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[*Read by the author - Blaine Harden]
The shocking story of one of the few people born in a North Korean political prison to have escaped and survived.
North Korea is isolated and hungry, bankrupt and belligerent. It is also armed with nuclear weapons. Between 150,000 and 200,000 people are being held in its political prison camps, which have existed twice as long as Stalin's Soviet gulags and twelve times as long as the Nazi concentration camps. Very few born and raised in these camps have escaped -- but Shin Dong-hyuk did.
In Escape from Camp 14, acclaimed journalist Blaine Harden tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk and, through the lens of Shin's life, unlocks the secrets of the world's most repressive totalitarian state. Shin knew nothing of civilized existence: he saw his mother as a competitor for food, guards raised him to be a snitch, and he witnessed the execution of his own family. Through Harden's harrowing narrative of Shin's life and remarkable escape, he offers an unequaled inside account of one of the world's darkest nations and a riveting tale of endurance, courage, and survival.
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BLAINE HARDEN is a contributor to the Economist and has formerly served as the Washington Post's bureau chief in East Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa. He is the author of Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent and A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia. He lives in Seattle, Washington.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA
Early in 2015, Shin Dong-hyuk changed his story. He told me by telephone that his life in the North Korean gulag differed from what he had been telling government leaders, human rights activists, and journalists like me. As his biographer, it was a stomach-wrenching revelation.
It was also news. In the nearly three years since Escape from Camp 14 was published, Shin had become the single most famous witness to North Korea’s cruelty to its own people. He posed for photographs with the American secretary of state, received human rights awards, and traveled the world to appear on television news programs like 60 Minutes. His story helped launch an unprecedented United Nations inquiry that accused North Korea’s leaders of crimes against humanity.
When I got off the phone with Shin, I contacted the Washington Post (for which I had first written about him) and released all I then knew about his revised story. Then I flew to Seoul, where Shin lives, to find out more. This foreword explains what I learned. In two weeks of conversations, Shin was less secretive and more talkative than he had ever been during long rounds of interviews with me dating back to 2008. He seemed relieved to be correcting a story he felt had become a kind of prison.
Shin told me that when he defected to South Korea in 2006, he made a panicky, shame-driven decision to conceal and reorder pivotal episodes of his life in the gulag. He hid his role in the execution of his mother and brother. He omitted a singularly painful session of torture that shattered his faith in himself. He did not mention that he lived most of his youth in a political prison that was not Camp 14. He told this version of his life to interrogators from South Korean intelligence and the U.S. Army. He then repeated the narrative for nearly nine years, rarely changing a single detail.
Shin told me he is now determined to tell the truth. Regrettably, he has told me this before. It seems prudent to expect more revisions.
Other survivors of the camps are angry at Shin, accusing him of undermining their truthfulness and weakening the international campaign to pressure North Korea to shut down the gulag.
In assessing Shin’s credibility and the changes in his story, it is important to know that he has multiple scars consistent with extreme torture.1 Trauma victims like him tend to struggle with the truth, especially in the linear narrative form that journalists, judges, and policy makers are best able to understand. The memories of trauma victims are often fragmented and out of sequence,2 and the stories they tell can be shields behind which they try to hide.
“The most genuine narratives of going through political violence are never completely coherent or finalized,” said Dr. Stevan M. Weine, a specialist on the impact of political violence and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has treated trauma and studied trauma victims from Bosnia, Kosovo, Central Asia, and Africa. Between conversations with Shin in Seoul, I telephoned Weine and told him about Shin’s evolving story.
“When someone goes through profound trauma and I don’t hear a disjointed story, I am suspicious,” he told me. “Shin appears to have been exposed to prolonged and repeated torture. We can expect that this would have a major impact on every aspect of who he is, on his memory, his emotional regulation, his ability to relate to others, his willingness to trust, his sense of place in the world, and the way he gives his testimony.”
In Escape from Camp 14, I wrote that there was no way to fact-check many parts of Shin’s story because North Korea is largely closed to the outside world and it denies that political labor camps exist. But other gulag survivors had told me Shin knew things only an insider could know. Human rights investigators who had talked with scores of camp survivors found his testimony credible and precise. When this book appeared, Shin had already become a key primary source for major reports on the North Korean gulag.
