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An interview with North Korean prison escapee Shin Dong‑hyuk

- March 7, 2013

Shin Dong-hyuk, speaking with Dal News. (Bruce Bottomley photo)

If you met Shin Dong-hyuk without knowing his story, you might think him to be like any other young man from Korea, albeit a rather soft-spoken one.

But his arms, slightly bent out of shape, raise questions, as does the nub where part of his right middle finger used be.

When he speaks about his childhood growing up in North Korea's brutal, repressive prison camps, he'll often rub or shield that finger, like he's protecting a part of himself. As the only person known to have been born in the camps and escaped, Shin is asked to tell his story often, and even a short interview reveals how challenging it is for him to revisit the 26 years of suffering that shaped the person he is today.

Shin is in Halifax this week, coming to Dal to meet and thank the class of International Development Studies students who have taken up his cause. He'll be deliving a public lecture Thursday night, March 7, at 7:30 p.m. in the Scotiabank Auditorium of the McCain Building.

Read also: Born in hell, fled to freedom: How a harrowing escape from North Korea's prison camps inspired Dal students to take action

With the assistance of his translator, Henry Song of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, Shin sat down with Dal News to talk about his torturous childhood, his need to share his experiences, and why he wanted to come to Halifax to meet with the students involved in the Camp 14 Project.

The longer away you get from your time in the camp, does it become easier to talk about?

I do not want to remember my time in the prison camp, and I do my best to try and forget it. But even as time goes by, the more I talk about it — at events like this or in speeches — of course I am reminded of my past in the camp.

Some people who’ve been through what you’ve been through would choose not to talk about it. Why is it important to you to tell your story?

The answer to that question is that I really don’t have a choice right now. It’s not something I’m doing because I want to do or something that I don’t want to do that I’m being forced to. I really have no choice. I’m just doing it as things happen, basically.

When I think about my fellow inmates who are still in the prison camp, or the other prisoners throughout the prison camp system in North Korea, and when I think about their daily suffering and how much suffering they’re going through, I believe that I need to give them any help that I can. And if that help involves me talking in front of groups, or being involved in conferences or events and talking in front of people, I believe that no matter how painful it may be for me, that’s the least I can do for my fellow inmates who are still in the prison camps in North Korea.

The torture and the abuse you went through in the camps: could you tell, on some level, that there was something wrong with it, or did you genuinely believe that it was just how life worked?

At that time, I thought that not only for myself, but for all political prison camp inmates in North Korea, the situation we were in and the punishing and treatment we received was normal. We thought it was only right that we were treated this way because we were prisoners.

What do you remember knowing about the world outside the camp before you met Mr. Park, who was involved in your escape?

I have no memory of the outside world, or I don’t recall thinking about the outside world before I met Mr. Park. I had no way of imagining what the outside world was like because I was never told or taught about the outside world.

So how shocking was it, then, to learn about and get to experience, for the first time, what life was like as you went through China to South Korea?

Even now, I still need some time to appreciate and process the new surroundings around me. But one thing that I know for sure is that the outside world has freedom, and it is freedom, and my fellow inmates in the prison camps in North Korea, they too were born with the right to enjoy and experience the freedom which they do not have.

Why do you think it is that stories like yours and the issue of human rights in North Korea don’t get more attention on the international stage?

I believe that the outside world, the international community, just has become numb to this issue. The world community has experienced, from 60 or 70 issues ago, the issue of prison camps or gulags, and we have seen the atrocities happen in the past, in history. I believe that the world community has become numb, or when they see atrocities happen they become numb to that and brush it off as just something happening. And I believe that numbness or that ignorance of a situation is a great crime humans can commit, in terms of not caring about what’s happening.

Of course, the dictators and the regimes that perpetrate these crimes against humans, these atrocities, they themselves are responsible and are at fault. But I believe, more importantly, that the people themselves, the people in the international community who choose to ignore or who show disinterest or do not care about what’s going on, I believe in a sense that they are at fault as well.

Talk to me about your work now in raising awareness of North Korea’s abuses. What activities or organizations are you involved with?

The biggest thing I’ve done is formed a non-profit NGO based in Washington D.C., in the United States. It’s a group called Inside NK, and we are a group that attempts to educate the world about what is going on in North Korea by doing Internet broadcasts. So that’s the work I’m doing right now.

If there are other organizations or groups that are involved in doing human rights work, then I cooperate and I try to do as much work as possible with these groups and individuals. That way, it might not happen overnight, but by cooperating with other organizations involved in human rights work in North Korea, we can work towards making this issue more known and [towards] a solution.

How did you learn about Bob Huish’s class doing work around your story?

I found out through Facebook.

What was your reaction?

I was greatly moved. I, myself, have a very hard time expressing emotion or to know what it’s like to feel emotion or be moved, or to describe how to be moved. But when I saw these students and Dr. Huish and what they were doing through this Camp 14 Project, I felt that for the first time in a long time.

What does it mean to you to see students like those in Dr. Huish’s class taking up the cause of raising awareness of human rights abuses in North Korea?

It gives me hope. I believe that these students and what they’re doing has more effect and more power than what any president or politician or leader may have. These students, they may vote in elections for prime minister or president, but they themselves might one day become prime minister or president, so in that sense I believe these students have tapped into great hope, in that they have great opportunity and chance to do great things.

You’ll be meeting lots of people here in Halifax. What do you hope they take away from talking with you, and what do you hope they do in taking action around this issue?

What I want is for them to listen to me speak and, obviously they cannot change overnight the situation of the prison camps in North Korea. But what I want them to take away is to remember and realize that what’s happening in the prison camps in North Korea is not past history but reality happening right this moment in history as we speak.

Watch: The video interview

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