because he wanted the American public in particular to know. In any case, we met in December, 2008. I wrote a piece that was on the front page of the Post, got an enormous human reaction from readers. Much different than most newspaper articles produce. And so I went back to him and said, let's do a book. We'll split the money. You can tell your story to a huge audience in the United States and you can raise awareness and maybe help to close the camps. He was not persuaded.
HARDENBut human rights groups who have become -- who had become aware of Shin, they said, you know, this is a good idea. This is a good idea for you and it's a good idea for our cause. And after about eight months, he agreed to start the interviews.
GJELTENAnd a key moment for you in your relationship with him was when he finally, after a long time, decided to tell you the truth about his own relationship with his mother, and his complicity in her being caught and ultimately executed for planning to escape.
HARDENIt was a key moment and it was something that I did not anticipate. I simply didn't expect him to say this.
GJELTENYou had believed him when he said he had nothing to do with it.
HARDENRight, right. But once he told me that story, then it made a lot more sense. The trajectory of his whole life made a lot more sense to me. He lives now with a sort of ex post facto guilt about that event because he knows now that the relationship between mothers and sons are much different than what he experienced. And he feels that somehow he did something terribly wrong. But at the time, he was simply responding to the rules that he'd been taught, which is if you hear about an escape in the camp and don't report it immediately, you'll be executed.
GJELTENNow you say that he had no experience of love, didn't know what love meant, didn't know what God meant, didn't know what friendship meant. Does he have a sense of those things now? You did say he has become a Christian, but does he have a sense of those concepts which are so important to the human character?
HARDENI think he does. I think he's made a lot of progress. The people who knew him really well -- he lived in Southern California for about two years from 2009 to 2011 and during that time, he became close to a number of people. There was a Korean American family there, a religious family, and he would go there most Saturday nights for dinner. And when he first got there, the mom wanted to give him a hug, which he resisted and refused.
HARDENBut over time, he basically studied the family like an anthropologist would study a family on a remote island. And he got a sense of how those dynamics work, and he admired it and he tried to imitate it.
GJELTENBlaine Harden is the author of "Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West." The book has just come out. It's being published in ten languages. I understand, Blaine, that there is great interest in Shin's story all over the world and largely because we know so little about the North Korean labor camps. Blaine Harden is a former reporter for the Washington Post in East Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. He's a reporter now for PBS Frontline and a contributor to The Economist.
GJELTENWe're going to be taking a short break. When we come back, we're going to go to your calls. We have a number of people who have questions about this remarkable story for Blaine, or perhaps comments. Stay with us.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And our guest today is Blaine Harden who tells an amazing story of a young man who was born in a North Korean labor camp and ultimately escaped. The book is "Escape From Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West." Please feel free to join us. This is a fascinating, a riveting story. If you can tear yourself away to dial us on the phone, we'll try and get you on the air.
GJELTENI do have an important email here, Blaine. We were talking just before the break about the fact that Shin had actually deceived you and other people about what had happened to his mother. And Fran writes us, in light of the deceit of the author and celebrity Greg Mortenson whose book "Three Cups of Tea" caused a lot of attention when it came out, that deceit was proved in John Krakauer's work "Three Cups of Deceit," referring to "Three Cups of Tea." The story that Greg Mortenson told or parts of the story that Greg Mortenson told in Afghanistan turned out to be untrue. The question is how do you know that this amazing story is true as you have chronicled it?
HARDENWell, it's a good question and it's the question that I asked when I first talked to Shin and that I asked throughout this book. One cannot go to North Korean prison camps...
HARDEN...to take a look and to interview the guards and the other people there. North Koreans deny the camps exist, although they can be seen very well on satellite images. So what's left is to talk to Shin and talk to the other people who've come from the camps, talk to the scholars who've talked to all of the camp survivors and then sort of scrutinize Shin's story. So to start with, from the evidence of his own body, the story that he tells...
GJELTENTalk about his body.
HARDENIn some way it's an annotation, it's a map to his story. The burns that he received when he was 13, when he was tortured in the wake of the escape plan of his mother and brother, his back and lower buttocks bear scars of terrible burns. When he was working in the sewing machine factory shortly before his escape, he dropped a sewing machine. And in punishment, part of one of his fingers was chopped off. And sure enough that finger is missing. When he was -- also when he was tortured, he was hung upside down and the flesh around his ankles is terribly scarred.
HARDENAnd then when he escaped, his shins from knee to ankle were terribly burned by contact with high voltage electrical lines. And there are very, very severe scars on his legs which actually took many months to heal. And he's also stunted from malnutrition and his arms are bowed from childhood labor. So that's a pretty good indication. The other indication is I've talked to a number of former camp inmates who were released and then found their way out of North Korea. They know Shin. They know the camps. They believe his story. They find that what he knows about the camps would be only known by someone who was there a long time.