Still, as I emphasized in the book, I worried about his capacity for truthfulness. I wrote that he had repeatedly lied to me. Two chapters in Escape from Camp 14 present him as an unreliable narrator of his own life.
In retrospect, I should have done more to examine the psychological dimensions of his relation to truth. It would have prepared me for what Shin disclosed in 2015, more than six years after we met and started working on the manuscript.
The story Shin now tells is considerably more complex—and in some ways more disturbing—than the one he told upon his arrival in South Korea in 2006. In the new version, he escaped twice to China, not once. He lived in two bordering political prison camps, not just Camp 14.
In his revised story, Shin said he was born in Camp 14, a “total control zone,” but when he was six or seven the border of that camp shifted. His home village, he said, was then incorporated into Camp 18, the slightly less brutal prison next door. North Korean government records seem to support his new version but do not conclusively prove it, as I will explain below. In any case, all the available evidence suggests that he was born and raised in a political prison.
In Escape from Camp 14, Shin said that when he was a small boy in the camp, he lived among children and adults who were destined to be worked to death as slaves without any possibility of release. As such, they were not allowed to see photographs of Great Leader Kim Il Sung or Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. But when his village became part of Camp 18, Shin said his status improved marginally. The food was no better; indeed, he said there was less of it. Another Camp 18 survivor confirms this irony, saying that because Camp 14 had better farms, it always had slightly more food.
In Camp 18, Shin did see photos of the Kims. He was also issued, for the first time, the uniform of a North Korean school pupil. While public executions for attempted escape were common in Camp 18, Shin said that as he grew up, prisoners were paid with food coupons for their work and, over time, some were released and allowed to become ordinary residents of North Korea.
These revisions in his story, while significant, do not alter the evidence of torture on Shin’s body. Indeed, he now says he was tortured more extensively by prison guards than he had previously been willing to admit.
In addition to being burned over a fire and hung by shackles from his ankles, which he had earlier described, he said guards used pliers to rip out his fingernails. Scars on his hands and the partial amputation of one finger support the claim.
“Shin’s body shows more scars from torture than any camp survivor I know who has come to South Korea, and I have met almost all of them,” said Ahn Myeong Chul, a former North Korean prison guard who for seven years worked for the National Security Agency, known as the Bowibu, the feared political police force that runs the country’s most notorious prisons, including Camp 14. Ahn is now executive director of NK Watch, a human rights group in Seoul, and knows Shin well.
“The scars prove to me that Shin was tortured at a Bowibu detention center,” said Ahn, who sees Shin’s scars as signature work of his previous employer.
Shin buried his memory of fingernail torture—and kept it from the world for nearly a decade—because he said it had been unbearable, physically and psychologically.
“I couldn’t handle it,” he said. “I tried to scrunch my fingers up so they couldn’t pull out more fingernails.”
Shin said this infuriated the guards, who forcibly straightened out the middle finger on his right hand and smashed the end of it with some kind of club. The blow effectively amputated the finger up to the first knuckle. Previously, Shin had said that guards cut off that part of his finger with a knife, as punishment for dropping a sewing machine in a camp uniform factory. But he now says he made up that story because he was ashamed of how he had been “broken” by torture.
In 2010, Shin admitted to me that when he first arrived in South Korea, he concealed how his mother and brother got caught—and were later executed—for planning an escape from prison camp. They were caught, he told me, because he betrayed their plans to a guard. An extended account of that betrayal appears in Escape from Camp 14.
In our new round of interviews, Shin changed the story again, saying his role in the executions was more shameful than he could bear to admit.
“I was jealous of my brother because my mother liked him more than me,” he said. “My mother never liked me much. She beat me much more than my brother. She never paid attention to my birthday.”
Shin said that in 1996, after he snitched to a guard about the escape plans of his mother and brother, he put his thumbprint on a police statement he knew to be false. It stated that he had seen his mother and brother commit a murder. Shin said the document, which a guard asked him to sign, was important evidence for the execution. Shin was fifteen at the time, according to a North Korean government listing of his birthdate, which says he was born on November 19, 1980. (Shin now says he is not sure what year he was born but that his father told him it was 1982.)
Shin has also acknowledged that there were some fictive elements in his former narrative. He did not live in a student dormitory in Camp 14 when he was a teenager; he lived with his father in Camp 18. During his second journey to the Chinese border, he was not “shocked” to see North Koreans shopping in street markets. He had seen them shop before, during his first flight to China.
He said he altered dates and locations for major events, such as the age at which he was tortured; he was twenty-one, not fourteen. He changed the whereabouts of the execution of his mother and brother. It occurred at an execution site beside the Taedong River in Camp 18, not on the other side of that river at an execution site in Camp 14.
When Shin began telling his story to South Korean intelligence, to human rights investigators, and to the world’s press, he said he had no idea that these details would later be considered important. He did not know what fiction or nonfiction was. He had never read a book. He said he only learned the concept of nonfiction when I told him that’s what I had to write.
Shin said he had much to be ashamed of and even more to hide when powerful people in South Korea started asking him questions. So he shaped his answers to serve his needs, not those of government interrogators, or human rights organizations, or journalists like me.
As I have explained, trauma experts see nothing unusual in this. What is unusual is that his story made him an international celebrity.
Some key elements of Shin’s revised story have been unintentionally corroborated by North Korea itself, in press releases, statements at the United Nations, and two propaganda videos released in the fall of 2014.
That is when the government in Pyongyang, in a furious push to derail criticism of its human rights record, zeroed in on Shin, attacking him repeatedly by name and describing him as “scum” and a “parasite.”
In the process, North Korea confirmed that Shin’s mother and brother were executed in 1996 for “premeditated murder with grave consequences” and said Shin played a role in their punishment. A press release from North Korea’s U.N. mission in New York said Shin did indeed escape twice to China.3 Between escapes, the release said, Shin failed to show “true regret” and made no effort to “redeem his crime.”
North Korea and witnesses it showcased in its videos also accused Shin of being a “criminal,” a thief who fled the country after raping a thirteen-year-old girl. He categorically denies any rape but acknowledges he did steal clothes and food while traveling across North Korea during his escapes to China. North Korea has not presented evidence that Shin was arrested or tried for rape but says he fled to China after committing his crime. North Korea’s videos have explained Shin’s scars as the result of various mining accidents and a childhood mishap that spilled “hot dog food” on his lower back when he was two.
In one government-released video,4 Shin was stunned to see his father, Shin Gyung Sub, whom he had thought was dead. The father insists in the video that neither he nor his son had ever lived in a “so-called political prison camp.” But the father himself also undermines that claim. He says that Shin was a young boy in the town of Pongchang, which at the time was inside the borders of a political prison.5
North Korean records seem to support Shin’s contention that he was born in a part of Camp 14 that was incorporated into Camp 18 when he was six or seven. The shift in administrative borders occurred in 1984, according to records located by Curtis Melvin, a researcher for the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
Based on the limited information in these records, Melvin said Shin’s story about being born and living as a small child in Camp 14 is “plausible.” Researchers at two respected human rights groups in Seoul share this assessment.6 But records do not explicitly delineate camp borders. Instead, they show that Shin’s home area was part of Kaechon County, where Camp 14 is located, until 1984. Then it came under the jurisdiction of Pukchang County, which administered Camp 18.
Ahn, the former prison guard, said it would have taken two or three years after the official change of county borders in 1984 before the political police in Camp 14 handed over control of Shin’s home area to the less restrictive regular police who ran Camp 18. Ahn believes that during that time Shin would likely have been living in conditions very much like those described in Escape from Camp 14.
“Shin probably did grow up until he was six or seven as a very restricted prisoner,” Ahn said. He and other human rights groups say more research is necessary to determine with certainty whether Shin was indeed born in Camp 14. Yet, by his father’s videotaped admission, Shin was a child inside Camp 18 and lived just 1.3 miles from the borders of Camp 14.
After North Korea attacked Shin by name in the late fall of 2014, the security authorities in South Korea began providing him with twenty-four-hour police protection. In the past, North Korea has sent assassins to Seoul to try to kill high-visibility defectors.
Before Shin arrived for the first time in South Korea in 2006, he said he spent several months in Shanghai, waiting inside the South Korean consulate for clearance to travel to Seoul. He learned from consulate staff that he would have to give an account of his life to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.
When he heard about the coming interrogation, he was frightened and said he began to formulate a sanitized version of his life story. It omitted fingernail torture and his role in the execution of his mother and brother.
“It was a way of streamlining my story; it just happened,” he told me. “In China I never wrote down anything, jus...
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