GJELTENDid you ever talk to anyone who had actually been in his camp, Camp 14?
HARDENNo, no, I haven't. And I also talked to human rights investigators who've talked to every single camp survivor that's willing to talk, including Shin. And these are South Koreans and Americans. And they also find his story to be consistent and believable. As David Hawk, who is the author of "Hidden Gulag" and one of the great experts on these camps said, the story that these people tell stand unless North Korea will let us in to take a look.
GJELTENWell, Blaine, let's go to some callers now. A number of callers have come up with some very interesting questions. I'm going to go first to Jason who's calling us from Charlottesville, Va. Good morning, Jason. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show." You're on the air.
JASONHi, good morning. Thanks for having me.
JASONSo my question is about Shin's religion. So he was brought up without a concept of God or any kind of religion. And it seems like it's a very big responsibility to let this guy know about the ways of the world in terms of this. Was he given a smorgasbord as it were of different beliefs or disbeliefs? Or was he just given one concept of what the world is as opposed to how he thought it was in the camp?
GJELTENThat's a really interesting question, Jason. So here Shin had his choice of all the world's great religions presented to him and he got to choose which one appealed to him if any.
HARDENYou know, you've asked a question that Shin and I spent very little time discussing, but it is a good question and it's sort of a fault of mine for not asking. South Korea is a very Christian country. It's the most Christian country in Asia. And I think that the people he met in the human rights community, in the community that helps North Koreans to adjust to life in South Korea and the Americans that he met, they're Christians, and that's the religion that he's been exposed to. The degree of his understanding of religion, the depth of it, I think that's a work in progress. He's told me that he struggles to understand the concept of forgiveness.
GJELTENWell, that's pretty key to the Christian religion in particular. All right. Let's go now to Victor who's calling us from Oak Hill, Ohio. Good morning, Victor. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show." You're on the air.
VICTORHello, thank you. You said Shin was bred for labor. And have you considered any similarity between his life and the people in this country who were slaves that were born into slavery and bred for labor?
GJELTENWell, that's an interesting parallel, isn't it?
HARDENIt is an interesting parallel and I had not thought of it that much. I guess the difference would be that he was in a camp surrounded by barbed wire. And American slaves who were bred for labor were slightly more free.
GJELTENWell, if they tried to escape, they could've been killed for trying to escape as well, though, of course.
GJELTENAnd many of them were. All right. Thank you very much, Victor. Let's go now to Jonathan. Jonathan is calling us from Dumfries, Va. Good morning, Jonathan, thanks for the call. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JONATHANHi, thanks for having me. My question is in talking with Shin and some of the other ones that have escaped from North Korea, what do they think about if (unintelligible) withdrew their support, would North Korea implode like the satellite states from the Soviet Union did?
HARDENThat's a good question. And I think the reason that I wanted to do this book and one of the reasons that Shin wanted to do it was to raise awareness that the camps exist, that people are treated as he was treated and it still continues, and to make human rights part of the conversation whenever North Korea comes up, particularly when diplomats, United States diplomats, talk to China or sometimes they manage to even talk to North Korea, to make it part of the conversation.
HARDENAnd if China would lean on North Korea to the extent that of, say, denying them fuel, which would stop North Korea dead in its tracks, 'cause all the fuel in North Korea comes from China, they could probably close the camps. China seems unlikely to do that. But if concerted pressure is brought over a period of years and human rights becomes part of any negotiations with North Korea and with China, there's a chance that the camps might be expendable.
GJELTENNow, one of the things about Shin's story is, in a sense, it's not really about life in North Korea, is it, it's about life in a North Korean labor camp and the existence of that labor camp certainly says something about the regime, but Shin did not have the average experience of a man his age growing up in North Korea.
HARDENIt's true. He did not learn all of the propaganda about the great leader and the dear leader. In fact, he was only vaguely aware of who they were when he got out of the camp. And as he traveled across North Korea for a month, he was puzzled and curious about who these guys were. Their picture was in every room as he traveled across North Korea. He simply was not thought of as worthy enough to waste their time with propaganda because he was a farm animal.
GJELTENRight. He did make it to South Korea and he is establishing a life there now. What is the attitude among South Koreans toward either defectors or escapees like Shin? What is their attitude about North Korea, you know, and the prospect of unification and sort of welcoming and taking in refugees from North Korea?
HARDENWell, it exists on a couple levels. On the official level, it's quite welcoming, quite generous, quite kind and caring. People are given an apartment. They're given a couple years of a stipend for living. They're trained to find jobs. But on the human level, the two Koreas have been separated for a long time, for more than 50 years. And, you know, the families that have survivors on both sides, they're in their 60s and 70s and 80s now so modern go-go North Korea is very much separated in time and in technology and in aspiration from the north. And so the people who come from the north are seen as boring hicks and there's not all that much interest in them.
GJELTENThat's unfortunate. Let's go now to Ben who's calling us from Bowie, Md. Good morning, Ben, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
BENGood morning, Tom, and good morning, Blaine. Thank you for taking my call. I just recently finished the book "Orphan Master's Son" which is also about North Korea, but from a different perspective.
GJELTENYeah, we were referring to that earlier.
BENYes, right. And it blew my mind. And just it reinforced -- Blaine's book just seems to reinforce the insanity of that regime. My question is with the new Jong Kim in place now, do you think there's going to be any changes?
HARDENThe answer has to be I don't have any idea. There's no real understanding of whether he is, in fact, running the country or a figure head for a group of generals, older people who are telling him what to do. That simply isn't clear yet. But so far the changes coming out of North Korea suggest no great change in their policies.
GJELTENMm-hmm. What does Shin think about the future of North Korea? Does he have -- of course, he's not grown up in that population so he doesn't really know about, I guess, about the hold that that government has on its population. But does he have any predictions about what's going to happen, what the future holds for North Korea?
HARDENThe one prediction that he -- the one thing he is worried about is that if the government does collapse, that the camps will be obliterated and all the people will be killed. That is a great concern of his. Whether the government will survive or not in the long term, I think that he does not know. No one knows.
GJELTENNo one knows, right. Let's go now to Steven is calling us from Houston, Texas. Good morning, Steven. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
STEVENGood morning. Thanks for taking my call.
GJELTENYeah, your question?
STEVENWell, I'm curious as to what the level of joy Shin had in the camps if any, you know, in that state where things can be relative and joy can be relative, did he ever have joy? And also since he's escaped, what's happened to his level of joy after the escape?
GJELTENIs joy one of those concepts that he didn't really have any idea?
HARDENWell, I don't think joy's a concept he had in the camp. I think he knows what it is now. And he can be pretty happy and a pretty joyous guy at times. I think it's interesting to know sometimes how he deals with stress in the modern world. If he can't sleep, until recently, he would get on the floor with a blanket 'cause he always slept on the floor.
GJELTENI'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." But I did see an interview with him that's available on YouTube in which he says that he can't say that he's happy. He actually seems, in that interview at least, he seemed quite despondent about his life even at this point.
HARDENI think it changes. It depends on when you talk to him. I think the best answer I got to that question, and I ask it 100 times in many different countries, was, you know, how are you feeling, what's your future plans, and he says, you know, I am trying to learn how to be human, but it is going very, very slowly. He said, sometimes I laugh and sometimes I cry because I've seen other people doing that.
HARDENAnd I just do it to see what it feels like.
GJELTENThat's an amazing way to think about happiness. You know, in that YouTube interview which maybe we can put it on our website, it's really quite remarkable because you hear Shin talking in his own words about his experience. And one of the things that he said really struck me, talking about mothers and their relationship to their children in the camps, he says, mothers only hold their kids to feed them. If they cry, mothers beat them. That's how I grew up, being beaten by my mom. Mothers get beaten during their work, so they come home and beat their kids to relieve stress. No caring relationship between parents and kids. I never have felt it even once.
HARDENWhen I first met him we had lunch and he told me about watching his mother being hanged. She was brought out in front of him, put on a box, a rope around her neck. And just before she died, she tried to catch his eye and he refused to catch her eye because at that moment, he hated her.
GJELTENRight. Did he ever say what he thought she might've been trying to indicate to him? You know, could she have been saying she felt bad? Was she looking for some kind of -- you know, what does he think she meant by that glance?
HARDENI think now he believes that she was trying to have contact with him, some sort of moment before her death.
GJELTENAnd what about his father? He does seem to be concerned about his father. His father attempted to reconcile with him, didn't he, while he was in the camp. He didn't get a chance to see a lot of his father, but his father did make an attempt to reach out to him.
HARDENHis father did on several occasions make an attempt to -- this was after the experience of the execution of the mother and brother. Father tried to talk to him. He basically apologized for giving birth to a son in such terrible circumstances. He said, at one point, that I hope that you can get out of here somehow. He did extra work to send Shin some rice, which is an incredible present in the camp. And Shin refused to take it.
HARDENJust before Shin left the camp, he had a final meal with his father, at which he was very careful not to say that he was going to try to escape, to protect his father and also 'cause he was afraid that his father might turn him in. And then he walked away. In the aftermath of his escape, when he crossed into China and in the years since, he's worried and felt terrible about what probably happened to his father. He probably was tortured and he may have been killed as a result of the escape.
GJELTENAnd probably Shin will never know the answer.
HARDENNo. Not until North Korea comes clean on the camps, which may be never.
GJELTENRight. This remarkable book is "Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West." The author is Blaine Harden. He's been with us today in the studio. He's a reporter for PBS Frontline and a contributor to The Economist, also a former Washington Post bureau chief in East Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. I'm Tom Gjelten. I've been sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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